You may remember the opening words of the Ne’ila service in the old, red Machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook): “Open the gates. Open them wide…”
In the twelve years I was a rabbi BC (Before CBHT), this was the most reviled of all moments in the Days of Awe for me. For the four years I was an assistant rabbi in suburban New York, I think the senior rabbi assigned me to lead that passage as a cruel hazing ritual because inevitably as I was inviting the gates to open wide, people were literally pouring out of the doors of the sanctuary and the building, having discharged their duty to the dead at Yizkor and leaving behind a remnant of fryers (suckers) to pray the Ne’ila service and break the fast an hour later. The passage, “Open the gates, open them wide,” instead of signaling rounding the corner to the climax of the Holy Days, reassuring us that the gates of repentance were still open and there was still time to “get right with God,” it was the signal people were free to jump ship. The same minhag (custom) persisted amongst the folks in Baltimore, and for eight more years I limped out of the Holy Day experience exhausted and spiritually empty. I actually didn’t know that it could be any different.
Fast forward to the present day. I can honestly say I love all of our services at CBHT. (Believe it or not, not all rabbis grow to love services, even those they lead.) I especially revel in the marathon of devotion that our Holy Days demand and how we’ve struck a unique tone from each one of the different liturgical moments. But I have a particularly soft place in my heart for Ne’ila, in part because so many of you choose to stay. So, I’m writing this column to invite those of you who haven’t made it your minhag to return to Temple for the afternoon to rethink your plans this year.
First of all, there is both music and words that are reserved exclusively for that service. Not only is the entire Amidah recited in a special Ne’ila nusach (liturgical mode), Ne’ila is the only time in the 10 Days of Awe that we implore God not to write but to seal us in the Book of Life. It is the only service in which we do a special Chassidic Kaddish Shalem that will make your heart sing. When the final tekiah gedolah sounds and we fall into havdalah, the congregation bands together like brothers who have prevailed after a spiritual battle, which cannot be understated. As icing on the cake, for those healthy in body enough to fast to the bitter end, something magical happens to the chemicals in our bodies, that takes us out of our thinking minds to occupy the deepest heart space. And there is not another moment in our calendar that we stand before God so spiritually naked and at the same time embraced and affirmed, with a rare certainty that we arrived without taking any short cuts. We didn’t duck. We faced the truth of our lives, together and it made all the difference.