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Neilah: For those who struggle with prayer

Posted on September 24, 2017 by Rabbi Jim Bennett

“Neilah? What’s that?” I know, many Jews have long believed that the closing service on the day of Yom Kippur is the Yizkor, or memorial service, after which it is traditional for Jews to leave the synagogue, to beat the traffic, and go to an early break the fast.  The truth, of course, could not be further from this reality. The closing service of Yom Kippur, when the stomach of those who are fasting begins to ache, and when the spirit is most faint, and when the day is truly waning and the sun is truly setting, is the set of beautiful prayers and melodies called “neilah.” The “Gates of Repentance” are beginning to swing closed, the tradition teaches us.  Listen closely and you can hear them beginning to creak.  The day is slipping away as the sun moves towards the horizon. The days of awe are coming to a close and our work still lies before us – to find personal meaning in the poetry of our ancestors and in our own hearts, to forgive those against whom we hold grudges and to ask forgiveness of those we have harmed. To forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. To make peace with God.

For those who have trouble with prayer, with is many if not most of us, Neilah can be daunting. Why cling to a day of prayer and reflection when it seems so difficult to connect at all. Surely I’ve fulfilled my obligation, assuaged my guilt, and made peace enough by spending a few hours here at Temple. I can go. I should go. I need to go….

But in fact, our tradition tells us we should not go. What if we go too soon?

I am reminded of game six of the 2011 World Series. In the row in front of us sat a group of rowdy fans who abandoned their seats late in the game, assuming all was lost. No sooner had they left and headed to the parking lot to beat the crowd, David Freese and his teammates made a comeback that resulted in one of the best games in baseball history. In the immortal words of Yogi Berrra, “It ain’t over til it’s over.”

Neilah on Yom Kippur day is like that. Our prayers, our repentance, our communal gathering, our spiritual seeking, and more – these are not over until they are over. For those of us who have trouble praying, even better. Our new Mishkan Hanefesh High Holy Day Machzor brings us new insights and new meaning into these last moments of the High and Holy Days.

Near the end of the service, we find a selection from a poem by Hillel Bavli:

“My God, my God

Mighty One of my existence,

have mercy on Your lost child

who has wandered from the ancestral path….

I know

that You are far beyond me;

elevated above my ken,

are You, my God.

Yet this I know too:

Somewhere,

in the hidden places,

You sit, waiting eternally

for the last of Your servants,

who strives

to come into Your gates

in faith….”

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