Neilah, Yom Kippur 5779 – Rabbi Howard Cooper

Neilah 2018

The veteran theatre director Peter Brook published a book of essays last year about the impact of live performance on an audience, and the responsibility there is on the actors to create particular kinds of experience. Brook is a man of amazing vitality, he’s 93 and still going strong. Well, still going.

I’ve always been fascinated by his distinctive approach to theatre, his almost Kabbalistic emphasis on the experience of immediacy, of aliveness, of presentness, that he tries to create with and through his actors; and the way he distils actions and speech to their essence.  And I’ve always been amused by his defiantly secular Jewish atheism, his disavowal of anything remotely to do with Judaism, Jewish religious thought and practice, his lack of interest in any of that archaic stuff – while at the same time having devoted his life to re-creating in a theatrical context the spiritual intensity, the sense of ever-emergent possibilities and interconnections, the centrality of myth and ritual for the nurturing of the human imagination – a whole set of practices, and ways of thinking about life’s core values, that have been lifted, as if my osmosis, or alchemy, from the traditions and practices of Jewish mysticism.

Anyway, in this latest book he says a couple of things that might be useful to us, here and now, as we enter into the final act of our great annual drama of return: return to our better selves, return to our community, return to our core values and vision. The Gates of Mercy will soon be closing – what a wonderfully dramatic image our tradition has conjured up: the poetry of an ending, the hope of a good ending and a good new beginning, the sense of expectation and joyfulness about survival and renewal, all captured in this mythic image, metaphor, of the Gates closing – and we struggling mortals, aware of out limitations and our fragility, huddling inside the Gates, gathered together and supporting each other in the security of being held inside this great drama of Jewish life, repeated over the generations, and here we are, performing it again, here and now.

“Every form of theatre,” writes Peter Brook, “has something in common with a visit to the doctor. On the way out, one should always feel better than on the way in.”

But how does this happen, in the theatre, or (by analogy)  in the 5-act drama we have been performing from last night and through this long day? “I think this derives from the artist’s sense of responsibility to the audience”, he says, “People have entrusted themselves to you…and you have to give them a respect that derives from confidence in what you are doing. At the end of an evening, you may have encouraged what is crude, violent or destructive in them. Or you can help them. By that I mean that an audience can be touched, entranced or – best of all – moved to a silence that vibrates around the theatre.”

So just a few questions/thoughts to play with now, as we enter the last act of our drama. On the way out tonight, are you going to feel better than on the way in? My guess is that most of you are. But why this should be is a bit of a mystery – it’s not just that you’ve survived this, got through it, and can forget all about it till next year, though there might be elements of that. But I think there’s something else.

If you do feel better through having gone through this annual drama, whether you were here for all of it, or only parts of it, or maybe just this last part of it, it’s because you have been plugged into something that has a kind of vitality, a spiritual energy, that’s been channelled to you in many ways: through both your own endeavours with the liturgy and the music and the soul-searching you do for yourselves; but also through the ways in which you, as Brook says,  “entrust” yourselves to those of us up here, rabbis, cantor, lay leaders, musicians; and we, in taking our responsibilities as artists seriously, with a “confidence” (Brook’s word)  in what we offer, and a humility, are able (when things go well) to create experiences where you can be, again in Brook’s words, “touched, entranced, or – best of all – moved to a silence that vibrates round the theatre”.

But of course this isn’t a theatre, and we are not actors, and Yom Kippur is not a play performed once a year that we leave and then get back to so-called real life. What we go through on Yom Kippur – willingly or unwillingly, or a bit of both – is not performance in that pejorative sense of something in opposition to what is real, but performance as living at a particular pitch or intensity, real living, when all the outer charades and powerplays and the corrosions that clog our hearts can drop away, if only for a moment, and we see ourselves afresh, and glimpse our inner qualities and strengths, our kindness, our compassion, our generosity, our deeper, truer selves that can be so frightening to know about and live out and expose to others, even though we might long to do so. Who doesn’t want to perform their best selves so that the performance becomes part of the art of living? Of being human?

If we are at moments in these services, and on this day, “touched” or “entranced” or “moved to silence”, it may be because we have been reminded of our potential for goodness, (and, yes, reminded of  how often we might fall short of it, we become painfully aware of that too), but on this day, there are moments when our vision is cleansed and we see our better selves, realise what a treasure house lives within us, what potential, what inner richness. This is who we are. And as the Gates of Mercy slowly close, as the light drains from the sky, we gather ourselves in, gather ourselves together, knowing we are a people blessed by this annual opportunity for renewal and growth and a return of hopefulness. The quiet, silent joy, of feeling healed, feeling whole.