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.
Previous messages from the Rabbi
Recently, I was told its name is Joe Pye Weed. But since I’ve been living in Asheville, I know it to be the wildflower that bursts forth each year to tell me I’d better get a move on and write my High Holy Day sermons. I had to laugh when I learned that Joe Pye … Continue reading Between You and Me- Sept 2019
The Talmud tells the story of a man called Honi the Circle-Maker, a Jewish Rip Van Winkle, who went out for a walk, sat down to rest, and fell asleep for 70 years. When he awoke and returned to his village, no one recognized him. Separated from his former companions, he died of loneliness, at … Continue reading Between You and Me – August 2019
“If you stop doing hard things,” she said, “you’ll stop being able to do hard things.” That was what my health instructor said during class a couple of weeks ago. She was lamenting how her mother, who used to be on her feet all the time while she was working, had retired, joined the YMCA … Continue reading Between You and Me
Carpet Story A story from Iran: When a certain Muslim had been swindled by a Jew in business, the angered party went to the regional governor and prevailed upon him to issue an official edict requiring the conversion of every Jew by a certain date, upon pain of death. As the deadline approached, the Jewish … Continue reading Between You and Me – May 2019
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There is a folk legend that King Solomon, the wisest person ever to have lived, once posed the following riddle: What can you say to a happy man to make him sad, that will also make a sad man happy?” Solomon took a gold ring from his pocket upon which were engraved three Hebrew letters: … Continue reading Between You and Me- March 2019
A foundation of spiritual practice is the truth that we can hold two opposing feelings all at once. We can feel joyful as we grieve, we can experience hope in our despair, we can be certain in our uncertainty and, if we are wise, always be uncertain in our certainty. The weeks leading up to, … Continue reading Between You and Me – February 2019
An appeal to fellow Americans following the Pittsburgh Shootings The deadly attack on the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 was by far the worst anti-Semitic incident in our nation’s history. But it was hardly the only one. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of reported anti-Semitic hate crimes rose … Continue reading Between You and Me – January 2019
Light the lights…but replace them with LEDs! Hunkering down for the dark, cold winter, our ancestors knew we needed to add light and warmth to our lives. Today, light and heat come to us at a high cost – in dollars and in impact on the world. I invite you to consider these easy ways … Continue reading Between You and Me – December 2018
…we cannot reach any higher if we can’t deal with ordinary love. -Bono I read a lot of high holiday sermons…other people’s. It’s nice to see what other rabbis choose to speak about when so many are present and listening. This year, I also read a flurry of news articles on the subject of whether … Continue reading Between You and Me – November 2018
This month, I was late in turning in my Menorah article. After the volume of writing and thinking I was engaged in to prepare for the High Holidays, I just kept putting it off. I’ve even procrastinated on adding procrastination to the list of qualities I must address in myself this new year. In their … Continue reading Between You and Me – October 2018