ROSH HASHANAH (EREV) — 5773 — Standing at the Golden Gate

28/09/2012 at 09:35 Leave a comment

“The Golden Gate”


Erev Rosh haShanah — 5773

Neil F. Blumofe

16 September 2012

On the plane on a recent return from Israel, I was sitting next to two young men – a haredi man (quite religious bedecked in a black hat and frockcoat) and also a young man who was hiloni (secular), who was bareheaded and open-collared and quite passionate about science and the potential of a cure for cancer that could be discovered with diligent research.  As the three of us spoke, it became quite clear that I was a combination of the two – I looked more like the scientist, with my purple guayabera shirt, yet I was wearing a kippah and eating the kosher in flight food, preordered.  The three of us had an open conversation – after mentioning that I was a rabbi, both men were surprised that there were committed Jews, especially out of the New York metropolitan area, on such a continuum – that it was not an either/or proposition about dress, decorum, or belief.

We began to speak about Jewish life in America – specifically in Texas – or rather, outside of Israel and Brooklyn.  The conversation was in English, Hebrew, and, as happened a couple of times in the conversation – there was a pause until the appropriate Yiddish word could be found.  While I was regarded with a bit of initial suspicion by both men, it was telling that we all realized that a relationship with our common tradition was bigger and more complex than each of our individual paths.  And while it was difficult to agree on much in terms of accepted practice – the fact that we were sitting together for over eleven hours enabled us every so often to pick up where our conversation had ebbed, and ask for clarification or further explanation about particular matters that we were considering – this experience was both exhausting and personally rewarding.

I don’t know if the world became more clear or radically shifted as a result of our conversation – yet from my perspective, certainly there was more curiosity from both men regarding one who chooses to stand firmly in this world while committing oneself to traditional Jewish practice. I believe that the normative idea of who is Jewish changed imperceptibly on that flight and as we gather this evening in our sanctuary, streaming from our own homes – we too can notice difference and diversity among ourselves.

As we enter this New Year together, we are all scattered in terms of our current economic situation, the tranquility of our personal life, and the tumult or paucity of our belief system.  We may be present this evening out of service to another, or fulfilling a critical act of personal desperation.  We may enjoy our gathering yet be stymied by our prayers – we may want to lift our voices to sing and participate, yet not be confident that our voice will carry or that the appropriate words will form.  More than anything else, we may want a reassuring hand in ours, or a bright smile so delightful, that it will scorch our face – marking it with a lasting connection and a feeling of home.

We all may want something different – something vaguely profound to happen or something concrete – for a certain person to turn and say hello and gut yontif.  An early 20th century Hasidic master, Rabbi Aaron Roth wrote that each of us should not sequester ourselves – that we should seek out company and not be alone, no matter what our pain or reticence to connect.  When we feel that we are falling asleep, a person should go among people who are awake and where a light shines brightly.  In order to thrive, we need each other, and we need each other to be spiritually vibrant, in order that we can say at any moment, achein yeish haShem bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati – surely God is in this place and I did not know it.

May we know the stakes of what we are doing – I ask that we not just slip in here and then slip out again, unnoticed – that we are a mere passerby, as the river of this community flows on.  Rather on this day, when we make it known that our world is renewed again, may we stand tall and awake, and purposefully wade into the water, allowing the depth and the temperature of the water and the churn of the current surprise us.

While we wouldn’t readily admit it – I think the three of us on that airplane saw the illuminated face of the Divine Presence – the shechinah – in each other’s faces and there was gratitude for having shared such an experience.  Tonight can we not see that emblazoned visage captured in the expressions of our neighbors sitting so near to us?  May we encourage each other?  May we depend on each other?  May we truly transform each of us from our variegated places into a single kehillah kedosha (holy community) and may we feel the hotness of another’s shechinah on our faces?

May we not try and convince each other of the rightness of our cause or look upon each other as grist for our mill.  May we find this moment in itself to be reason enough to gather and may our gratitude shine in all that we do.

While in Israel a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to have a day in Jerusalem – and while in Jerusalem, I love to encounter the Old City – bustling with life and with such different and contradictory smells, wares, and truths – years ago, when I was student in Jerusalem, I would walk for hours around the Old City – both within its walls and around its outer perimeter.  I would marvel at the different gates – starting in the Muslim Quarter – passing by Lion’s Gate, and Herod’s and Damascus Gate – turning towards the Christian Quarter and the New Gate and then to the Armenian Quarter – Jaffa Gate and Zion Gate and around to the Jewish Quarter and the Dung Gate – and finally, to the eastern side of the Temple Mount and the sealed Golden Gate.

Despite my relative solitude in that place — not many groups linger at the Golden Gate – I would stand opposite it, transfixed by what the building stones would say if able to speak – this gate – the oldest of the current gates in Jerusalem’s Old City walls – according to our tradition, it is through this gate that the shechinah passed back and forth when the Beit haMikdash was functional and the belief that ultimately this gate will be reopened and the shechinah will again pass freely, led at first by Elijah the prophet, ushering in a redeemed world.

So often, our sacred spaces too seem shut off like the Golden Gate – sacred spaces out in the world and the sacred spaces that are contained deep within us — remarkable and full of promise, yet shuttered and inaccessible.  As we congregate this evening, let us summon and then recognize the force of the shechinah among us and realize that Elijah the prophet is not just an accessory in our tradition.  Rather, Eliahu haNavi will again appear to answer the unanswerable questions – the ones that have perplexed our greatest minds for millennium.

In our sacred texts there is a word, teyku, which is Aramaic for let it stand.  One of the most beautiful concepts in our study of Torah – there are times when our sages plumb an issue and then realize that they can go no farther, with no conclusion reached.  To some, teyku is an abbreviation – each of the letters standing in for Tishbi Yitzretz Kushiyot u’Ba’ayot – which means Elijah the Prophet will resolve difficulties and questions.  Rather than a discouragement, this concept speaks volumes about the honesty and the valorous dedication to forthright learning.

We often invite Elijah to join us at celebrations – most commonly at our Pesach seder and at circumcisions – these happy observances are also when the fate of the world is in balance – our seder has the potential to redeem the world and to bring emancipation for all; and to have a bris demonstrates fidelity and responsibility to our covenant as we rear our children and teach them Torah.  We also have a weekly appointment with Eliyahu haNavi as the Sabbath ends – we invite Elijah to walk with us into the new week – to give us a modicum of protection and companionship as we start again.

We trust Elijah to see beyond ourselves and as we invite this astonishing prophet into our lives, we make a statement about the limits of our own perspectives.  It is said that when God created the world, God began with the attribute of justice – ra’ah sh’ayn haolam mitkayem, yet God soon realized that the world would not be able to exist with such accountability, so God then added the attribute of mercy – shitef bo middat harachamim.  Elijah the Prophet can bridge these two worlds and bind them together – linking us in our disparities and in our contradictions.  As we realize that we might be banging our head against a proverbial wall (or a gate, shut tight), we look around for Elijah to help us gain an additional perspective and keener discernment for mercy.

As we flew back from Israel, I believe that there was an extra passenger on that plane who sat with the three of us – drawing us into conversation and demonstrating that there is a vision of Judaism that exists in deep dialogue with the tradition as it admits the future – a Judaism that glimmers with ever new possibility and a luster of accessibility and profundity.  Tonight, each of us is standing before our own Golden Gate – which is also known as Sha’ar haRachamim, the Gate of Mercy – how is our way blocked, or sealed shut?

There is such activity stirring beyond these thick walls – walls that we have largely built on our own.  Can we distinguish even an outline of the shechinah through the stones?  On these days of Rosh haShanah, can we sound our heartfelt shofar and like the walls of Jericho, have these stones that block us come tumbling down?  Will we then be able to greet Elijah as he comes from the other side, and share conversation, content with a resounding teyku, willing to try again, and again, and again, next time?

Now, at this precious time, for a moment, this sealed gate opens.  At this time all misunderstandings can be suspended, all sadness can be shared and all loneliness can be healed – now we are all standing on common ground, regardless of our sickness, of our age, or of our merit — we have the power to overwhelm this place with our meaning and intention in order to keep this gate open.   Tonight, no matter what occurs in our larger world, there is joy and a fiery hope for what is possible and what can be, as we gather together.  We find warmth and our faces can be scorched in holiness, by each other’s burning light.

There is no reason why this Golden Gate should shut and be sealed again at the end of our High Holydays.  May we find strength and resolve to keep this gate open with our discovery and dedication to mitzvot – with our commitment to acts of lovingkindness and with our voice, found in joy for prayer and expression.  May we look about this sacred gathering place and know, while there is no ready and accessible answer, realize that we are on a good and upright path – as we give ourselves, just for this night, the benefit of the doubt, and as we walk together with Elijah in celebration, as we honor the gift of being present at this time.

Shanah Tovah – May our Gates remain open for a Divine Flow to enter and for us to be changed and encouraged as we stand, present and accounted for.

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