At Neilah, we stand at a pivotal juncture in our spiritual voyage. To be absolutely clear: we are not at the end of our voyage, we are very much still on our voyage. Life is always much more about the path than the destination.
The way I always put it is that preparing and anticipating a vacation is generally far more exciting and exhilarating than the vacation itself. Not that one doesn’t enjoy the vacation, but in a sense – being on vacation means that all the hopes and expectations are now at an end.
Many see Neilah as an end. But it is not an end. It is a station along the way. But maybe, like a train journey, we are about to change trains. And while we are at the station, we all have a moment to consider our varied experiences, our diverse paths, and our unique moments of introspection – so that the onward journey is more meaningful.
For some of us, the journey until now commenced with the clarion call of the shofar at the onset of Elul, with each blast signaling a new period of self-reflection and reconnection to our heritage. Each morning we were getting a wake-up call – Rosh Hashana is nearly here! Get ready! Some began the journey with Motzei Shabbes selichos and the morning selichos.
Others began on Rosh Hashana. And then there are those who began the journey last night at Kol Nidre – a little late to the party, but – as we know in Judaism: it’s never too late.
Each stop along the way: Elul, Shofar, Selichos, Rosh Hashanah, Aseres Yemei Teshuva, Shabbes Shuva, Kol Nidre, Fasting – each one of these stations serves as a milestone, shaping our collective psyche. And each one of these stations is meant to stir within us the powerful need that humans have to introspect, to reflect, to self-improve, and to up our game.
And as we get closer to the destination – it’s like getting to the top of the mountain – suddenly you see that it’s not the summit at all, but that the real summit was obscured, and you can only see it once you get to what you thought was the top.
One of my life heroes is Sir Winston Churchill. He was such an impressive man. But what impresses me most about him is that he was always setting himself new goals. Each time he achieved his goals it turned out that it was just a step along the way. Initially, Churchill sought to make a name for himself in the military. He took part in several campaigns, and excelled as a military tactician. He could have remained in the British Army, but that was just a station along the way.
After his military expeditions, Churchill set his sights on politics. At the age of 26, he was already a Member of Parliament. He switched political parties, faced multiple defeats, and held various government posts, slowly but surely advancing as a serious political contender.
During the First World War, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, effectively overseeing the vast Royal Navy – at that point in history the largest military navy in the world. He was forced to resign from that position, as a result of the disaster at Gallipoli, and many thought his political career was over. But for Churchill – this was just another station along the way.
He went back to the Army, to the Western Front, and successfully served as a battalion commander. Then, after the war, he returned to politics. During the 1930s Churchill turned to writing – his political career had not recovered – but his writing career took off, and he wrote books and articles, and became a renowned public speaker. He was so famous that he became the chief spokesman for the group in Great Britain that foresaw the grave threat from Hitler and fascism, and wanted to rearm Britain. Yet another station along the way.
By the time that World War II began, Churchill was well in his 60s – a time when most people are considering retirement. Nothing could have been further from his mind.
The rise of Nazi Germany and the outbreak of war saw Churchill become the beacon of hope for Britain. His goal: the survival and victory of Britain against the odds. And he achieved it, with his rousing speeches, his incredible stamina, his irrepressible optimism, and his unyielding spirit. But this wasn’t the end – it was just another station along the way.
After winning the war, Churchill was in for a horrible shock. He lost the postwar national elections and was ousted as prime minister. But Churchill didn’t retire. He didn’t get off the train. This was just another station along the way. He set himself a new goal, which was to lead his party back to power. And by 1951, he was Prime Minister again.
You’d think that was enough. Well, it wasn’t. Even after finally retiring from politics, Churchill didn’t stop setting himself goals. He dedicated himself to writing, producing the multi-volume series The History of the English Speaking Peoples and The Second World War – and more.
I’m not sure if you know: Sir Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize – but not the Nobel Prize for Peace, which is what you’d think he won. No. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, at the age of 78. Literature! Another station along the way.
What an inspiration! Sir Winston Churchill understood to his very core that life is a journey. And, you never reach your destination. You never reach the top of the mountain. Each station is a station along the way, and new and better stations lie ahead.
The High Holydays is a microcosm of this idea. The narrative of Rosh Hashanah pivots from Sarah’s ecstasy at the promised birth of Yitzhak to the complexities of her emotions. And then we have the Akeida – the binding of Isaac. We have the story of Chana and Shmuel. These stories prompt us to have questions about our faith. When should we yield? When should we question? The answers are stations along our faith journey.
Following Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah encourage us to strive for betterment, each day another station, and they culminate in Yom Kippur. This sacred day pushes us to confront our imperfections and, in particular, to embrace forgiveness. We might not have been ready to forgive earlier on in the journey, for example: on Rosh Hashana – but now we are ready.
Towards the end of Yom Kippur, we have the story of Yonah. This story exemplifies the journey from the particular to the universal, urging compassion not just for “our people,” but for all of humanity. Even last night, at the Kol Nidre station, we might not have been ready for that. But now, after a full day at the Yom Kippur station, we’ve scaled new summits, and we are ready for the next summit, the next station along the way.
And do you know what Neilah is? Neilah becomes the springboard for all our goals going forward. Where are we going from here? Where will the next station be? In our Jewish calendar, it is Sukkot – when we put ourselves at the mercy of the elements and when we display joy and contentment. But more generally, the next station is the winter – shorter days, and longer nights. And colder weather – or at least, for us in California, slightly colder weather. At this station, we need to make sure we load up with everything we need to get us through the winter journey that lies ahead.
Whether you began this sojourn with Elul or just stepped onto the train today, your desire to connect, your desire to be part of this grand narrative, your desire to be on this journey, is genuine, and it is cherished by God. As we begin Neilah, signaling the end of Yom Kippur, just remember: the journey is not over – on the contrary, it has only just begun.
Staying with the train journey theme, let me end on a slightly lighter note.
Three people—a scientist, a mathematician, and a Jewish businessman—are traveling in Scotland on a train. As they pass through the countryside, they spot a single black sheep grazing on a hill.
The scientist remarks, “Ah, I see that Scottish sheep are all black.”
The mathematician corrects him, “No, not at all, all we can conclude from this black sheep is that statistically, SOME Scottish sheep are black.”
The Jewish businessman chimes in, “Actually, from a business standpoint, what this black sheep is telling us is that there’s a demand for black wool in Scotland – which presents us with a business opportunity. Would either of you like to invest in my new business?”
My friends, the journey ahead is full of opportunity – let us all use those opportunities and invest with everything we have. The reward will be wonderful, and the future will be bright.