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Why N'ilah Matters

Cantor Jessica (Fox) Epstein

Cantorís Notes:  Temple Ner Tamid

September 2001

Níilah is the last service on the Day of Atonement, and I confess, it is my favorite.

Yes, I love all the services. Rosh Hashanah is majestic and exciting. Kol Nidreís melody wakes the soul and stirs long-sleeping memories. But during Níilah, people come because they want to. There are no societal expectations. Thereís no extra credit. Weíre all tired and we look it. We pray because we want to, or need to. Purified through hunger and thirst, the words weíve spoken and sung together over the day resonate now through hollowed-out parts of ourselves. We feel lighter. Cleaner. The gates are closing. We know the sun is setting. Our stomachs rumble like thunder over the plains.

The gates are closing, hurry! The gates are closing!

As the last rays of light fall upon us we implore, "Hear us, Adonai when we call. Do not turn us away!" As the last blast of the shofar fades, we arrive for havdalah breathless and thrilled. We made it.

Níilah is closure. It is the change of direction in the day. The nusach, or melodic motif, lacks the majesty of Rosh Hashanah or Kol Nidre. There are no more cheerful tunes, no grand arpeggios; during níilah the notes are incessant and demanding. They help push the congregation to the last breath when we heroically affirm, "Adonai Hu HaElohim!" "Adonai is God" seven sacred times.

Maybe itís just my low-blood sugar that leads to my ecstatic feelings. Maybe itís the upbeat Sephardic hymn, "El Nora Alilah." Maybe itís the way we turn off the lights, put our arms around each otherís shoulders and sway. Maybe itís the drama of the last, great cacophony of shofarot. All I know is whatís true. I feel a surge of energy flow through me and carry me to the end of the service. The swaying is touchy-feely, yes. But hey, we earned it.

Níilah is one more plea. One more prayer. One more moment to confess. One more chance to renew. Itís like running for the closing elevator while shouting, "Hold the door!" Itís like pushing past the crowd, flying down the station steps two at a time, and leaping into the R as the doors slam shut behind you and you speed away smiling through the mysterious, wonderful darkness of the tunnel thatís taking you home.

You speed away smiling through the mysterious, wonderful darkness of the tunnel thatís taking you home.