The Ne’ilah at the End of This Book - Neilah 5780
The Ne’ilah at the End of This Book
I’m going to confess something that I think will make some of you annoyed with me. I’m sort of banking on the fact that it’s late into the fast and that you won’t have the energy to boo me away from the shtender. I’m not exactly doing teshuvah here (partaking in repentance), because I don’t have any intention of changing.
Here’s my confession: I usually start reading a book at the end.
I know, I know. I read a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction, and I start at the end of both. In non-fiction books, I like to start in the index. I love a good index (and yes, I’m aware of how painfully nerdy that sounds). I like to see what’s going to come up multiple times and in multiple places. It’s like a taster. Oh, I see you’re going to quote Levinas and talk about the Leviathan, the giant sea-monster, right - sold! I also sometimes read the Conclusion early, especially if I’m not impressed by the Introduction, because I want to see where we’re going before I buy the ticket. It’s a bit of a strange way to read a book, I know, but it’s not unheard of - a fact that I know, because I’ve read the book called ‘How to Read a Book’, and yes, I started at the end of that one, too.
It’s the fiction where people get angry. I like to know the last sentence of the story. I’m not just looking for spoilers, although I will admit that I like to know if the very end sounds devastating so that I can emotionally prepare myself. Mostly, the reason that I want to read the end is so that I can turn that last sentence or two over in my mind as I’m reading the book. I have the ending, and the beginning, and now I’m filling in the space between. This is part of the reason that I prefer to wait until a series is finished before I start reading it, because I’m in the habit of holding onto that last sentence as I read - and not having it makes me feel unsettled.
In life, however, there’s no skipping ahead. I can’t turn to the last pages of my life and read the final sentence. I cannot go through my days knowing that it doesn’t end until I get to 93. I cannot know whether my last thoughts will be of love. I don’t have any access to that. And there’s no time that I’m more aware of this fact than Ne’ilah.
One of the major metaphors of our season is the Book of Life. We cast the Divine as the Author, and imagine God writing our names into either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. Do we survive the next year? Will it be a peaceful year, or a year of turmoil? We imagine that it’s already been written, but that we have to turn the pages one at a time, and nobody gets to skip ahead.
But what if we could? What if we could turn to the last page?
I think that this is part of the Ne’ilah process, the work that we’re being asked to do at this Closing Service. Yom Kippur has prompted us to sit in our lack of control, to pay attention to the insecurity of life. And here, at Ne’ilah, we imagine that the gates are closing, and we’re desperately trying to get our last offering to the Divine Author before the ink dries on the page.
Please excuse my mixed metaphors, but our liturgy is crammed with them. There are two metaphors here: the Divine Author and the closing gates. But what are the gates that are closing? There are three gates that are spoken of in our tradition: the gates of the heavens, meaning the skies - the turning of day into night; the gates of the heavens, meaning the engagement with prayer that is special to this period; and the gates of the historical Temple, signifying the end of a day’s offerings. All three of those play into this service. We’re at the end of the day, Yom Kippur is almost over. We’re at the end of a particular period of engagement, although teshuvah and prayer are always to be engaged with. And we’re giving our last offerings of the day.
However, I think that the metaphor falls apart a little when we move from Yom Kippur services into the weekday Ma’ariv service, the weekday evening service. We continue with prayers and offerings. So why the sense of urgency? What is slipping away from us?
This, I think, is the great metaphor of Ne’ilah: the gates that we are imagining closing are the gates of our lives. For a moment, for one service a year, we’re standing on the final page of the Book of Life. We’re reading the final sentence.
I’ve been told more than once that I get a little morbid around the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. This began some years ago, when my father was diagnosed with cancer in the late summer. Thank God, he pulled through and is well now - we celebrated his birthday just a few weeks ago - but for a while there, it was touch-and-go. For a few days, it felt like we were all looking between my father in his hospital bed - and my sister, who is a medical doctor, as we were all trying to find clues in her expression as to whether she thought that we should be preparing for the worst. During that time, I’m sure that we all thought a lot about mortality. But it wasn’t until much later, when my father was stronger and we’d let out the collective breath that we had been holding, that I asked him where his thoughts went in those touch-and-go days.
One of the answers that he gave me, the answer that has stayed with me the most significantly, is about music. My father is a musician, a guitarist, and has been creating music since he was a teenager. One of the answers that he gave me is that he found himself trying to remember all of the music that he had written and recorded, listing it in his mind, and thinking: Is this enough? If that’s all the art that I’m leaving in the world, is it enough?
The gift of seeing life in retrospect is that it can prompt us to ask, ‘Is this enough?’ To look at the way we’ve been living our lives and find the places that we treasure and those we regret. One of my father’s regrets was not spending more time creating.
If we really buy into the metaphor, into seeing ourselves as standing on the last page of the book, we can ask: What do we regret? If this is it, if tonight is the last night of your life, what are the memories that you treasure the most? What are the things that you wish you’d spent more time doing? Who do you wish you’d said ‘I love you’ to one last time? Where do you wish you’d been able to be?
What do you wish you’d done differently?
When Reb Zusha of Hanipol was on his deathbed, his students found him in floods of tears. They tried to comfort him by telling him, ‘Rabbi, you were almost as wise as Moses, and almost as kind as Abraham - surely the heavens will judge you well.’ And Reb Zusha replied to them, ‘My students, when I get to Heaven, they will not ask me ‘Zusha, why were you not like Moses’, or ‘Zusha, why were you not like Abraham’. They will ask me, ‘Why were you not like Zusha?’’
Some of the magic of Yom Kippur is that we have the opportunity to be in that space. If we do the work, we can see our lives in retrospect. We can identify those places of pride and those places of regret. And the gift, the true gift of Yom Kippur, is tomorrow. The gift is that we can stand from our deathbeds, and walk forward in the world, and live better. That we can make more music, that we can say ‘I love you’ to the people we ached for, that we can better fulfil what it means to be ourselves. We get to live again tomorrow.
That’s why we move from the incredible urgency of Ne’ilah into the regular weekday service. Because if we do the work of Ne’ilah, if we really buy into it, then we can see the regular weekday as the gift that it is. As the miracle that it is.
I invite you now, as we turn to the final service of Yom Kippur, to give yourself permission to skip to the end of the Book of your Life. Just for a little while.
G’mar chatimah tovah.