Yom Kippur is an awesome day, in the full meaning of the word. It can take us to a deep place of contemplation about and connection to our innermost questions, our community past and present, and – the most elusive subject of all -- God. At its heart, is a plea to be inscribed for good – to find the strength and courage and comfort and resilience to be our best selves no matter what comes our way in the year ahead. Nowhere are these themes more resonant, more compelling, than in the final service of the day: Neilah.
Traditional texts tell us to begin the Neilah service when the “sun hits the top of the trees” or about thirty minutes before sunset. This is a liminal time, a time of endings and beginnings, a time between day and night, a time of crossing over to a new year. We are at our most vulnerable: tired, drained, hungry, and filled with trepidation -- but also promise. With the sun setting, we picture the heavenly gates closing before us, leaving us face to face with a moment of truth. We have one last chance to pour out our hearts in prayer before the gates of forgiveness close.
Here at Kolot, like in most Jewish communities, N’ilah opens with the piyyut (poem)El Nora Alilah, “God, whose deeds are awesome,” a line drawn from the Psalms. The poem is attributed to Rabbi Moses Ibn Ezra, a Spanish commentator and poet from the late 11th century. Perhaps in tribute to its Spanish roots, most congregations are likely to sing it with a Sephardi melody, upbeat, joyful and inviting.
At first, the upbeat, joyful melody may seem dissonant to the message of the text. But perhaps that is the point. The lively chorus builds momentum for this final service of a very long day, momentum that might even sustain us in the year to come. To be sure, like all years, this one too will be filled with challenges and sorrows, missing the mark, and moments of despair. But there is also hope. Hope in God’s forgiveness, in our own strength to resolve and reflect, to return and repair. The lively melody doesn’t mask the awesomeness of the task. Rather, it qualifies that task, by reminding us to find joy in the challenges of being human, of being awake to the world, of living in the uncertainty of whatever may come, and in affirming that God’s grace and mercy are always open to us.
The gates never completely close. They remain ajar, inviting us to find the crack where God’s light comes in.