Thursday, October 19, 2017

Parsha Noach: Was Noah Really All That Righteous?

It's all relative. The intuition behind that idiom is that something may or may not be what it seems depending on what that something is being compared to. I think that goes for people, as well. Someone like Thomas Jefferson was considered enlightened for his time. However, we would not consider his views on slavery enlightened for a 21st-century, democratic society. We actually see this notion play out in this week's Torah portion with Noah:

נח איש צדיק תמים היה, בדרתיו. את האלהים התהלך נח.
Noah was a righteous and whole-hearted man in his generation; Noah walked with G-d. - Genesis 6:9

This passage in Genesis calls Noah a righteous man (צדיק). The word צדיק is not thrown around lightly in Judaism. Think of it as analogous to the "one percenters" of Jewish spirituality. Noach was righteous enough where he and his family were the only ones on the planet spared from the Flood.  Noah is also referred to as תמים (whole-hearted). The word תמים can also mean unblemished or simple, which brings up some ambiguity. The word תמים, however, is generally viewed in a positive light in this verse (also see Psalms 15 and 101:6). You would think that Noah's status is unblemished and beyond reproach. However, there is a clarifier that casts doubt on Noah's righteousness: "in his generation" (בדרתיו). This caveat is so important that it caused a debate amongst the rabbis.

The phrase בדרתיו can be used to argue either in favor of or against Noah. One can argue that because Noah prevailed in such a corrupt society, Noah would have been, a fortiori, even greater had he lived in another generation (Rashi; Resh Lakish in Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a). On the other hand, one could argue that only by comparison to the rest of his generation was Noah righteous. Another way to say this: If Noah had lived in another generation, he would not have been considered righteous (Ramban). Which one is it? Was Noah adequately righteous or was his righteousness merely relative to his contemporaries?

One can argue that being average in absolute terms during such a time of such depravity is precisely why Noah is referred to as righteous. This is why R. Eliyahu Kitov argued that the righteous of each generation ought to be judged in the terms of their own time (Sefer HaParshiyos). Even so, this solidified why I am inclined to believe that Noah's righteousness was relative for three reasons. One is that Noah walked with G-d. As Rashi points out, walking with G-d meant that Noah needed G-d's support to spiritually advance. Conversely, Abraham walked in front of G-d (Genesis 17:1), meaning that Abraham's righteousness was good unto itself. The second reason for thinking his righteousness was relative was how Noah reacted after the Flood. My take on Noah post-Flood is that he was dealing with a combination of PTSD and coming off a spiritual high. Noah built the ark and survived the Flood. His mission was complete. He ended up building a vineyard (Genesis 9:20), getting drunk (Genesis 9:21), and according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 70a), was either castrated or sodomized by his son. Noah fell low enough where his sons were ashamed to look at him (Genesis 9:23). Needless to say, Noah did not handle his emotions well post-Flood. If Noah were that righteous, he would not have faltered the way he did.

The third reason is even more intriguing: Noah did not protest G-d's verdict nor did he attempt to save his contemporaries, which is contrasting to Abraham's response to Sodom and Gomorra. This reason is implied in the Talmud (Shabbat 55a) and explicitly stated in the Zohar (Zohar Mashatot, Bereshit 254b). According to the Zohar, Noah did not attempt to save a single person or beg G-d to change His verdict. The Hebrew for Noah (נח) has the same root for the word "comfortable" (נוח). While it is true that Noah did not harm others and he was able to withstand corruptive influences of his generation, he did not do good towards others. This is why in the Zohar, G-d calls Noah a "foolish shepherd." He receded into his comfort zone. In terms of individual responsibility, Noah was fine. As for collective responsibility, Noah did nothing to contribute to the betterment of mankind. The Golden Rule is important and vital. It creates a basic respect for humankind. However, that is not all we are here to do. Certainly from a Jewish point of view, a spiritual vocation does not mean isolation or a monastic lifestyle. It means contributing to the world so that it is better than when you found it. This lack of responsibility towards others is why Noah's righteousness comes with a big caveat. If we want to avoid the downfall of Noah, the righteousness we express through our thoughts, words, and deeds cannot be in isolation and cannot be done strictly for our own benefit. We need to help others, and by doing so, can we truly live a life towards righteousness.

Monday, October 16, 2017

10-16-17 Policy Digest: Iran, Clean Power Plan, and Obamacare

There was so much that happened last week in the world of public policy that I am taking a slightly different format. Rather than go in-depth on one issue, I will briefly cover three issues: the Iran Deal, the Clean Power Plan, and Obamacare. Aside from the time crunch on my end, the reason for covering it in an abridged digest format is because I have already covered these topics in further detail. With that, let's begin.

The Iran Deal
Last Friday, President Trump announced that he is going to decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more colloquially known as the Iran Deal. This decertification will give Congress 60 days to determine if they want to re-impose sanctions on Iran. This position is a compromise on Trump's end since he despises the Iran deal while his aides like it. The basis of the Iran Deal is to make sure that Iran does not become a North Korea-like nuclear power threatening the world. Trump's assertion is that it is not working. I took a look at the Iran Deal both when it first came out and one year after in 2016. My conclusion? The Iran Deal is doing what it is supposed to be doing. If Congress reimposes sanctions, there is legitimate concern that the United States' trust in the international sphere will be eroded as a result. Not only that, but Iran could shift blame towards the United States since Iran has been complying with the Iran Deal. Since the Iran Deal is succeeding at keeping Iran's nuclear capabilities contained, there is no logical reason for Trump to rattle the cage.  

Clean Power Plan
On Tuesday, October 10, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that they would repeal the Clean Power Plan. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt claimed that CPP repeal will save $30 billion over the next ten years. Personally, I'm glad that the EPA repealed the CPP. I analyzed the CPP three years ago, and I surmised that the CPP would only reduce global temperatures by 0.2º, which is a far cry from what we would need to avert the cataclysmic effects predicted by climate scientists. For more recent analyses on why the CPP is inadequate, you can read from the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation (also see here), Manhattan Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Obamacare
If that were not enough, President Trump signed an executive order on the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. There are those criticizing it as Trump's attempt to unilaterally dismantle Obamacare, which critics argue would  (see here, here). See analyses from the Cato Institute, Forbes, and Heritage Foundation as to why Trump's executive order is not so bad. In either case, something needs to be done to stop Obamacare. For more on the issues with Obamacare, see my list of 15 reasons as to why Obamacare is poor policy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Should Partisan Gerrymandering Be Allowed?

Last week, the Supreme Court began its new session and brought in the new session with a doozy of a case: Gill v. Whitford. This case is set to determine whether partisan gerrymandering is constitution or not. Partisan gerrymandering is the practice of drawing [congressional] district lines in order to give one party an advantage over the other. The term comes from when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed a redistricting bill in 1812 in a way where the district was shaped like a salamander, hence the portmanteau "gerrymander." Two main methods of gerrymandering are concentrating the opponent's voters into one district ("packing") or by spreading out the opponent's votes throughout multiple districts ("cracking"). In the case of Gill v. Whitford, the contention is that the Republicans in Wisconsin drew the district lines in such a way to provide the Republicans more seats in the state assembly than the Democrats.

The plaintiffs are arguing using a method calculating what is referred to as the "efficiency gap" (see more here for further details). The efficiency gap is calculated by taking the difference between "wasted votes" (i.e., votes beyond what are necessary to win an election) for each party and dividing that difference by the total number of votes. Anything beyond 7 percent would show that one party is getting a wasted-vote advantage, and would [based on their argument] be gaining undue advantage. The defendants are arguing that the efficiency gap not only fails to take in such traditional criteria as contiguity and compactness, but also that the redistricting ought to be challenged on a district-by-district basis. This Supreme Court case will be important because it will determine how congressional districts will be drawn in the future. The question is whether we have a case of politicians drawing district lines in such a way where politicians choose their constituents instead of constituents choosing their politicians.

As the Washington Post points out, 83 percent of the decline in swing districts between 1997 and 2017 was due to the political evolution of the American voter (i.e., it had nothing to do with redistricting). What this means is that the Republican's rise to power in 2010 did not have to do with gerrymandering. However, the solidification of the Republican hold in Congress is being maintained by gerrymandering. This, of course, is to insulate themselves from competition and insure their incumbency. This makes sense if the lines are drawn in their favor: it would become more expensive for a challenger to campaign in that district. Conversely, even in districts that are dominated by one party, there is still evidence of there being competitiveness within the primary election (Hirano and Snyder, 2014Abramowitz et al., 2006). Furthermore, the effects of gerrymandering are exacerbated by the fact that voting is not based on issues or candidates like it used to be; it is based on parties.

There is also a question of how much it has polarized legislators. One can argue that gerrymandering has a negligible effect on Congressional polarization (McCarty et al., 2009), which would mean that the polarization is because of how Democrats and Republicans represent moderate districts. Even if the districts are drawn to be more heterogeneous and competitive, the impact on polarization would be minimal. Some, however, disagree about the polarization, and argue that gerrymandering causes more polarized politicians to be elected (Caughey et al., 2017). In terms of polarization, gerrymandering deviates the results away from broader statewide attitudes (Mattingly and Vaughn, 2014). And to think none of this gets into how gerrymandering makes creating third parties all the more difficult.

Additionally, I have to wonder how much of an advantage the parties have had as a result of gerrymandering. Historically speaking, fair districts have been the norm, not the exception. More to the point, there has been a roughly even balance of wasted votes from both parties (Stephanopolous and McGhee, 2014), which would mean that gerrymandering is not as bad as perceived. Other good news: gerrymandering does not increase the rate of incumbency (Friedman and Holden, 2009).

While gerrymandering is not the cause of all political woes, there are still enough problems where it needs to be reformed, regardless of the party that is doing the gerrymandering. Gerrymandering invites more overt corruption, especially when our governance should be representative of the people. The question is how does one reform the redistricting process. One facet that will make this Supreme Court case messier is that there are other measures of a gerrymander, which implies that there is no obvious system that gives people the optimal representation. The Supreme Court is going to have to sift through a question that is not just about politics, but also mathematics and cartography. The two main questions are who draws the lines and how they should be drawn. There ought to be such traditional criteria as being contiguous, compact, and congruent. There is the question of whether or not an independent commission is a good idea because of the mixed results (Henderson et al., 2017).

Ultimately, the Gill case has major ramifications. If the Supreme Court defines the "efficiency gap" as a principled and objective manner of drawing district lines, then Gill v. Whitford will change electoral politics for the foreseeable future.


Monday, October 9, 2017

LIHEAP: Maybe the Government Has a Role in Subsidizing Heating...at Least In the Short-Term

Now that it's Fall, I am reminded that wintertime is not that far off. I live in a place where winters are nowhere near as bad when I was living in Wisconsin. I remember that one winter in Wisconsin, it reached -30ºF, and that was without wind chill. Without having an adequate enough of a heating system, my guess is that I would not have made it through that winter or any other winter. I would hardly consider myself rich, but at the same time, I have always had access to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) when I needed it. There are some who do not have such access or have a harder time paying for energy during the winter or summer. This is where LIHEAP comes in.

In 1981 under the Reagan Administration, the United States Congress created LIHEAP, the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program. The purpose of LIHEAP is to provide assistance to households that pay a disproportionately high amount in meeting their immediate home energy needs. LIHEAP is currently managed by the Health and Human Services' (HHS) Administration for Children and Families (ACF). In its most recent LIHEAP report to Congress, the ACF pointed out that in 2014, LIHEAP helped 5.7 million families with heating and 673,000 with cooling. There is also the case to be made that LIHEAP helps the most vulnerable. 90 percent of LIHEAP households either have children, disabled individuals, or senior citizens. This suggests not only this directly helps many low-income households, but that it helps those who are disadvantaged.

The economic theory that would support having LIHEAP in the first place is the market failure of a negative externality. The idea here is that on its own, the market fails to provide an adequate output level of affordable energy for people to make it through arduous seasons. The LIHEAP subsidy is supposed to push private demand up to social demand, thereby creating greater social benefit. Given where I lie on the political spectrum, I used to take the opinion of "there isn't a subsidy out there I like." The reason is that the government's attempt to subsidize comes with unintended consequences, and usually makes things worse. In 2014, I came across the first subsidy I did like: the birth control subsidy. At that moment, I realized that it is more prudent to look at subsidies on the individual level instead of assuming a generalization (even if it is true) because an exception might come along. The question here is whether the LIHEAP subsidy falls under the exception of being a helpful subsidy or not.

I started to ask myself this question when I read this policy brief from the Urban Institute entitled "Eliminating LIHEAP would leave poor families in the cold." What makes it difficult to ascertain the impacts is that the ACF has not conducted an evaluation of any kind since 2005. And even that 2005 evaluation was a case study, and not a nation-level evaluation. We do, however, have a study showing that cutting LIHEAP would decrease energy security amongst low-income households by 17 percent (Murray and Mills, 2014), which would indicate that LIHEAP actually helps out those in need. Plus, the Center of Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University estimates that 200,000 would transition into poverty as a result of eliminating LIHEAP.

There is a concern over fraud rates. A 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the fraud rate for LIHEAP was 9 percent. With a program that cost nearly $3.4 billion for FY2017 (see LIHEAP funding history), that comes out to about $305 million. Urban Institute questions whether the fraud rate is still that high because it asserts that improvements on verification and monitoring have been made in the past seven years (e.g., improved program monitoring data in May 2017). Assuming that these initiatives have decreased fraud, that means fraud is less prevalent of an issue.

So here we have a program that is relatively well-targeted and actually provides the service it promises to provide. Sure it could use some tweaks, but generally, LIHEAP is doing pretty well for itself. Since successfully providing a service is a rarity in the world of public policy, I would consider that enough for government to play a role in subsidizing heating. However, my main issue with LIHEAP is that it does not address why energy costs are growing at a faster rate than wage growth (also see here). The subsidy simply provides a cash transfer to help low-income households with their utility bills. My contention is that such a subsidy could be contributing to higher energy costs. The reason for this concern is looking at how the U.S. government subsidizes college tuition. Federal subsidies are the primary culprit for rising college tuition costs because it's a demand-side subsidy, and that contributes to rising costs. Granted, LIHEAP is nowhere near as large or prevalent as federally subsidized student loans, but it should make one pause.

Even so, we need to ask why energy costs growing this quickly in the first place. This certainly is a discussion for another time and another blog entry, but we need a better focus on bringing energy efficiency to low-income housing so their energy bills can go down. If we cannot address this issue, LIHEAP is at best a temporary bandage over an increasingly large problem. By finding ways to provide energy at a lower cost can we solve the main issue LIHEAP is trying to mitigate.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Las Vegas Shooting: Why Mental Illness Is a Poor Target for Gun Violence

Las Vegas experienced the worst mass shooting in recent history this week. Stephen Paddock fired an automatic weapon into a crowd of people at a country music festival. It nearly 60 dead and over 500 injured. Many people have been speculating as to why Paddock would do something so horrible. We are still unclear on motive as of date, but one of the running theories is that Paddock might have been mentally ill. Although Paddock did not show any signs of mental illness before, his father, Benjamin Hoskins Paddock, was a psychopathic robber. There is an argument to be made that psychopathy and other mental disorders have a genetic component to it. Even if it is not the sole factor, it would not be a surprise if mental illness played a role in it. In response to the Las Vegas shooting, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan advocated for mental health reform. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has also taken this approach in the past of addressing mental health over gun control. Most Americans think that mental illness is a major cause of mass shootings (Gallup). Since there plausibly will be a conversation about mental illness and gun ownership in the weeks to come, I might as well ask the question: how much would addressing mental illness affect rates of violence?

The argument for addressing mental health reform in response to mass shootings goes something like this. A normal, mentally stable individual would not commit such an act. In mass shootings, the percent of shooters with mental illness range from 11 percent to 22 percent. By addressing mental illness and better providing access to mental health facilities, we can better prevent gun violence in the United States. Here are a few issues I take with the argument:
  1. We like to focus on mass shootings as representative of gun violence in America, but the truth is that mass shootings account for a small fraction of gun violence in the United States. Historically, mass shootings have accounted for 1.2 percent of gun homicides. Let's not forget that gun homicides only account for about a third of gun deaths, which means that mass shootings only account for about 0.4 percent of gun deaths
  2. Between 2001 and 2010, only 5 percent of gun homicides were committed by those with a mental illness (Metzl et al., 2015). Most gun violence is caused by something other than mental illness (Swanson et al., 2015). Since most people who are violent do not have a mental illness, it has to make one wonder about efficacy of targeting mental illness.
  3. According to one epidiomelogical study, eliminating the adverse effects of mental illness would only reduce violence by 4 percent (Swanson et al., 2015). Much like most people who are violent don't have a mental illness, most people with a mental illness are not violent. Only about 4 percent of people who have mental illness are violent (Swanson et al., 2014; Stuart, 2004).
  4. This assumes that we can target the dangerous individuals through better mental health access. There is research that shows that risk prediction works better for low-risk individuals than high-risk individuals (Fazel et al., 2012).
The criminal use of firearms is a violation of the nonaggression axiom. Protecting citizens against rights-violating actions can easily be construed as a legitimate role of the government, even for those who advocate for limited government. The libertarian Cato Institute believes that using mental health reform could help individuals, provided that the mental health assistance applies to those who could legitimately cause harm and also make sure that civil rights are protected in the process. The APA agrees that the intervention should be specifically targeted for those who possess behaviors for increased likelihood of violence, as opposed to generally targeting those who need mental health treatment. Plus, voluntary mental health treatment is more cost-efficient in the long-run.

My issue with trying to target mental illness to lower gun violence is that it lacks a coherent risk-identification strategy. Additionally, most violent people don't have a mental illness and most people with mental illness don't commit violence. The connection between mental health and violence is tenuous at best (Metzl and MacLeish, 2015). I am worried about further stigmatization of mental illness when mental health access is just as important, and in some cases more important, than physical health. I am also worried that such a targeting would discourage individuals from getting treatment for mental health issues, which would cause all sorts of social costs. Pouring all those resources into a major mental health reform effort to lower violence would be low-yield and ineffective. Mental health reform should take place, but given the lack of correlation between mental illness and gun violence, mental health reform and gun reform should be analyzed and enacted separately.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Another "Medicare for All" Bill From Bernie Sanders, Another Attempt at Single-Payer Failure

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That quote is commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, but today, I would like to apply the content of the quote to Bernie Sanders. Sanders loves clinging to the failed idea of socialism. He wants to provide free college. He thinks that breaking up big banks will help (it won't). He even mistakenly believes that Denmark is socialist when in fact it is even more of a free-market nation than the United States. But there is one idea of his that doesn't want to die: single-payer healthcare. Last week, Sanders introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2017. Unlike his failed attempt to introduce a single-payer healthcare bill back in 2013, this Act received the backing of 15 Democratic Senators. Single-payer healthcare is gaining traction in this country, and seeing how the fight over Obamacare has gone, it is not difficult to see why. Plus, there are those on the Left who think that if we centralize the buying power into the federal government, we can bring healthcare costs down and improve the quality of healthcare.

This should be a shorter blog entry because this is not the first time I covered the topic of single-payer healthcare. In 2013, I looked at single-payer through an economic theory lens and it wasn't flattering. In November 2016, I examined Colorado's referendum for a statewide single-payer healthcare system, and it was as unflattering as it was costly. Most relevantly, I wrote a piece back in January 2016 that not only analyzed the three most prominent cases of single-payer healthcare (and even these countries feature some role for private insurance), but also scrutinized the "Medicare for All" plan that Sanders proposed while on the presidential campaign trail. Although I was staunchly opposed to his "Medicare for All" bill in 2016, there is still a theoretical possibility that Sanders worked out the kinks. Let's take a brief look.

While single payer comes off as alluring, the biggest concern is that of cost. Sanders doesn't have a clear idea of how this will exactly be funded, which should be a red flag right there. However, he has a list of options of how to finance "Medicare for All," which primarily consists of a list of taxes on the rich that we can increase. Since he is unsure as to how exactly he is going to fund it, I am going to avoid (at least for the time being) comparing his financing options currently versus who he proposed back in 2016. What I can say is that if Sanders, by some miracle, were able to pass all the proposed policy alternatives, it would generate $16.2 trillion in tax revenue. All of this assumes, of course, we take Sanders' estimates at face value, which is not something I would do given how he was so off base back in 2016. Since we don't know how Sanders would finance "Medicaid for All" yet, it is premature to officially say whether his bill is fiscal insolvency. However, if estimates from his 2016 proposal are any indication, this bill is not insolvent. According to the Left-leaning Urban Institute, Sanders' 2016 proposal would have cost $32 trillion, which would potentially be a shortfall of over $15 trillion!

Let's think of the cost in another way. Medicare's cost curve is already unacceptable (Steurele, 2015). The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) project that the trust fund for Medicare is to be depleted by 2029. Looking at other countries, implementing single-payer did not keep costs down, but rather expanded the cost curve. Colorado and California had similar issues when trying to implement single-payer healthcare. Sanders' home state of Vermont could not pass a single-payer bill because, "surprise, surprise," single-payer healthcare does not contain costs in theory or in practice. Increasing the aggregate demand for healthcare without working on increasing the supply would actually increase prices: who would have thought? The Bernie Sanders of 1987 surely understood that concept (see below). What happened to him in the past 30 years with regards to healthcare reform is beyond me.


This is more an exercise of one Jew kvetching about another Jew's incapability of understanding the basics of economics than it is anything else. However, I do worry, not because I think this bill will pass. Given the Republican majority in both chambers of Congress, I'm not worried about that. Plus, the recent Obamacare debates show that the American people are leery of drastic changes to the healthcare system. Sanders' bill could be positioning the Democratic Party for whenever it gets itself back into power. What is scariest about this bill, though, is how far to the Left the Democratic Party is moving. My liberal friends often complain about how far to the Right the Republicans have moved, but they should also take a look at the party they are most likely to be sympathetic towards. This is scary because the government has botched up Obamacare so badly, not to mention single-payer systems such as the Veterans Affairs (VA) or Indian Health Affairs (IHA). Why should I trust the government with more power over healthcare when it has proven its incapacity to run healthcare exchanges or adequately provide health under the VA or the IHA?

If it does gain enough traction one day, that is what is scary. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the United States is the only major economy facing a sizable increase in public debt burden. The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget illustrates how Sanders' plan would increase the debt-to-GDP ratio nearly 60 points over the next decade (see below). As previously mentioned, we already have issues with affording Medicare, and turning it into a single-payer system would merely exacerbate our debt issues. It is not just an issue of cost. Since Medicare pays doctors far less than private insurers (and therefore are less likely to see Medicare patients), there is also legitimate concern that doctors would refuse to participate in "Medicare for All." As observed with Obamacare, the technical and administrative transitions would be horrendous. However, that is not going to stop the Democrats on pushing something like this.



The truth of the matter is that the Democrats are much more unified on healthcare than the Republicans are. For those of us who want less government involved in the healthcare marketplace, this needs to be a wake-up call. It might be tempting to dismiss single-payer outright since the Democrats don't have a workable plan. That is why alternatives to reform the system are vital. As but one example, the centrist Brookings Institution suggests, in response to Sanders, universal catastrophic coverage. Brookings asserts that it would combine the Left's dream of universal access and the Right's dream of using market forces to best efficient and cost-effective. In any case, if proponents of limited government or a freer healthcare market don't come up with something, we could wake up in an America that not only has healthcare completely controlled by government, but ends up being more bloated and inefficient than it ever has been before.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Why the Extra Ne'ilah Service on Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is not only a day of fasting, atonement, and introspection. It is a day for a whole lot of religious services. On normal days, there are Shacharit, Mincha, Ma'ariv. On Shabbat and the holidays, there is the extra Mussaf service. But with Yom Kippur, there is an extra service on top of Shabbat: Ne'ilah (נעילה). Literally meaning "locking," Ne'ilah comes at the end of Yom Kippur. Why do we need an extra service at the end? I know that there is not much to do on Yom Kippur aside from praying, but I would like think there is more to the Ne'ilah service than having us kill time at the end of services because "there's nothing better to do." So what is the significance of Ne'ilah?

For many traditional Jews, the Ne'ilah service is about having one last chance to repent for what one has done in the previous year. Through G-d's mercy do we get an extra opportunity to do teshuvah. A verse that makes its way into the Ne'ilah service is Isaiah 43:25, "I, just I, am He who wipes your transgressions. For my own sake, I will not remember." This notion is in alignment of the traditional understanding of the Hebrew word נעילה, which has referred to one of two things (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 4:1).

One is that it refers to the locking or closing of the Heavenly Gates. That argument falls short since the Gate of Tears is never closed. The second closing could correspond to the closing of the Temple, but as R. Arthur Green brings up in Yom Kippur Readings, that correspondence is not impressive. It would be more accurate to say that what is closing is our hearts. The High Holy Day season takes a lot out of us emotionally. According to R. Green, Ne'ilah is that time where we realize that we move from supplication to making peace.

What we can glean from R. Green's interpretation is that Ne'ilah is not just about what we have done, but also about the potential we can achieve in the upcoming year. I think the forward-looking focus is another way of looking at this service for three reasons:
  1. Going back to the Isaiah 43:25, the following verse (43:26) gives us some context. G-d is asking that we "reason together" (נשפטה יחד) in order that we may be justified (למען תצדק). According to this interpretation, G-d does not just want us to be penitent for our wrongs, but also ask how to make things right. Per these passages from Isaiah in the context of the Ne'ilah service, it is a reminder that G-d wants to forgive us. If G-d is capable of forgiving us, shouldn't we also be able to forgive ourselves? When we reach that stage, we can better move forward. 
  2. R. Yisrael Salanter pointed out that most people do teshuvah on the High Holy Days, while the more pious do so on the month of Elul. R. Salanter went as far as saying that we should do teshuvah right after Ne'ilah services are over. R. Salanter's main point was that teshuvah is a year-round endeavor. To take R. Salanter's words a step further, Ne'ilah is supposed to be that extra push that gets us going in moving forward for the upcoming year. 
  3. In each of the Yom Kippur services is a Viduy (וידוי), a confession. In the Ne'ilah service, we read through the Ashamnu. However, unlike the other services, the Ne'ilah Viduy does not have an "Al Chet," the longer confession within the Viduy that mentions specific sins. The "Al Chet" is replaced with two new paragraphs: "Atah noten (אתה נותן)" and "Atah hidalvta (אתה הבדלת)." Within these two paragraphs, the only specific sin mentioned is theft. My rabbi, R. Shmuel Herzfeld, mentions this in his book Food for the Spirit. Why, according to my rabbi, is theft the only specific sin mentioned? As R. Joseph Soloveitchik explained, every sin we commit is really a sort of theft against G-d. When we err, we violate our purpose on earth. R. Herzfeld expounds upon this by saying that when we steal from G-d, we have lost our focus and forgot why we are here. We read this passage to remind us about our responsibility in this world and what we are meant to do (Herzfeld, p. 92). Reciting this towards the end of Ne'ilah is meant to bring our focus on what is to come. 
The Ne'ilah service is important because it is that segue between the High Holidays period and the New Year. It is what connects our past to our future. Yes, we are meant to look back and make up for our shortcomings. However, looking back only does so much good if we do not take it in the context of looking forward. Amend for past mistakes to be sure, but also learn from those mistakes to propel yourself forward. As R. Jonathan Sacks brings up in his Yom Kippur machzor, Ne'ilah is not about asking "Are you perfect?" but "Can you grow?" That is what Ne'ilah is about: take that lesson and be the best version of you that you can be!