For the third time in a row, I got to spend Yom Kippur and the first part of Sukkot in Israel. For Yom Kippur, I went to one of my favorite synagogues in Jerusalem where the liturgy is traditional and the singing is joyful and powerful. For me Yom Kippur is such a day of supplication. It felt particularly fitting this year to spend it praying and singing and weeping in Jerusalem.
This year I noticed a feature of the liturgy that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Towards the end of the Kol Nidre service, the traditional prayer book goes through a recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of God four times. These thirteen attributes remind us that God is merciful and gracious, patient, compassionate and forgiving. And then at the end of the day, in the middle of Neilah, after all the prayers and poems and recitation of sins, we return to the Thirteen Attributes, not four times, but a whopping seven times.
Now, it makes sense to me that we would begin the process of Yom Kippur with an emphasis on Divine compassion and mercy. This makes it safe for us to enter into this difficult day of truth telling, remorse and pleading. We trust that our words will be heard with love. But why do we conclude the day the same way?
It occurred to me that although we spend (or at least can spend) much of the day looking into the spiritual mirror, Yom Kippur itself is not always a day of actual inner change. In fact, I would say that it rarely is such a day. When darkness falls and we get up to resume our regular lives, we may have gained greater insight into our habits of heart and mind, but without ongoing practice, it is difficult to translate that insight into real sustainable change.
Perhaps that is why one tradition is that we are not truly, truly sealed into the Book of Life until Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot. We may conclude Yom Kippur feeling exhilarated, cleansed, redeemed, but there is more work to do. So we need those extra reminders of God’s merciful attributes. In fact, we need a full cycle of seven repetitions of them to encourage us to make the difficult on-going commitment to the spiritual practices that will help integrate our new intentions into our lived lives.
As we come to the conclusion of our yearly cycle and begin the new one, may we feel upheld by compassion, patience and grace so that we can take up the transformational work of a new year. Chag sameach!