On Yom Kippur I visited a maximum security prison for Neilah. Yom Kippur, fasting, focusing on my own failings and my last hopes for Teshuvah. Neilah — the closing of the gates to heaven.
The closing of the gates, for me a powerful metaphor. For the men I will serve they deal with closing gates every day. Every day they go into their cell and the gates close, the door locks, it cannot be opened. Every day the door to their units lock and the gates close.
These men are in a maximum-security prison. For most of them they will never pass through the gates to the outside to freedom. They will not pass through them alive.
As I stand outside the prison, I pray to G-d that I be his vessel to give these men a sense that their prayers will go through the gates. That their prayers will ascend to heaven. That G-d wants to hear their voice.
It’s a daunting task. In prison they live a life of brutality, oppression, and violence. The live in silence, they are careful not to voice what is deep inside, their fears, their hopes, their regrets; just simply be an agreeable presence. It can be so hard to hear and voice the prayers deep inside a calloused heart.
We meet. I bring the men together and explain what a crucial moment we face. Its Neilah – our last chance. Our last chance to plead our case to the heavenly tribunal. Our last chance to be inscribed in the book of life. Our last chance to search for the prayer we cannot find deep inside.
These men know the path of appeal very well. In an earthly book, a book of judgment they have each been convicted and have a sentence. Many of them are used to endless appeals of that earthly sentence, hoping some legal technicality can win them freedom. It almost never happens, but their minds focus on appeals.
I explain we have much more at stake. Our souls.
I have brought a vital source of spiritual support. When my son was very young, he had a small torah. One night his Grandfather, who was legally blind, stayed up all night and built him a small ark for the torah. I place the Ark and the Torah at the front of the room.
I tell the men the story of the Ark and explain just as my father-in-law is there for my spiritual support, someone is with each of them at this vital moment. A beloved. Someone who cradled them, who looked them in the eyes with unceasing love. We pause for a moment and I ask each man to identify the spirit who is there with them, who is there to guide and support them in these vital moments of prayer.
You can see the expressions change. These men lead a very oppressive life where it is so hard to open one’s heart, become vulnerable, to feel the pain, to feel the love that once was and all the regret and shame that they must bear. They are filled with sadness.
We say the Yizkor prayer and I ask each man to name one person they want to remember and why that person was important to them. They each talk about the person who is close to their heart. I explain that their beloveds are in heaven, are souls who look out for them. I encourage them to reach out to them in prayer. The souls are there to support us, to hear our prayers, even the prayers that are deep in our hearts that we cannot voice.
I tell them how my Zaide would go to the cemetery each Sunday and help people say prayers at the gravesite. And the book he used was a book of supplications – Maaneh Lashon. And people would ask their beloveds to intercede for them, to seek G-ds support.
Then I explain that we will pray for two things: forgiveness and purification.
First, we take a short cut to forgiveness. I explain Kaparot the tradition of taking a live chicken and swinging it over your head nine times and saying “This is my exchange,” “This is my substitute,” and, “This is my expiation. This chicken will go to death and I shall proceed to a good long life and peace.” And the chicken assumes the sins and is slaughtered. I explain that there was no way I could bring a live chicken in, (much less a sharp knife) so we have another alternative.
I hand out pieces of paper and ask each of them to write some act of gemelut chasadim, some act of goodness, they did in the past year. They look at me skeptically but I assure them – “I know you did kindness.”
They do and I put all the notes in a cloth bag and I swing it over the head of each man and say “for these acts of goodness may all your sins be taken away.”
Here are the acts of kindness they noted:
- I continually help my cell buddy with his GED education classes.
- I’ve created a Facebook “above your grade” to help uplift humanity.
- I thank God for the love and forgiveness of my son’s mother, Sonia.
- My gift to Rabbi David, and sending my art work to the 97 year old Ukranian survivor in the nursing home.
- My act of kindness I’ve done for the year was I talked a friend out of harming another inmate. I also helped a female friend.
- Being a listening ear for persons with personal problems.
- I offered encouragement and support for loss of faith and loved ones.
- I share my food with others.
- I help my cell buddy giving him legal advice.
- I helped a friend get a job.
- I go to work every day to take care of sick people.
- Over the past year, the most consistent act of kindness that I do is to give assistance to those around who need it, whether it is giving them food, advice or just my time.
- Everybody can benefit from something even as small as an ear to talk to.
- My greatest acts of kindness is my undivided attention.
- I help feed other people.
- I help my neighbor with the fan food to get a shower many times.
- I was placed in the cell with a transgender inmate that was stealing pictures of my wife while I wasn’t in the cell, and I forgave him.
Going through the Gates
It is now time for us to go through the gates. I explain the spiritual gates we face may seem overwhelming. We feel these spiritual gates around us all the time. Gates made from our doubts, our insecurity, our shame, our regrets for the things we did that caused harm, the things we did not do. The gates that tell us we are unworthy, that we do not matter. The gates that tell us we do not have a voice, or our voice is poor, or there is no one who wants to hear us.
We believe those gates are locked. But today and for the past 10 days they have been open.
And G-d will lead us through the gates: “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Devarim 31:8.
G-d loves us as we are. He wants to hear the prayer deep inside. I chant “hashmini et koleach; ki koleach ahrev, umahrach nahveh”
Song of Songs (speaking for G-d) says “let me hear your voice, because your voice is lovely and your countenance is beautiful.” 2:14.
Let’s go through together
I chant “ivru, ivru, ba’she-arim, panu dereh ha-am” “go through, go through, go through the gates, Clear the way of the people.” Psalm 62:10 (arrangement Rabbi Shefa Gold)
And then “pitchu li shaarei Tzedek, avo vam odeh Yah. Zeh ha-sha’ar Adonai tzadikim yavo-u vo.” “Open for me the gates of righteousness. And I will enter them, Praising G-d. This is the gate of Adonai the righteous will enter through it.”
We call on G-d’s help as we begin the confession. I am about to start the “Adonai, Adonai, el rachum” prayer and one of the men explains it is what G-d says when he passes by Moses on Mt Sinai. He says “we want to remind G-d to treat us with mercy and compassion.”
I pray “G-d full of mercy and grace, patient loving and faithful, extending love to the thousandth generation. Forgiving transgression, rebellion and sin and granting pardon.”
[I pause for a moment thinking what those last words “granting pardon” mean for the men. Is there an earthly pardon? Every few years they will proceed to a pardon proceeding. Almost none will receive it. In my 7 years of service only one man has been pardoned.]
And then we recite the traditional vidui. We beat our hearts with our fists and ask forgiveness for each transgression. I explained on Rosh Hashanah that a Chet (or sin) was not so much as a sin but rather meant to miss the mark. In other words, we tried to do something good perhaps, but we missed our mark.
I imagine their chests, the space around their heart is calloused. Each day they probably beat their hearts continually as they recount their mistakes. Can they break through that shell?
So, I explain it is equally important for us to recognize our positive acts, where we strived to bring goodness into the world. We recite a positive vidui. And I ask the men to just hold their hand over their heart, to hold it with kindness, and feel the flow of love.
We have loved,
We have blessed,
We have grown,
We have spoken positively.
We have raised up,
We have shown compassion,
We have acted enthusiastically,
We have been empathetic,
We have cultivated truth.
We have given good advice,
We have respected,
We have learned,
We have forgiven,
We have comforted,
We have been creative,
We have stirred,
We have been spiritual activists,
We have been just,
We have longed for the Land [of Israel].
We have been merciful,
We have given full effort,
We have supported,
We have contributed,
We have repaired.
We dwell in silence to absorb our words. The acts of goodness we seek; in prison where one is constantly assaulted, on the defensive, facing strife and brutality it is so hard to see the path of goodness. But these words will provide a salve to their hearts.
Their chance to talk to G-d
The time is running short. A sense of urgency descends upon us. Have we done enough? Can we be forgiven? What else can we do?
I explain we have one last opportunity. An opportunity to talk directly to G-d.
I invite each man to walk up to the Ark and talk directly to Hashem. I remind them that G-d wants nothing more than to hear our words, the words deep in our hearts.
One of the men and I lift up a tallis in front of the small Ark (which has a small torah). It is like a Chuppah. A sacred place in the midst of the chaos of prison.
The men come up one by one. They stand under the tallis and look directly at the Ark and torah. You can see by their slow steps, the way their hands are clasped, the look of sorrow in their eyes, that they know they are appearing before the holy one. They are about to give it all.
After they all finish, I stand before the Ark and provide my prayer:
“Dear G-d thank you for the blessing of being able to pray with these holy souls. Help them to know, know deep in their hearts that you love them dearly, that they are here for a reason, to bring goodness to the world, that you desire and hear their prayers, that you are with them in every moment, moments of fear and suffering, moments of confrontation and strife, moments of sadness and shame, and you are also there in the moments of goodness and connection, of happiness. Each day you return their holy soul to these men, help them experience the sacred deep within. Dear G-d, protect them, keep them safe and healthy. In your blessed name. Amen.”
And then it is time for taharah (purification).
The Talmud explains that if your heart is not in the right place even going to the mikveh will not purify you. But if your heart is aligned with the Holy One even a drop of water can purify you.
I walk around with a bowl of water and ask each man dip their hand in the water and take just a drop.
As I go from man to man I pray:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
I pronounce “tahur hu” “you are pure”
I want the men to be the final voice of the evening. I explain they will have the last words in prayer (these are their prayers):
May my tongue be innocent of malice and my lips free from lies
When confronted by my enemies may my soul stay calm.
May my soul be humble to all, neither too great or too small.
Open my heart to your teachings that I may be guided by you
May all who plan evil against me abandon their schemes.
May I always be blessed knowing you are ever present near me.
Hear my words and help me G-d because you are loving.
Open my eyes to the wisdom of your Torah and implant it in my heart.
Grace me with your loving presence and support.
May you find delight in the words of my mouth and the words of my heart G-d my strength and foundation.
Help me to see that earthly bounds can be overcome and there is a precious freedom within my soul.
Provide peace within my world so I can feel your holy presence.
Help me to feel the blessings of every moment.
Their words sound like the words of free men. Unshackled. Their prayers have been received. Their voices are heard.
We finish by saying the sh’ma and blowing the Shofar and praying for a good year.
The men leave together. As I watch them walk away I sense lightness, strength, connection. They stand taller. They are embraced and supported by G-ds love.
One man walks me back to the entrance to the prison yard. We thank each other for our prayers and thank G-d for the blessing of being together. I walk through the gate out of the yard; a gate he cannot pass. But he and the other men have passed though the really vital gate. G-d has heard their prayers.
I thank G-d for the blessing of being able to serve.
David Balto is a volunteer chaplain at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. and Western Correctional Insitution, Maryland’s maximum security prison. He and his wife Naomi are actively involved in bikur cholim aith Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington and are co-sponsors of the Naional Bikur Cholim conference. David is also a volunteer for Ruach and a student in Aleph’s program for spiritual direction.