L’italiano segue l’inglese
The Neilah service is introduced with a piyyut, a liturgical poem – El Nora Alila – said to have been written by the great philosopher poet and paytan Moses IbnEzra in 12th century Granada. His name – Moshe -is encoded into the prayer, followed by the word “Hazak” Be strong. Each verse ends with the words “bi’sha’at ha’neilah” “At the hour of the closing”, and tradition dictates it is sung in a lively and spirited way.
Neilah is named, according to the Talmud, for the closing of the gates – Neilat She’arim – (Ta’anit 26a). Originally it was an extra service at the Temple on every fast day, but quickly became the final service only of Yom Kippur.
Tantalisingly, given its full name, we are not told which gates are to be closed. A debate between the earliest Amoraim in the third century led to a number of possibilities being discussed. Rav said that the closing is of the gates of heaven – which could be a euphemism for the sunset and the end of the fast, or for the gates of prayer. Rabbi Yochanan though that it referred to the closing of the Temple gates, which were closed each day while there was still daylight – hence we have the tradition of beginning Neilah when the sun is over the treetops.
What are the gates of the Neilah service? Who is closing them – us or God? Are they closing in front of us, blocking us from prayer? or behind us, keeping us together with the Divine Presence? When will they open again and who will do the opening?
Rabbinic tradition tells us that the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open. To symbolise this, it is traditional that the entire Neilah service is held with the ark doors open and the congregation standing. It brings about a sense of pressing urgency. Will we reach the destination of our journey? Will we enter the gates before it is too late? Before us the Torah scrolls can be plainly seen, framed inside the open ark. There is a visual connection to the beit din of the Kol HaNedarim ceremony last night when all the scrolls were brought out of the ark, whose doors are left open. Now it seems as if the scrolls are being returned to their place, yet the doors are still open and there is a welcoming being enacted– we are being asked by God to come forward into God’s presence, before the doors will close for this service.
El Nora Alila – we can find the phrase – or a near version of it – in psalm 66. The psalm begins with the singing of praises to God, whose works on this earth and whose power is beyond compare. Then we are told : Lechu, uroo mifalot Elohim, Nora Alila al bnei Adam (Ps 66:5)
לְכוּ וּרְאוּ, מִפְעֲלוֹת אֱלֹהִים; נוֹרָא עֲלִילָה, עַל-בְּנֵי אָדָם
Come and see the works of God, [who is] awesome in deeds towards human beings.
The psalm was chosen by the liturgist most carefully I think. It begins with words of praise of the magnificence of the works of God, moves on through the trials we have faced in this world which God both instigated and saved up from, speaks of entering the Temple with burned offerings in order to give them to God in fulfilment of our vows
אָבוֹא בֵיתְךָ בְעוֹלוֹת; אֲשַׁלֵּם לְךָ נְדָרָי.
אֲשֶׁר-פָּצוּ שְׂפָתָי; וְדִבֶּר-פִּי, בַּצַּר-לִי
I shall come into your house, I will pay for you my vows which my lips uttered and my mouth spoke in my distress”
It seems to me the other half of the kol nidrei prayer – the vows made out of anxiety and distress now will be paid, and the psalm ends with the certain knowledge that God will hear us, God has heard us, God has not turned mercy away from us but we are indeed safe.
The piyyut is always sung to a happy and lively tune. This is the white fast – the day we know that God will forgive us if we consider and repent. The song here is a reminder that God is not far away, that there is very little time left for those of us who are slower or maybe less willing to consider our actions or feel we have rather more misdeeds to repent. A reminder – the gates are closing soon – will you be on the inside or the outside? The passion and the upbeat melody, the beckoning ark, the darkening sky – everything conspires to push us along through the gates.
What are the gates of Neilah? The gates of prayer? The gates of mercy? The gates of the heavenly court? Are the closing gates the portal through which we can hurl ourselves in order to feel wehave completed the task? Are they the gates of our own mind, the dusk brining a returning world and with it our habitual actions rather than our reflective behaviour?
The very uncertainty of what gates are closing destabilises us for a short while. We cannot really know where we are going; neither the liturgy nor our rabbinic tradition is clear – only the image comes through demanding us to notice. Gates are closing. We rush to get through them, and all the while they are beginning to move together.
And yet – the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of teshuvah are always open.
God will still be there after Yom Kippur. Should we feel we have not completed what we set out to do, should we feel we skimmed the surface or disappeared into our own thoughts for too long in the day, God will still be there to hear us. That is the point of the psalm which provides the base text for El Nora Alila – we are in a conundrum. We have to hurry up to get through the gates – but we will always find God waiting at the gates for us should we choose to go and look and ask.
So why the deadline to get through the gates? For many of us if there is no deadline we never complete the work – the homework, the column, the report . If there is no regular fixed meal time we don’t think to cook, if there is no clear timetable we miss train after train – after all, another one will come along soon.
My teacher Rabbi Albert Friedlander once told me his answer to the people who tell him they do not come to services because they can pray in a beautiful garden, in the country, up a mountain. “Yes”, he would answer,” you can. But do you?”
So Neilah reminds us – the day is nearly over, the time to go back into life is almost here. Yes, we can seek God through study or prayer at any time – but will we? Now, amongst our community we petition the yeshiva shel ma’alah one more time, glimpse the nestled scrolls through the open ark, and summon our strength for one last push – before we return to ordinary life and forget all we promised ourselves about how we would behave in the coming year.