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By Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
The N’ilah service on late Yom Kippur afternoon is notable for its image of the Gates of Repentance closing their doors. At this late and hungry hour, for the final time during the Day of Atonement, we are summoned to repentance. The fact that many Sages argue we can actually delay our atonement to the end of the Sukkot holiday does not lessen the drama of the moment.
At the end of N’ilah, often as the sun has set, we will hear the final blast of the shofar. We will also declare the most essential teaching of the entire season: God is Merciful! We actually chant this seven times, just to make sure we get the point. The Gates are closing, but the mercy of God never ends.
In our creative retrieval of oft-forgotten elements of traditional High Holy Day liturgy, the editorial team for the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, have seized on a central image that is suggested by a traditional N’ilah poem: God offers a hand to meet us halfway in our journey towards return.
In our draft version we feature the following version of the traditional prayer:
You hold out Your hand to those who do wrong;
Your right hand opens wise to receive those who return.
You teach us the true purpose of confession:
to turn our hands into instruments of good,
to cause no harm or oppression.
Receive us, as You promised, in the fullness of our heartfelt t’shuvah.
As we note in the draft version, the prayer focuses on God’s constant presence and compassion, even when we have fallen away from God’s expectations for us. We are never too far from the ability to make peace with God. The gates do close, the day will end, but the opportunity for return is never taken away from us.
In the first month of the year 5246 (September 10-October 9, 1485), B'nai Soncino (the Sons of Soncino) began the printing of the first Hebrew prayer book, Mahzor Minhag Roma (A Prayer Book of the Roman Rite), in the city of Soncino. This book’s “You Hold Out Your Hand” is the only prayer printed in large type throughout. Could this have been done with Conversos (also known by the derogatory name, Marranos) in mind, those who had been forcibly converted but retained loyalty to their Jewish faith? If so, the gesture is a poignant example of the everlasting mercy that God extends to us.
The message is not only reflective of God’s mercy. It is also a call to us to practice the same mercy with those who have hurt us. When possible, we hold out our hand to them. With such a hand, the gates need never close.
The core editorial team of the upcoming machzor include Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, Rabbi Janet Marder, Rabbi Shelly Marder and Rabbi Leon Morris.
Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago and serves as the coordinating editor of Mishkan HaNefesh.