There is something unique about the ninth inning in baseball, the fourth quarter in football, set points in tennis and the final minutes in a hockey game. Sometimes the unexpected happens during those last few minutes of the game that changes everything. It could be a grand slam, a fumble, a short-handed goal, or an ace; and that changes everything. Some players know how to bring out their best efforts in the final moments, and great teams keep trying until the end and never give up hope.
The last inning of High Holidays is the Neilah service. After nearly twenty four hours of prayer, fasting, and recounting our misdeeds, we add more: a concluding fifth service (because four is not enough!). At our weakest moments of the day, we open the ark, and ask everyone to stand for all of Neilah, for the last hour and a half of fasting.
What is the message of ending our most physically and spiritually difficult day with the most intense and demanding service?
I believe that the message of Neilah is about learning how to go the extra mile. We are tired at the end of Yom Kippur; by 5 in the afternoon, we would normally relax and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. And it is precisely here that we are expected and to reach higher, further, longer, and deeper than before. The Neilah service is our last chance to reach into the depths of our souls and ask for clarity in planning for the coming year. And we can’t let go of a last chance; it is here that the winning run might be scored; it is here that we might make the one change that really matters.
I have been fortunate to have met some remarkable people in my life, who have enriched and guided my own values. There has been one man in my synagogue who up until he was 95 years old, stood for the entire Yom Kippur service, night and day, just as he had as a little boy in Europe; and he was honored with opening the Ark, and standing next to it, for Neilah. I would point out his heroic efforts to my children (mostly in response to their kvetching); and every year I would say to myself that if Emil can stand at his age, then so can I. Watching him stand beside the Ark as we reached the final moments of asking for forgiveness, gave me the strength to put in the extra effort at the end of Yom Kippur.
Sometimes when watching a sports game we turn off the TV when the game seems to be put away in terms of who will be the winner. But on Yom Kippur, we shouldn’t “turn off the TV” until the end of the ninth inning. The Neilah service gives us that last chance to turn it all around, and to make sure that our most sincere and personal prayers and hopes for the New Year are heard.
Wishing everyone a ketiva and chatima tova. May you be inscribed for a year of good health and strength for all of life’s “overtime” challenges.