Neilah is coming. Please rise.
On Yom Kippur for the past 15 years, as a lay cantor I have led the Neilah service for the small congregation to which I belong, the Movable Minyan in Los Angeles.
Neilah means “locking,” as in “locking the gates of repentance,” a motif that runs through this last service of a day of fasting.
During the service, the ark is open. You stand for an hour and ask one last time for forgiveness, all the while trying not to check your voicemail for an answer.
Are you ready?
Some years, as I’m chanting away, the time and the service seem to sail by; if I’m not watchful, the service will end too soon. Other years, time stops. My legs and back ache, my singing voice weakens, my focus wanders, and the vowels under the Hebrew seem to move around.
What’s the difference?
After doing this for so long, I have learned there are a number of ways to prepare — actions that will help you stand and focus, getting you to the closing gates before the final shofar blows.
Call it Neilah training.
• Acquaint yourself with the liturgy. Regardless of where you find yourself on Yom Kippur, in the last seat of your suburban synagogue’s social hall or up close and personal in a downtown shtiebel of 30, open a machzor, the High Holy Days prayer book, beforehand.
Up until the year I first led Neilah, I remember standing there, sneaking a peek at my watch every 15 minutes and giving an inner geshrei, “When is this gonna be over?”
The difference between then and now is knowing what’s coming. The journey on which Neilah takes you — through pages of awesome acts — is more meaningful and shorter when you know the way.
ArtScroll publishes an excellent machzor, footnoted and annotated, which, like the best theater program or liner notes, explains everything.
For Neilah it advises, quoting from the Mishnah, that the service “is virtually the last opportunity for sincere repentance.” The notes go on to suggest that we rouse ourselves “to pray with concentration, feeling and intensity, despite the weariness.”
• Reset your clock. With texting and Facebook, voicemail and Twitter, it’s a world of immediate gratification, and even instant spiritualization, a downloadable app. We think we can go where we want spiritually in two minutes, and all for a buck.
Leave the devices at home, and go natural with solar time. Check out the sun’s height when Neilah starts. The service will end by sundown. Shadows grow longer as the day progresses, and then they are gone. That’s your clock.
As the sun sets, Avinu Malkeinu arrives and you are calmly ready to say “open the gates of heaven to our prayer.”
• Prepare physically. Neilah is the time when the center doesn’t hold. You’re antsy, sometimes hot and always hungry; that’s part of the idea. But you don’t want to be too hungry.
What has worked for me the night before is not rushing the last meal. Allow plenty of time to sit and relax at the table. Most authorities suggest a meal low in salt and high in carbohydrates and protein. Like the ex-baseball player Wade Boggs, I like chicken before the big game.
My wife, Brenda, who also is a service leader for our Neilah service, is a coffee drinker. She finds that gradually cutting back on caffeine for 10 days before yontif gets her to the gate.
• Remove all obstacles. Ganesha — the Hindu deity that is supposed to remove all obstacles from your path — is represented as a man with the head of an elephant, and I have sometimes wondered: Would this guy be enough to clear my way?
The Jewish approach to path clearing at this time of year, especially with relationships, asks that you consider your actions of the past year, and if they fall short, make amends. It’s the avoidance of making amends, giving apologies, saying, “selichah” — I’m sorry — that I know weighs me down some years as I approach the time of Neilah.
Calling someone you have offended on the phone puts the Vidui, the day’s final confession, “of these things we have been guilty” fully into play.
One year a friend and I, members of the same Jewish organization, had a serious disagreement over the group’s direction. At meetings we wouldn’t even say hello. I remember thinking: “What had I done? This isn’t my fault. Why should I be the one to apologize?”
Whatever it was, I needed to call. I paced, I balked. What would I say? I wasn’t even sure where on the Vidui’s acrostic of wrongdoing my offense actually fit in.
Finally I was set to say, “I am sorry for what I said,” figuring it was my mouth that got me into trouble, “and for any offense I have done to you.”
I dialed. He picked up. I said hello, and before I could blurt it out, my friend said simply, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too,” I answered, later feeling that I was now ready for Neilah.
• Wear white. I know, it’s after Labor Day, but it’s OK. White represents spiritual purity, and along with doing the spiritual prep, that just might get you through the gates.