This Yom Kippur, I experienced the most moving Neilah (concluding prayer) of my life. One of our congregation’s stalwarts, Eli, who’s now mostly wheelchair-bound due to a debilitating disease, led us all on an exquisite journey. His heroism, stoicism and piety reminded me of a Friday night service my family and I attended 10 years ago. That Thursday, on Yom Kippur in 2008, the Dow Jones hit a five-year low.
In New York, beepers kept beeping and phones kept vibrating, disrupting many services during those dispiriting High Holidays. The Jerusalem congregation we attended was filled with olim, immigrants whose life savings and livelihoods were threatened by the crash. Yet that Friday night, the congregation ushered in the Shabbat blissfully.
“Remember this,” I told my kids. “Almost everyone here checked the news as soon as Yom Kippur ended last night and was kicked in the gut. But look at them pray. What’s exceptional is how normal it is. Right here, right now,” I paused dramatically before stating, “you’re seeing the Jewish response to calamity. Over hundreds of years – in Spain, in Syria, in Russia, here in Jerusalem – whatever happened to us, we still sang in the Shabbat joyfully. During the Holocaust, whenever we could, we sang in the Shabbat joyfully. And today, wherever we are, whether we’re facing military or political or economic or emotional or health crises, that’s what we do. Friday night still comes and we still pray joyfully.”
As Eli prayed this Yom Kippur, drawing meaning out of each phrase with the power once imputed to sorcerers, and with the finesse of a sculptor completing a bust, I imagined our words echoing in the heavens. There, all our prayers, regrets and dreams were forming one massive celestial cloud. It was deeply personal. We each could look up and see what we wanted to see, what we needed to see, in our own particular aspirational cloud formation. At the same time, that cloud, like the Jewish people, was communal, definable, visible, formidable and inspirational.
Even though we’ve concluded yet another High Holiday season, it’s never too late to follow these rousing examples. Before the prayers, Eli – his voice strong, his message stronger – played on the service’s name. Neilah means “closing the gates,” as in the heavenly portal locking down as our judgment in the Book of Life is sealed. “Don’t close ’em, open the gates,” he urged, turning what could have been a maudlin moment into a profound challenge. As the congregation prayed and as I considered how few of us nowadays are blessed with the opportunity to voice lyrics of spiritual beauty rather than raucous vulgarity at the top of our lungs. I wanted his prayer – our prayers – to resonate worldwide.
“Open the gates – come home,” I want to shout to my fellow Jews, “you just don’t know what you’re missing!” On Rosh Hashanah, we recall that troubling moment when Abraham shows he is so devoted to God that he is willing to sacrifice his precious son, Isaac. The story pivots on the notion of being committed to something greater than yourself – and having something in your life that’s so precious, you can’t sacrifice it easily.
Viktor Frankl, the great psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, taught that having something meaningful that’s worth dying for is the secret to living – be it under duress, or in comfort. I think of that as “my Isaac.”
I found my Isaac in Judaism and Zionism. I’m not arrogant enough to say it’s the only way – or the best way. But it’s my way, it’s our way and it’s a most legitimate way of finding community, meaning, identity – and doing good in the world.
So, this year, open the gates, come home – and maybe you’ll find your Isaac, too.