LOS ANGELES - Yom Kippur, the fourth quarter of the High Holidays, is
coming and time is running out. Our seats are waiting, the gates are
Each year we look for a new way to prep for the day: Could
football offer a strategy? Though Yom Kippur certainly is no day for sports,
like football it does have a time limit, sundown and a playbook, the machzor.
There is even a halftime and cheerleaders -- liturgical cheerleaders, that
It’s a day when the liturgy seems to ask: Are you going to run, pass
or pray? Football is in the air at Yom Kippur time, but the holiest day of the
Jewish calendar need not compete with a sacred Saturday or Sunday. Teams will
change game dates to avoid a Yom Kippur conflict and allow fans to observe the
day. The Jets did so in 2009, and the University of Toledo moved its homecoming
game this year.
On Yom Kippur, our ultimate game day, we can apply
football’s well-known pattern of timed territorial struggle to the personal
struggle being played out for our attention, intention and
Here’s the play by play: First quarter: Yom Kippur
morning, it’s You vs. the Machzor. Almost fumbling the opening play, you
remember that the book opens backward. Turning to “Mah Tovu,” “How goodly are
your tents,” you are welcomed into the venue.
One of the first plays in
the book is the morning blessings, including "Blessed are You … who girds Israel
with strength.” A good call; you're going to need it.
The night before on
Kol Nidre, a kind of big sunset pep rally, you made a major pledge to the team:
You decided to fast. So no Gatorade or any food aids this game
Besides, if University of Wisconsin greats Matt Bernstein and Gabe
Carimi could fast on Yom Kippur and even play later in the day, why can’t you?
Even so, by the end of the first quarter, you’re beginning to feel
Second quarter: Let the day’s Torah reading get you back in the game.
The portion, from Leviticus, in part is about Azazel, a sacrificial goat, a sort
of temporary mascot upon whom the high priest confesses all the sins of
How does it end? Let’s just say that Azazel really takes one for
The quarter closes with a haftarah by Isaiah, quite a player in
his day, who reminds every new generation of players that true repentance
involves helping the hungry and the afflicted, and changing your
Halftime: With the concession stands closed, you really need some
inspiration. It’s time for the coach, usually a rabbi, to present a rousing
locker-room speech. Yes, you've heard it all, but sometimes Coach rallies the
team by introducing a new move called teshuvah. It means turning or
Teshuvah is tough. Here’s where a good coach becomes a
cheerleader. On Yom Kippur you need it.
Seems that both on and off the
field, Coach wants you to confess all your bad plays, like “harsh speech,"
“wronging a neighbor,” “being obstinate” -- unteamlike play they say can keep
you from making it into the end zone.
Halftime closes with Yizkor, where
we solemnly remember all those in our personal halls of fame who are no longer
Third quarter: It's time to move toward the goal with musaf. The
key play here is a piyyut called Unetaneh Tokef, “Let us now relate the power of
the day’s holiness.” It was written by a liturgy Hall of Famer named Rabbi Amon
of Mainz about a thousand seasons ago.
It’s a play that gives the other
half of the coaching team, the cantor, a chance to really belt out audibles. In
Unetaneh Tokef, the whole team is likened to a flock of sheep, and as they pass
before the heavenly host’s staff, they are counted and considered, and a verdict
We are reminded that some of us just won’t make it to next
season, with some passing by water and others by famine.
It sounds like
third and long, but hope is the play here. With “repentance, prayer and
charity,” we might be given a shot at the Book of Life and a new
Fourth quarter: It’s long and Neilah. Here is where we are asked
to grind it out for the victory. So many in this final frame are punchy and
prayed out, but ignoring our kvetching, Coach tells us to get off the bench and
stand. In our minds the chain gang comes out to measure; we’re only pages from
In the sky, it’s only inches till sundown. There’s only time
for one more play.
Coach makes the call: “Avinu Malkeinu,” “Our Father
We pray that all the hard calls that have gone against us
during the year are reversed, that our adversaries fade into the background,
that the team avoids injuries (sickness), and that we be remembered, be given
another playbook for a good life.
With time running out, and only seconds
left, the horn sounds. Hopefully we have scored.
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