A line from the Ne’ilah service haunts me, and not just because of its melody: ‘Open unto us the gates’, we plead, ‘at the hour of the closing of the gates’. This prayer sets out a challenge which lies at the core of our spiritual, communal and national lives.
The literal meaning of the prayer is that the great day is close to its end; the sun is in the treetops, Yom Kippur is almost over and the doors of the Temple will shortly be shut. We ask God not to let night fall or the gates be locked before our prayers and hearts have entered in. But if we treat the words as an image for life itself, their metaphorical meanings are endless.
There are always pressures urging us to close doors. One has only to think of the inner doors of the conscience and heart. That life is all but unbearable for the person who feels for the suffering of everybody else is a fact already acknowledged in the Talmud. The person who fails to protect their heart takes the constant risk of having it wounded. All too often cruelty, callousness or pain teaches us from childhood or early adult onwards that it may be best to hide one’s heart behind a thick skin. Tragically, we ourselves often end up losing touch with our own feelings as a result and become alienated from our truest sensitivities. Yet, with great courage, we pray ‘Open unto us the gates’: Open our hearts; teach us to feel the world, both the beauty, the love and the pain it proffers; teach us tenderness of heart; teach us to listen to conscience; teach us to be attentive and sensitive to others and to respond to all living beings as generously as we can. This openness is the true secret of the path of remorse, repentance and atonement.
There are also pressures to close the doors of our communities. The outside world is difficult, sometimes hostile. We want to feel safe, among our own, secure in our sense of commonality with those who pray on either side of us. Differences within our community challenge us and are prone to make us defensive. Yet we rightly find the courage to ask God to open our gates. Who do we want to come through them? This must surely be our answer: May those who have pain in their hearts feel at home here among us; may those who often bear in isolation their mourning, fears, or anguish for the health of those they love experience welcome and companionship amongst us and sense that their feelings are often paralleled in the privacy of other hearts. May they know that they quietly share from and contribute to the spiritual growth of us all. May our doors not just be open, but feel open, to those who are single, those who are married, those who are widowed, and those who are divorced; to those who have children and those who do not, and to those who suffer in their children’s struggles with illness; to those who are gay; to those who are fortunate to be able bodied, to those with disabilities, and to those who were once so fit they ran three times a week, but now have to walk with a frame. May the values and practice of our Judaism guide us all, purify us all and together bring us closer to God.
There are pressures too to close the gates of our peoples and countries. We may implicitly reject those whose different faith, nationality or colour is felt to challenge our own identity. The perceived foreignness of the ‘other’ is liable to make us want to retreat amongst ‘our own’. We may feel threatened. Sometimes threats are real; not every action or ideology is inoffensive to our own ideals of democracy, freedom, equality and peace. There is always a need for thoughtful judgment. Nevertheless we pray that the gates should be opened; the gates of understanding and co-operation between the faith and ethnic groups which compose our country and the gates of peace and justice between states; the gates of dialogue and debate between the denominations of each faith and the gates of good will, wisdom and compassion between different faiths. The shutting of any of these gates is the closure of a door of hope for humanity itself.
In the coming year may God give us the faith, courage and sensitivity to be among those who open gates: ‘Open unto us the gates at the hour of the closing of the gates’.