The echoes of Yom Kippur

As the Ne’ila service closes out Yom Kippur, we become a better and more refined version of who we are.

WE ALWAYS have the gift and opportunity to improve who we are, as well as to repair our shared world (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON / FLASH 90)
WE ALWAYS have the gift and opportunity to improve who we are, as well as to repair our shared world
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON / FLASH 90)
When the gates of heaven close during the Ne’ila service of Yom Kippur, many of us put the avodah, the work, of Yom Kippur behind us. But that is an illusion. As the expression goes, when one door closes, another opens.

Commentating on the Kol Nidre service at the beginning of Yom Kippur, when the gates are open wide, Rabbi Max Arzt teaches the goal of Yom Kippur is, “to lessen the distance between what we are and what we ought to be.”

If the long day of introspection has worked, then at Ne’ila those gates close on who we were and open to a lighter, better and more refined version of who we are.

But that too is an illusion. It is a fleeting moment of personal triumph. Like the sunset that gives way to the night, the dawn to the morning, the moon and its phases, the high tide and the low tide; stasis is not derech haolam, the way of the world.

Each morning the siddur, the prayer book, reminds us, “Day after day You renew creation.” In that unfolding story we are, truth be told, composed of stardust. Most of the elements of our bodies originated in stars and the Big Bang.

Like the rest of the universe, our course is one of continual renewal. Yom Kippur highlights that awareness and the work we began on Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the month of Elul, 40 days earlier. Our work reaches a higher level on Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Repentance, aseret yomei teshuva, culminating with Yom Kippur.

Those 40 days parallel the period when Moses returned to Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets following the incident of the Golden Calf. Moses, Moshe rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, literally models teshuva, repentance, return, when after the first tablets lay shattered at his feet he turned around and returned to once again climb Mount Sinai.

We are no different, as the echo of Yom Kippur is always with us, pushing us to climb the mountain all year long. Yom Kippur Katan, the small Yom Kippur, observed by some in most months on the day preceding Rosh Hodesh, is one of those echoes. It includes a daylight-hours’ fast and special liturgy.

Rabbi Shefa Gold elucidates the origins of Yom Kippur Katan, teaching, “Kabbalists were moon watchers. The lenses through which they gazed were intensely focused on issues of exile and redemption. And so as the moon waned, the exile of the Shechina (the Divine Presence) was noted and mourned.

With the moon’s return came the celebration of the miracle of redemption, a redemption that could be tasted and known but briefly before the cycle of exile continued. They based their custom on a legend that was recorded in the Babylonian Talmud in which God says to Israel, “Bring atonement upon me for making the moon smaller.” (Hullin 60b) THAT EPISODE in the Talmud is fascinating in and of itself. There God admits after God made the moon smaller than the sun that God had wronged the moon, and because of that God needed to do teshuva! Implied within that radical text: If God can admit to wrongdoing and address transgression, who are we not to?

In addition to Yom Kippur Katan, another echo of Yom Kippur is the sixth paragraph of the weekday Amidah prayer. There we say the confessional selach lanu, forgive us, in the same manner that we say the confessional prayers ashamnu and al chet of Yom Kippur. Interspersed within the al chet Yom Kippur liturgy itself we also say selach lanu as we do during the rest of the year: “Ve’al kulam eloha selichot selach lanu. Mechal lanu. Kaper lanu,” And for them all, God of forgiveness, please forgive, pardon us, help us atone.” The selach lanu paragraph follows the fourth and fifth paragraphs of the Amidah. We first ask for binah, understanding, including self-understanding, so we can ask in the next prayer for help with teshuvah, repentance. There is a logic within the order of the Amidah: first self-understanding followed by repentance, and only then forgiveness.

Three times a day the weekday Amidah is said. This means three times a day – evening, morning, and afternoon – we ask for forgiveness. In Judaism there is the concept of not saying a bracha levatala, a blessing whose purpose is not going to be fulfilled. This means that when we ask for forgiveness throughout the day there is the implied understanding, since we can’t say the bracha in vain, that we did something wrong in the morning, afternoon and evening.

For some this is proof Judaism is a religion of guilt. Rabbi Art Green teaches the opposite when he says that Judaism is actually about guilt relief. This system provides us precious moments throughout the day to check in with ourselves and recalibrate as needed.

Elaborating, Rabbi Daniel Kamesar, z”l (of blessed memory), looks to the past daily sacrificial system of the Temple in Jerusalem as a model for that guilt relief when we would bring a chatat or an asham offering as expiation for our wrong choices, for missing the mark. Watching the smoke rise heavenly could be a cathartic, like watching the breadcrumbs of the Tashlich service float downstream away from us.

“Burn it up and let it go,” Daniel points out. “Most therapists are trying desperately to help us achieve that.”

While we are talking about the echoes of Yom Kippur throughout the year, we also note on Yom Kippur itself we have echoes of the Temple service. The chatat offering became the al chet prayer, and the asham offering became the ashamnu of the Yom Kippur liturgy.

One of the most profound moments in our daily prayer life emanates from the Ne’ila service. The Talmud (Yoma 87b) discusses the wording for the service. Shmuel and Ulla bar Rav suggest we say, “What are we? What is our life? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our salvation? What is our power? What is our might?”
THOSE QUESTIONS eventually migrated into the daily morning prayers of the siddur. In the context of the Talmud and the siddur they are traditionally understood as questions arising from a sense of “our iniquities too many to count,” as Rav Judah states.

However, they can also be read as seven existential questions addressing the essence of our lives. We start by asking, “What are we?” The ultimate question, but in some ways too immense to answer, and so we fine tune and arrive at, “What is our life?” That is to say, what do we do with our lives, this precious gift? We want to define who we are. To answer that question, we realize our lives are measured by how we treat others, and so we ask, “What is our kindness?” and “What is our righteousness?” In other words, what care and consideration do we bring to others, and in a broader social reach, how do we strengthen justice in our communities and the world?

Our lives are also measured and grounded by our inner spiritual lives, and so we ask, “What is our salvation?” Answering and living by the answers to these questions takes energy, and so we conclude by asking, “What is our power? What is our might?”

While they are the final questions, they are both cautionary, giving us pause to think how we use our strength and efficacy while at the same time reminding us that we have agency.

There is another lesson with these questions. Only the first two actually appear in the Talmud. As the scholar of Jewish liturgy Lawrence Hoffman points out, “Frequently, prayers were ad libbed. They began with a starting point, like Mah anu? Mah chayeinu? What are we? What is our life? But they then moved in whatever direction the prayer leader preferred. It could be made up on the spot. What was done one year would not have been the same as in later years. There were no “right” and “wrong” as we think of them.

“Right” was just making up the prayer and delivering it on the proper theme, with, ideally, some biblical texts to support the idea. Congregants would recognize the biblical support and nod in recognition. So the Talmudic writer of this section might have had his own practice in mind, or no practice in mind at all, other than the idea that we start with the citation in question, and then develop the theme in a way that makes sense at the time.

Such a process invites us to go deeper than the printed words on the page of the siddur. It asks us to drink from the essence of its message. What a liberating, creative, empowering approach; an approach with immense responsibility as well.

Ne’ila metaphorically suggests the gates of heaven close at the end of Yom Kippur, while at the same time we remember those daily Yom Kippur touch points and messages throughout the year. They remind us throughout the year that we always have the gift and opportunity to improve who we are, as well as to repair our shared world.
Rabbi Michael M. Cohen, the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont, is also on the faculty of Bennington College and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.