A daily solution for the Neilah problem

מה אנחנו, מה חיינו, מה חסדנו, מה כחנו, מה גבורתנו. מה נאמר לפניך ה’ אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו. הלא כל הגיבורים כאין לפניך, ואנשי השם כלא היו, וחכמים כבלי מדע ונבונים כבלי השכל. כי כל מעשינו תוהו, וימי חיינו הבל לפניך, ומותר האדם מן הבהמה אין כי הכול הבל.

Neilah of Yom Kippur has a unique vidui. It raises the problem with our existence. How do we have any standing to appear before God? Our strength, greatness and knowledge is all like nothing before God. Our lives are fleeting, and in these respects we are not very different from the animals.

We solve this problem by introducing God’s will. Intrinsically we have no standing but since He willed for man to appear before Him we have the right to do so. We cannot explain this decision but it is there. The purpose of this choosing is to benefit man (since nothing we do could benefit God). We then hone in on Yom Kippur; it is a gift is to allow us to abandon the injustice of our ways. This idea is explained on in the Moreh hanevuchim 3:36 , that if we didn’t have instruments of Kapara, we would give up hope, not believing in the possibility of Teshuva).

אתה הבדלת אנוש מראש ותכירהו לעמוד לפניך, כי מי יאמר לך מה תִּפעל, ואם יצדק מה יתן לך. ותתן לנו ה’ אלהינו באהבה את יום הכיפורים הזה, את יום סליחת העון הזה, את יום מקרא קודש הזה, למחילה, ולסליחה ולכפרה ולמחול בו את כל עונותינו למען נחדל מעושק ידינו ונשוב לעשות חוקי רצונך בלבב שלם. ואתה ברחמיך הרבים רחם עלינו, כי לא תחפוץ בהשחתת עולם, שנאמר

God’s will is inherently inexplicable, since any explanation would be prior to God in some sense. Therefore, while our initial philosophical thought is that man is too lowly for God to relate to him (an improvement on the childish self assurance that of course God cares about me) – ultimately this is also a mistake. The correct perspective is to admit that we should have no preconceived notion as to whether God should relate to man. All we can do is describe what His will is, but not why it is His will. All why questions about God’s will only make sense as explanations of the relations between parts of the system, but ultimately reaches the inexplicable.

This perception of self is philosophically difficult, and for most people would be paralyzing if reflected on daily. Therefore, we might expect it to be saved for Yom Kippur; but, surprisingly, we raise the same problem as part of the daily service, quoting the first section almost word for word.

Perhaps we need to do this because recognizing our position vis a vis God is fundamental to the awe and fear of God. But how are we able to live with the Kohelet framework, recognizing the fleeting nature of our existence at all times? That our lives are merely exhaust?

We do this by providing a different answer. On Yom Kippur we reflect on the philosophical principle of God’s will, but the rest of the year we put it into human terms. We reflect on our ability to stand before God as coming from the relationship to our forefathers.

אבל אנחנו עמך בני בריתך, בני אברהם אוהבך שנשבעת לו בהר המורייה, זרע יצחק עקידך שנעקד על גבי מזבחך, עדת יעקוב בנך בכורך, שמאהבתך שאהבת אותו ושמחתך ששמחת בו, קראת אותו ישראל וישורון.לפיכך אנו חייבין להודות לך ולשבחך ולפארך וליתן הודיה ושבח לשמך. חייבין אנו לומר לפניך בכל יום ערב ובוקר שמע ישראל

This provides an explanation of God’s relationship to us (while putting the deep philosophical issues to the side, by not asking about the cause of God’s relationship to the Avot). We now have a framework in which to work, so that recognizing our mortality and similarity to the animals is not overwhelming. We can exceed the animals by living a life of love and fear of God by following in the footsteps of the Avot. Instead of paralyzing us, the insight of Kohelet becomes a call to action.

This difference also leads to a difference in the action response to the insight. On Yom Kippur, the conclusion of the insight is that we should take action in doing Teshuva. All year the conclusion is recognize and praise God, especially through Kriat Shema, thus setting up the order of Tefillah.

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