Knocking on Heaven’s door

It is said that on one occasion, in a time of drought, a Rabbi gathered a minyan to pray for rain. 

After a few minutes, someone whispered in the Rabbi’s ear, that a large number of the minyan’s participants were known thieves. 

“It doesn’t matter”, said the Rabbi. “If the gates of mercy don’t open, we already have “experts” who can force them open.….

One of the most recurring themes in the liturgy of Yom Ha-Kipurim, is the concept of “Gate”.

The list is long:

Avinu Malkenu, open the gates of heaven to our prayer”, we say repeatedly at the end of each prayer. “May the gates of the Temple speedily open”, we pray before the Kedushah of Neilah and shortly after that we beg “Open a gate for us, at the moment the gate closes”.

But we don’t need “experts” to force the gates open. Because the Sovereign of all, with His infinite goodness, gives us this heavenly gift called Yom Ha-Kipurim year after year.

The Argentinian writer Alejandro Dolina, once said that the gates, on opening and closing, have the unique ability of transformation. In fact, says Dolina, a gate that never opens is not a gate, but a wall. And a gate that never shuts is not a gate, but a hole.

This is what transforms Yom Ha-Kipurim into the holiest day of the year. We believe that this day is “Et Ratzon” (an opportune time for prayer). A day in which the gates of heaven open wide so that we can re-unite with the divine spark that burns within our hearts. And after the fast, the gates will close once again. 

It is not a wall, nor a hole. It’s a Gate.  

In this sense, Yom HaKipurim is a day on which heaven and earth unite.

According to the Torah, heaven and earth approach each other two times. The first time was during the generation of the Tower of Babel, towards the end of Parashat Noach. The second time was in the dream of Yaacov’s ladder at the beginning of Parashat Va-Yetze.

Regarding the Tower of Babel, the Torah teaches us that they said to one another: “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens” (Bereshit 11, 4).

With regard to Yaacov, it is said that “a ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward” (Bereshit 28, 12).

However, a crucial difference exists with regard to the location of these heavenly gates.

Professor Avigdor Shinan explains that Yaacov’s dream proposes an alternative to the ancient Babylonian belief that the gates of the gods were found in heaven (that is, in fact, the etymology of the word Bab-El or Babylon: Gate of the gods).

The Babylonians believed that only by ascending could one reach the gods, and that the gate of the gods was found in the firmament. The story of the Tower of Babel narrates humanity’s failed attempt to achieve this.

Yaacov, for his part, arrives at the opposite conclusion.

After waking from his dream, he says: “Surely, the Lord is present in this place and I did not know!  This is none other than the abode of G-d and this is the gate of the heavens” (Bereshit 28, 16-17).

That is exactly what we will try to do during the twenty five holiest hours of the Hebrew calendar.

Yaale Tachanunenu….May our supplication ascend.

Yaale Kolenu…may our voice ascend

With our prayers, here on earth, we will build a ladder that unites heaven and earth, like in Yaacov’s dream.

But the gate to heaven will be here, below, “in this place”…in our interpersonal relationships, in the link that we create with those close to us in order to fulfill the purpose for which we were created 5778 years ago.

And in the same way as the gates of heaven open during this day, Yom Ha-Kipurim invites us to force open those terrestrial gates that confront us and that we cannot bring ourselves to cross.

Because we do not always have the courage or spiritual means to do so..

In a land at bitter war, there was a frightening king. Whenever he captured prisoners, he did not kill them but had them brought to a large dark hall with walls of stone, and in which there were a group of his army’s archers. 

His archers were on one side of this hall, and on the other wall was a door, closed with a bar, made of heavy planks on which terrifying images were drawn. The king used to order the prisoners to form a circle, and said to them: 

“You can choose between a rapid and sure death by being shot by my archers’ arrows, or you can go through that heavy door which I will bar as soon as you go through it!” 

Everyone chose a quick death of the king’s archers. 

When the war was over, a soldier who had long served the king, addressed his sovereign saying: “Sir, may I ask you a question? What is behind that frightening and dreadful door?” 

“Go and see for yourself!” answered the king. 

Then the brave soldier fearfully opened the door, and as he did so, the rays entered and lightened up the interior. 

He finally discovered, completely taken aback, that the terrifying door opened onto a road that led to his freedom…

How many gates do we not open for fear of change?

For many it might be, for fear of failure, or of flying too high without a security net at our feet.

“I will open a gate”, G-d seems to be saying on Yom Ha-Kipurim. “And what about you??”

The question about which gates we would like to open in the course of the coming year, should be an integral part of our self examination on these holydays.

The gates of heaven will close after twenty five hours of fasting and prayer, but there –facing us- will be other gates begging for the key that can open them.

And if there is no key, we will do as the “experts” do…by force!

Because only by crossing these thresholds will we have what is necessary for our growth as human beings, as Jews and as a Community.

“Bring us back to You, oh Lord, and we shall return, renew our days as of old”.

Guemar Chatimah Tovah!

About the Author
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski is the Rabbi at Kehillat Netzach Israel, the Masorti (Conservative) congregation in Ashkelon.