A Sabbath Message: On Yom Kippur, the Gates Close – and We Let Go

“All vows – all promises and pledges – that we have made to ourselves.
And that no longer serve – for the good.
May their grip be loosened.
That we be present of mind and heart – to the urgency of the hour.”

– Creative Interpretation of Kol Nidre by Poet Marcia Falk

The first Sabbath of the New Year 5782 arrives this week with a special distinction, as it carries its own name: Shabbat Shuvah – Sabbath of Return. Falling during the sacred period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur known as Aseret Y’may Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance, this Sabbath takes on added significance, with additional themes of forgiveness and repentance included in the liturgy and scriptural readings. This ten-day period is an intense period during an already heightened sense of reflection and introspection. Described in the Talmud, this period takes on the significance of an unusual trial, but not only of past deeds, but also for those deeds to come in the future. This period is seen as an opportunity for change, since the extremes of complete righteousness and complete evil are rare – most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum in between. And these days remind us we can always “return” and find our way back to the right path.

Of course, the other important reminder we all face this Sabbath is a painful one: Twenty years ago, our lives were changed forever when we saw the face of evil on our shores on 9/11. It is one of those few days in a lifetime in which we will all remember where we were. It was the end of innocence for some, and a reminder of the darkest kind of evil for others of us. We were all impacted in different ways – some more directly than others. But we must find a way to weave it into the fabric of our society’s mantle, so it is never forgotten, but discussed and debated by future generations. To me, this is an important part of honoring the lost ones from that terrible day for all time.

Indeed, Kol Nidre – the holiest night of the Jewish year, which arrives next Wednesday evening, is in many ways about the tragic pain of the soul – the pain of loss, the pain of impermanence. We hear this in the mournful chant of the prayer itself, repeated three times and re-enacted as if in a heavenly Rabbinical court, with the Torah scrolls standing in as the jury. Musically, the chant begins as more of a dirge, as if it starts from the very depths of our despair. Rabbi Alan Lew describes these first few notes of this seminal prayer: “The thing about Kol Nidre is that it starts at this moment of heartbreak.” And, he is right to point out that it is even more jarring, since there is no buildup to this moment whatsoever: It is the very first thing that happens at the evening service for Yom Kippur before the crowd is barely settled in their seats. But after those first few phrases of a descending minor tone, we get a rise in emotion with a change in tone, a defiant even heroic sound, as the chant leaps toward joy. And thus is the metaphor of life – heartbreak and impermanence, mixed with joy and dancing. As Lew notes: “Our soul is called to this world by a cry of pain, and then it rises, and that very pain met squarely and drunk in deeply can become its strength and finally, its triumph.”

And there is more to this moment of Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur in general – more to consider to propel us forward, to ponder how to live out our days to their fullest potential. There is a story perhaps you have heard, but it seems fitting to tell it here: A philosophy professor wants to share an important life lesson with his students. He fills a large jar with large rocks and asks the class if the jar is full – they all agree that it is. But then he adds a large cup of pebbles to the jar and asks again if it is full, and they say it is indeed full. Finally, he adds a large cup of sand and asks the same question. What is the point of this exercise, the professor asks? And then he suggests that if you don’t start with the large rocks, the things that are the most important in your life, you will get bogged down by the unimportant things – the pebbles and sand, running out of room for what really counts – your family, your friends, your dreams, what is true and good. We can all be trapped by what is unimportant, caught in the mud of life.

For me, the most magical time of the Yom Kippur holiday is the Neilah service at the very end of the long day of praying and fasting. It is traditional to stand for this service, the name of which literally means “closing or locking” – and the imagery is that as the sun is setting, the gates of heaven are swinging shut…We are thirsty, weak from hunger. At the synagogue where I serve as a High Holiday cantor in Los Angeles, they have a beautiful tradition: During the Neilah service, each person, couple or family takes a turn in front of the ark alone for a few moments to say a prayer to God or to speak to each other in the waning moments of the holiday. It is truly a holy moment. This year, the message of Yom Kippur which is resonating most with me is the permission and freedom to let go of what is not working in life and to make way for new dreams and new opportunities, to stay true to myself and to what gives my life meaning and purpose. In this way, we are truly “AT-ONE” with our atonement process, remaining true to ourselves.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom – and G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May You Be Inscribed in the Book of Life,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service


Photo caption: With these Ten Days of Repentance leading into Yom Kippur, we enter this special period of Atonement, or I prefer to think of it as: AT-ONE-MENT, not only with ourselves, but with each other – and with the Divine Spirit, as well, leading us on this journey of discovery.