Neilah, the closing service on Yom Kippur. I was 16, standing in the back of my synagogue’s main sanctuary. The metaphor of the service is simple: with the sun setting, the gates of prayer and repentance begin to close. It’s a moment of profound urgency. We stand at the gates, making one final plea.
I looked up from my prayer book. The large bronze doors to the aron kodesh seemed to radiate holiness. They shimmered. They lost substance. They were no longer of this earth. I stood before the gates of justice and mercy. My prayer rose directly out of me, from the core of my being. My soul prayed my prayers.
I still remember that feeling, the deep sense that every individual prayer makes a difference, the knowledge that my prayers make a difference.
Kol Nidre, 30 years later. I was sitting in a small sanctuary of my synagogue. The side wall of that room can be opened to create extra space for the adjacent main sanctuary, although the floor is about three steps higher than the main room. As a result, my perspective was a bit off. I was looking down ever so slightly at the heads and profiles of congregants.
A mystical prayer, Kol Nidre initiates the day with dramatic pomp and circumstance. Sound and sight set the mood, with an odd legal formula set to mournful music that makes it permissible to pray with those who have sinned.
As I looked out over the congregation, it seemed as though a sort of smoke began to rise from the people. A charcoal not-quite-real image of calligraphy, Hebrew letters rising off the people. I turned my head slightly to the right to see the entire room. I saw the words of the Shema lift through the ceiling and into the sky. As the words rose, the prayer connected heaven and earth. I blinked. The image was gone.
I still remember that feeling, the deep sense that we were lifting one another’s prayers in the direction of holiness, that praying together can connect heaven and earth.
Avodah, last year. The Avodah service recounts the Yom Kippur ritual in Temple days. Last year, this strange retelling—a service that had never once resonated for me—brought me a measure of healing. To understand, you must know a bit about a particularly painful moment: there was a fire several years back, a fire on Yom Kippur. Three people I love dearly were profoundly hurt.
The first Yom Kippur after the fire, the words of the Un’taneh Tokef—which comes a few pages before the Avodah—crushed my heart. It’s a difficult prayer that portrays God as Sovereign and Judge, looking over our deeds and declaring our fate: “Who shall live and who shall die… Who by fire and who by water….”
Who by fire, indeed? My family? My life as I know it? People I hold dear? By fire? Since then, I’ve viewed this prayer as something to be endured, a prayer to be fought off to protect myself from intense grief, which came anyway.
Last year, during the Avodah—after that pivotal moment in the retelling when the high priest atones and it is clear that he conducted the ritual flawlessly—the members of my kehillah broke into song, a joyous melody. I was shocked, then uplifted as they sang the liturgical poem “Mareh HaKohen,” the “Countenance of the Kohen.”
I still remember that feeling, the feeling that Yom Kippur is about reclaiming life, not surrendering to grief. Living in joy, not bent in sorrow. And that our prayers can heal. I left synagogue certain that the painful grip of the Un’taneh Tokef was gone. I wrote a prayer called “Cry No More.”
The first test of that healing came a few days ago, on Rosh Hashana, when the was Un’taneh Tokef recited. I experienced sadness, but not intense grief nor the fear that my world might come undone. Or that my family might die. Rather, I experienced a quiet sadness for the trials and traumas of human suffering. The difference was profound. I wonder what will happen in a few days on Yom Kippur.
Three prayers. Two visions. A fire. And a moment of healing.
Here’s the thing: my Neilah moment happened in a Conservative congregation. My Kol Nidre moment, in a Reform synagogue. My Avodah moment, in a Modern Orthodox kehillah.
The gifts of prayer are all around. They appear wherever we meet to share our hearts with heaven. Conservative. Reform. Orthodox. Everywhere we pray. Every place we come together with humility and love, we can turn suffering into a prayer for healing.
Here’s the prayer I wrote after Neilah last year:
Cry No More
Cry no more for the sins of the past.
Rejoice in your repentance and your return.
For this is the day that God made
To lift you up from your sorrow and shame,
To deliver you to the gates of righteousness.
Love is the crown of your life
And wisdom the rock on which you stand.
Charity is your staff
And justice your shield.
Your deeds declare your kindness
And your works declare your devotion.
Cry no more for your fears and your dread.
Rejoice in your blessings and your healing.
For this is the day that God made
To raise your countenance and hope,
To deliver you to the gates of holiness.
“Cry No More” is © 2012 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. All rights reserved.