"We aim toward lofty heights but temptation overcomes us," the white-robed rabbi intoned the prayer as a few latecomers hurried to thei assigned seats in the spacious gold-walled synagogue.

Only a few moments earlier, as the last rays of the afternoon sun lit the sky, the worshipers had lingered in the broad plaza outside Adas Israel Synagogue, chatting and exchanging greetings for the Jewish New Year.

As the Tuesday evening shadows lenghtened they drifted inside, where the men paused to pop a yarmulke on their heads and a white, blue-striped prayer shawl about their shoulders. Here and there, as the worshipers moved to their assigned seats, a man stood in his place, clutching his prayer shawl and swayed back and fourth lost in private prayer.

But for the most part, members of the gathering congregation continued their amiable visiting as they awaited the geginning of the most holy annual observance of their 5,000-year-old faith - Yom Kippur. Many would take neither foo nor drink until the next sundown, 24 hours later.

"Yom Kippur," Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz had briefed a visitor earlier, "is a time of cleansing of sins, of introspection, of atonement, of analysis."

Now he was reminding his congregation - some members of which probably had not darkened the synagogue door since last Yom Kippur - what they were there for.

"This is a time of coming together . . . of searching," he said. "Before this 24 hours has passed, i pray there will be better self-understanding . . . so that we may make the most of our brief span on this earth," e continued.

The prayers and the liturgy of the three-hour service Tuesday night continued to make the same point. Many of the prayers and readings came from the Bible, but in the newer prayer books of both Conservative and Reform congregations, the age-old thoughts are expressed "in jargon contemporary persons understand," the rabbi explained.

Yom Kippur, also called the Day of Atonement marks the conclusion of the 10-day period in the Jewish calendar known as the Days of Awe, which began with Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year.

According to Jewish belief, the Book of Life, which was opened on Rosh Hashanah, is closed on Yom Kippur and one's name is inscribed for good or ill for the coming year.

"It's not a matter of predestination; we believe people have free choice," the rabbi explained earlier, adding that the Book of LIfe concept is in part, at least, a metaphor.

"We don't believe it is decreed who shall die and who shall live during the year" he explained, "but by prayer and repentance and the doing of good deeds, we can affect the quality of life," he said.

Although Yom Kippur observance focuses primarily on the individual and his relationships to God and his fellow man, a quick survey of farea rabbis indicated that two political-historical themes - Israel and the World War II Holocaust - would appear in almost every Yom Kippur sermon.

For many congregations - as at Adas Israel - appeals from the pulpit for American Jews to support Israel financially were integrated into the service.

Rabinowitz recounted for his congregation his dismay last summer when he discovered that the British Museum had no separate room or department for its extensive Jewish collection, as it has for virtually every other culture.

Despite 5,000 years of history, he lamented, the Jewish people are "invisible" to the British Museum, as they are in most textbooks on ancient history, he said.

"History is always written by the victors and we as Jews are not rich in victories," he said. "The Jew is invisible because he lost too many wars."

But the creation of the modern nation of Israel has changed that, he continued. "Whatever else Israel has meant to the world, it has meant we are no longer an invisble people."

Holding up a blue and white folder, he continued, Israel must not be invisible. Every person should take this in hand and respond . . ."

The folders, which had been placed on every seat before the service began, already carried the name of the seat holder (seats for the high holiday services are reserved in advance.) They were ingeniously designed so that worshipers, simply by folding down one of eight precut tabs marked with amounts ranging from $250 to $25,000, could indicate their pledge to buy Israel bonds.