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Hear our voice, Lord our God, have mercy and pity upon us…
Draw us back to you, God and we shall return; renew our days, as of old.
Do not cast us off from before you and do not take your holy spirit from us.
Do not cast us off in our old age; do not abandon us when our strength is at an end.
We do not know who put these four stirring verses from the Bible and the Siddur together, or who composed the music which makes this simple, beautiful prayer one of the most tender and heartfelt of the day. Thankfully, it is repeated in every service of Yom Kippur, except Ne’ilah, which has many uniquely moving passages of its own. My own associations with this prayer are forever touched by the memory of my father, close to the end of his life and when he could only just walk, being invited to open the Ark in the Selichot service and listening to the words in tears.
Those words go to the heart of the privilege and poignancy of human life. From the negative one learns the positive; we wouldn’t be asking God not to take the sacred spirit from us were that spirit not part of us in the first place. In our more secular hours we might call it the wonder of being alive, in our more spiritual moments the privileged gift from God, – to have a heart to feel, a conscience to know, a mind to think, senses to experience joy and awe. That life is a sacred privilege stands at the spiritual, emotional and moral centre of Judaism.
Yet at the same time we recognise that we are frail. There are two aspects to this frailty. The first is material; on Yom Kippur of all days, a day without eating and drinking, a day outside of normal time, we realise that our physical existence is limited, that life flows by ever faster, and that we are vulnerable to illness and chance in ways which we cannot ultimately control. We’ve all witnessed the reality that it’s hard to be ill, or grow old. That’s why caring for one another is the greatest thing we can do with our lives. But there are also gifts we need in times of struggle which no human being can bestow, – courage, love, generosity, wisdom and good grace in the centre of our heart. For these we turn to God and ask God to be with us and within us.
All the more, too, do we realise that we must not take either life’s blessings for granted, one of the greatest of which is the opportunity to cherish, appreciate and love one another.
Yom Kippur also reminds us that we are morally frail. Only at one’s peril does one think ‘There are no circumstances in which I could ever do that!’ Dishonesty, including with our own selves, greed, anger, meanness of spirit, bigotry, – so long as we engage in such behaviours they deprive us of our clarity of vision and purity of soul. They distort our vision and alienate God’s presence from us, until remorse and reparation restore us. That, too, is why we pray ‘God, don’t take your holy spirit from us’, but help us to become the people we are truly capable of being. Make those powers of truth, love and goodness which lie within us grow and thrive in our heart.
This prayer and its music have, in and of themselves, the power to open and purify the heart.