Neilah 5780 – Rabbi Howard Cooper

Neilah 2019

In 1931, two pedestrians were knocked down by motor cars – either, or both, could easily have been killed. One, visiting New York, was Winston Churchill.  The other, in Munich, was Adolf Hitler. Their survival was random, as is the way of things. The world went on in one way, when it could just have well have gone on in another. The history of the world, and our own personal history, turns on such random moments. We don’t know, can’t know, what tomorrow will bring, and there are times when we glimpse the unsettling truth that we can’t control what will unfold for us, or our loved ones, in the days ahead, or the year ahead. Randomness is the only certainty we know.

And yet we come to this moment, as the Neilah service opens up for us, and we open ourselves up for it, when – in defiance of that story of randomness and unpredictability in all its provocative absurdity – we enter into another story, another way of seeing life. And in that story, this story that we dramatize and that comes alive at this moment on Yom Kippur, as the day is nearly over, we are told, and we say, and we defy ourselves to believe that, in spite of uncertainty and unpredictability, something else is unfolding that is also true, that also has meaning, namely: that what we do in life makes a difference, a difference to the trajectory of our own lives, our family’s life, our community’s life, the life of the society around us. We can and do make a difference; we can influence, we can act, we can change how we act, we have agency within the randomness – not omnipotent control, but something else, infinitely precious, some inner freedom to choose, to choose what we do in the knowledge that how we live counts, the values we live by count.

At Neilah we say, we chant, we pray “hymns to possibility” (Gertrude Stein) – we glimpse life as filled with possibilities, the possibility that our compassion is stronger than our indifference, the possibility that the kindness and love we offer, the justice we strive for, the generosity that is within us, the possibility that these qualities in us can outweigh our doubts, our fears, our pinched holding-on-to-what-we’ve-got; the possibility that our finer qualities, when we do feel them and live them, that they count, they all count. The possibility that they count more than we realise, they add up, this patchwork of striving and failing but then striving again, it all adds up to the possibility that our lives do matter, that what we do counts in the scheme of things.

Beyond (or alongside) randomness, unpredictability, uncertainty, at Neilah we glimpse meanings for ourselves – that our lives have a value, that we have a value and a purpose in this world.

We know this fragile world of ours faces many challenges – it’s sort of touch and go how long we can keep going on accustomed paths – but at Neilah we recognise, we appreciate that we can play our part in tipping the scales towards life: life and hopefulness, life in all its abundant richness. We exist on “the only planet where Life has found/a land of milk and honey” (Harry Martinson, Aniara). The promised land is not only far off, over the horizon. At Neilah, as the Gates close, the horizon comes up very close, we glimpse the promised land, the land of milk and honey, it’s also here, now, amongst us, within us. We have what we need. We are where we need to be. Let’s enter in, into the moment. The moment when new hope flows into us, from a source beyond ourselves. Let’s enter in.

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