September 23, 2015
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona
My favorite High Holy Day quotation of all time comes from that great font of Jewish knowledge, Charles Schultz’s cartoon “Peanuts”. Charlie Brown, the every-man nebbish, says “Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask where have I gone wrong?” And then a voice comes and says to me, “This is going to take more then one night.”
Teshuvah is like that. We repent, and repent, and repent, not only one night but the following morning and afternoon and into the evening, one whole long day. And yet still, in our hearts, we have the sense that remaking ourselves might just take more than this single Day of Atonement.
But on the other hand, as Tevyeh used to say, maybe not. Maybe this will prove to be enough… if the conditions are just right. If we have gone our very best to atone for our sins. If we have apologized to all of those we have wronged. If our hearts are open, our defenses down, our awareness of God and the sanctity possible in this world heightened. If we have come to know our own failings and repent them and seek to return to what is sacred and best within ourselves. Then, maybe, this Yom Kippur will prove to be enough.
After all, we have been at it now for nearly 24 hours, since we began Kol Nidrei last night. By this time we have probably apologized for sins we didn’t even dream of committing…
Now we come to Ne’ilah. Ne’ilah is a unique time. According to the tradition, this is time on Yom Kippur, on the Day of Atonement when the very gates of repentance are beginning to close. Ne’ilah in Hebrew means the “locking of the gates”, and as the Book of Life is sealed, the gates of repentance, too, are locked. This is the time for our final appeal to our Creator, and to ourselves, to live a better life in 5776 than we managed to achieve in 5775. It is our last hurrah, our final curtain, the fading rays of the sun on this day of fasting, penance, and prayer. To paraphrase an old cliché, if the opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings, Yom Kippur isn’t over until the gates are locked.
There is a magnificent story about Ne’ilah written by the great Yiddish author, Yitzhak Leib Perets. He also wrote the Selichot story about the Rabbi of Nemerov going even higher than heaven; if you don’t know it, ask Rabbi Appel or me about it. Last year we both managed to tell it to the same kids on Rosh HaShanah morning… Yitzhak Leib Perets has a challenging story called Ne’ilah in Gehenna, Nei’lah in hell. It goes like this:
There is a town in the Pale of Settlement, in Russian Poland, called Ladam. In an audit of its records, Gehenna, hell, cannot identify a single citizen from this town who has been sent there in the past 20 years. Something must be wrong! No Jewish community of that size could possibly have failed to have wrongdoer who deserved eternal condemnation for such a long period. An investigation is launched to find out what’s wrong—or really, right—with this town of Ladam.
The reports come back to Gehenna: it turns out that Ladam has a cantor, a chazen. Himself, he’s not such an interesting character. As Perets writes, “But his voice! A voice for singing, so sweet, so poignant-sweet, this voice, that when it weeps it penetrates right into hearts of iron, through and through, it melts them to wax! He has but to ascend the prayer stand, this cantor, and lift his voice in prayer, and behold, the entire Congregation of Ladam is made one mass of repentance, wholehearted repentance, all its officers and members reduced, as if one person, to singlehearted contrition! With what result? With the result that Up There, Ladam’s sins are nullified, voided, made of no effect! With the result that for Ladam the gates of Paradise-because of this cantor—are forthwith flung apart! . . . Comes somebody before those gates and says he’s from Ladam—no further questions asked!
“It was quite easy to see that, with such a cantor in the vicinity, Gehenna would have to operate in Ladam at a loss.”
The plot thickens. The authority in Gehenna concocts a plan to silence this cantor of Ladam. The trick is to strike him with permanent laryngitis, a spell that will only end when he dies. In frustration, and to wreak revenge—a revenge we can only guess at—the chazen, the cantor commits suicide, which according to traditional Judaism condemns him to Gehenna itself. He arrives there on Yom Kippur.
The cantor continues to be silent as he is led into hell, about to be thrown into a fiery cauldron. The day is waning. His laryngitis removed by death, it is at this very moment that he begins to sing.
Yitgadal v’Yitkadash shmei rabah…
It is the Kaddish of Nei’lah, the unique melody used only at the very locking of the gates, offered in Gehenna.
Peres continues, the cantor “intones it, he sings it, and in singing his voice grows bolder, stronger . . . melts away . . . revives . . . is rapturous . . . glorious as, in the world, aforetime . . . no, better . . . sweeter . . . in the heart, deeper . . . from the depths clamorous . . . resurgent. . . .
“Hushed are all the boiling caldrons from which up to now there had issued a continual sound of weeping and wailing; hushed; until, after a while, from these same caldrons, an answering hum is heard. The caldron lids are lifted, heads peer out, burnt lips murmur accompaniment…
“The cantor continues, and the fires under the caldrons diminish and fade and go out. The dead begin to crawl forth from their caldrons.
“The cantor sings on, and the Congregation of Hell in undertone accompanies him, prays with him; and passage by passage, as the prayer is rendered, hurt bodies are healed, become whole, torn flesh unites, skin is renewed, the condemned dead grow pure. . . .
“Yes, when the cantor comes to the [final] verse… and hell’s poor souls respond “Amen, Amen,” it is as if a resurrection, there and then, took place!
“For such a clamor arises at this Amen that the Heavens above are opened, and the repentance of the wicked reaches to the Heaven of Heavens, to the Seventh Heaven, and comes before The Throne itself! And, it being a moment of grace and favor, the sinners, now saints, suddenly grow wings! One after the other out of Gehenna they fly . . . to the very gates of Paradise…”
Where, according to the story, they are accepted, the cantor’s revenge is finished, and Gehenna is left emptied by the beauty, the power, and exalted holiness of the music of the prayers of Ne’ilah.
Such is the potential power of this service we are about to experience. Ne’ilah, properly performed, can reform the very fiends of hell and bring them, in tears, to true Teshuvah. How much more so can we garden variety miscreants hope to be redeemed from our paltry misdeeds and small sins?
My friends, this does represent our last opportunity to offer our prayers in true Teshuvah. We are tired, hungry, thirsty, ready for it be over. But we have also reached a beautiful time of day when, if we give just a little more of ourselves in prayer and song, in repentance and release, we too can ascend up to those high gates before they close, and enter into a year of blessing and forgiveness.
May our song and prayer in this Ne’ilah service help you to enter those gates.
And may you be sealed, in this next hour, in the book of life for a year of great goodness.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah!