Sermon: Endings (N’ilah) (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

Some of you may have seen my Rosh ha-Shanah message on You-Tube in which I said that I don’t believe in endings, only new beginnings.  It is true that for every ending there is a new beginning, but that doesn’t mean that I’m unaware of the terrible wrench that an ending can cause.  For many years I’ve been involved with Ahada Bereavement Counselling and Empathy, our counselling service for those affected by separation and divorce.  I’ve had training with them and also while I was at Leo BaeckCollege and one area of training is all about closure or endings, how the visitor ends their relationship with the visited without causing harm to either party. Sudden endings – and, of course, that can apply even more so to death or separation – can throw up a whole gamut of emotions.  Anger, bitterness, pain, guilt, perhaps relief, all of these and more have the ability to detract from what had been a useful and often pleasant relationship, with the effect of nullifying all the good previously done.  Much better the planned ending, thought through carefully, discussed in advance, maybe done gradually to see what happens, with the possibility of making adjustments if necessary.  From my previous experience of this area, I am amazed at how these ideas, calling on a knowledge of human psychology in a modern sophisticated society, were so clearly understood by the sages of old. We are just about to commence the נעילה Service.  No other day of the year has such a Service.  It is the concluding Service for Yom Kippur, we are preparing for an ending to the special relationship we have today with God.  Of course, it is not an end of our association, but I think we would all agree that on Yom Kippur it takes on a more intensive, a more intimate, a more meaningful mode.  The rabbis who created the liturgy realised that an abrupt ending to Yom Kippur would not be appropriate to our feelings and emotions released during the Day.  So this special Service enables us to plan the closure, the prayers, many of them peculiar to this Service – despite the repetition of so many others through the Day – these prayers provide the discussion, the dialogue with God, demonstrating a change in the relationship.  It becomes very much a gradual process of taking our leave and if there are any false starts in our thinking, we can go back and adjust.  So it is that we can now consider the different relationship that exists with God on Yom Kippur, indeed throughout these last ten days of תשובה, repentance, and the rest of the year.  It seems to me that that is very much tied up with how we relate to ourselves.  If during these last few days we have been particularly aware of our nature, almost to the exclusion of all else, then it is likely that the strength of our association with God has also been heavily intensified in that time.  If we have been indulging in a self inspection as intense and honest as we can endure, then we have probably also come very close to God.  But what about the rest of the year? Is this introspection a once a year thing only?  Or are we concerned about how we act the whole year round?  I know humanists would disagree, but I strongly believe that our actions are inextricably linked with how we view God.   I’m reminded of the H G Wells’ story, The Invisible Man.  If we were invisible would we be more likely to do wrong, to commit crime, in the knowledge that no-one could see us?  Or would we have in the back of our minds a feeling that God would still be able to see us, would still  know what we were doing?  This really is the measure of our relationship with God.  The humanist would say we don’t act differently – if invisible – because it would be wrong, we would know that.  And, of course, the humanist is right.  But the believer goes further and says that it would be wrong not just in our own eyes.  The humanist sets out right and wrong in the view of humans.  The believer extends it to the Divine.  The definition of right and wrong can change for humans; different eras of history, different areas geographically, different intellectual and sociological levels within the same society can create a different value system.  Morality values cannot just be left to the whim of humans, they need to be a fixed element in our lives and become so because they are divinely commanded. Even if God, for the most part, is only in the background of our lives, is regarded as a comfortable pair of slippers, taken for granted and rarely thought about, we can still readily bring Him to mind when necessary.  The intensity of our relationship at this time of the year doesn’t have to continue for there still to be an appropriate connection.  What is important, however, is to continue giving God, not so much a veto but certainly a vote, in the way in which we live our lives.  A recognition that prayer and repentance, תפילהand תשובה, don’t have to wait until next ראש השנה might just make our lives more bearable, happier even.   But for now we have the serious task of beginning the process of taking our leave.  In a moment or so we’ll start the discussion leading up to the formal closure.  We’ll ask God to refrain from anger and bitterness at our departure.  We’ll pray that we should not have feelings of guilt or pain as we withdraw.Rather, we reach the ending with good thoughts and feelings, that this relationship has been beneficial on both sides.  We and God entered into this special association ten days ago and we prepare for its end with the knowledge that it is only the depth and intensity that finishes with this נעילה Service.  May we continue to be special to God beyond today; may God continue to be special to us outside of this place.  May our relationship with God be maintained and enhanced in the year ahead.