Before the Closing of the Gates

The High Holy Day season offers several potent images and metaphors. The shofar, the ram, apples and honey, white clothing and Torah finery all feature prominently. Another compelling image is that of gates, specifically the gates of heaven through which our sincere and heartfelt prayers may pass.

The entire concluding service of Yom Kippur is called Ne’ilah, the title derived from the urgency of the closing gates. An 11th century piyyut (liturgical poem) introduces a powerful moment in the service when the congregation rises and the Holy Ark remains open for a good 40 minutes: “As we pour out our souls, wipe away our sins and denials, craft forgiveness for us, b’sha’at haneilah (at this hour of the closing gates).

Numerous stories and traditions contextualize and problematize this moment. Perhaps the most famous story is one of a “dull-witted” boy who, without the ability to participate in the Hebrew prayers, plays a loud blast on his flute. The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Hassidut, upon hearing the boy’s musical note, says: “With the sound of this flute the child lifted up all the prayers and eased my burden…. Because of the strength of his longing he played the note of his heart truly, without any distraction, for the sole sake of the Name of God. 

Menachem Katz of the Friedberg Manuscripts Project in Jerusalem points out the flute isn’t simply an ostensibly lesser version of the holy words, but a violation of the holy day since musical instruments are traditionally not permitted in shul on yuntif. The story is all the more powerful because it recalls a Talmudic tradition that the flute was in fact, in ancient times, played in liturgical contexts on Shabbat and festivals. “…Human beings have a basic need to communicate with God,” writes Katz. This may be accomplished through various modes, including a musical instrument or a child’s inchoate cry. From the perspective of the Hassidic tale, this elementary spiritual need should neither be ignored nor hindered, even on the Sabbath [or Yom Kippur].”

Last summer in this column, I referenced a passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Kamma 7b) in which the Rabbis discuss the question of gated communities. Cities were traditionally built with walls and gates, including of course the holy city of Jerusalem. In the 19th century, residents of Misheknot Sh’ananim, commissioned by Sr. Moses Montefiore as the first Jewish neighborhood outside the city walls, would return to the Old City before sunset when the gates would be secured. And ancient exurban communities or neighborhoods, like modern ones, sometimes sported walls or fences with gates. 

The Rabbis of the Talmud sought to strike a balance between legitimate security needs and the equally legitimate need to foster open and inclusive societies. (Their discussion is not wholly dissimilar to the one many Jewish institutions are currently having after a year of domestic and international terror directed at synagogues and other minority religious institutions). The Rabbis seem to feel it’s possible to have a gatehouse designed so that real security threats are deterred but the needy poor (and presumably welcome guests) are given access. Interestingly, this does not seem to be accomplished only by use of a guard which is impractical in many circumstances. Rather, the Talmud implies that there is a method of entry known to beggars but not to brigands. 

Questions of justice are almost always related to questions of access. Who comes in? Who is kept out? What is the cost of having gates and gatekeepers? Can our boundaries and communal behaviors be designed to prevent bad actors but welcome strangers and guests as Abraham and Sarah did to their tent – arguably the very first beit k’nesset. The answers are not simple. But the story of the boy flute-player on Yom Kippur reminds us that communal prayers can be answered not only by paying attention to conventional wisdom but also by listening to our hearts.

A version of this post can be found here and in the Sept/Oct print edition of Jmore.

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