September 22, 2011
Yom Kippur: It’s fourth and long
Yom Kippur, the fourth quarter of the High Holidays, is coming and time is running out. Our seats are waiting, the gates are closing.
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 is.
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 understanding.
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 day.
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 it.
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 Israel.
How does it end? Let’s just say that Azazel really takes one for the team.
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 ways.
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 returning.
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 with us.
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 is written.
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 season.
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 the goal.
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 our King.”
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.