As I sat down to write this week’s thoughts I had a million ideas about what we can discuss. There has been a lot going on in the last week. We celebrated Rosh HaShanah, launched a new brand for the congregation, Temple Jeremiah Center for Learning kicked off a new year, and on a more somber note our neighbors on the East Coast braced for a hurricane (just to name a few). There have been a lot of stories that we can all connect with. But with Yom Kippur just occurring I thought it might be important to revisit my role in N’ilah, the reading of confession. I must admit, when I first read this section I was not certain I had the right prayer book. I was almost convinced that this was a Catholic practice, not something we as Jews do. But thanks to editors of our High Holy Day Machzor I was able to learn something rather interesting.
Mishkan Hanefesh, for those who have not taken the time to really dive into it, has these wonderful footnotes throughout that offer insight into the worship and words used. With N’ilah, there is only one shorter confession compared to the two that are recited in all of the other Yom Kippur services. Al cheit, the longer confession, is replaced by a prayer that begins, “You hold out your hand (Atah notein yad).” Thus, in the closing moments of Yom Kippur, the focus shifts from our wrongs and sins to an image of God reaching out to us – encouraging our repentance with open arms (Mishkan Hanefesh, 653). In an interesting twist, this week’s parsha, Ha’Azinu, consisting of a poem recited by a dying Moses is incredibly similar to readings of N’ilah and Yom Kippur. The poem, which chastises the people for their indiscretions against God, actually reads not only as a warning, but a message of hope. Even though the people have made their mistakes and God has been unhappy with them, in the end God will not forget the chosen people. Moses relays to the people that God is there for them through it all as long as they uphold the covenant. The blessings “You Hold Out Your Hand” says the same thing.
You hold out Your hand to those who do wrong:
Your right hand opens wide 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, You promised, in the fullness of our heartfelt t’shuvah.
An eleventh century commentary notes that the Hebrew yad means not only “hand” but also “ability” and “freedom of action,” suggesting that atah notein yad can be read as a statement that God offers human beings free will, choice, and moral autonomy. We have the ability to choose to be righteous, moral, and good. This High Holy Day season may we all strive to work to improve ourselves. To be the good and just people that we know we are. I wish you a happy and healthy new year filled with love and joy.