Yom Kippur 5777: Open the Gates of Mercy

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לשנה הבאה בירושלים Next year in Jerusalem! This enthusiastic declaration concludes the most important home ritual in Judaism, the Passover Seder. After hours filled with scripture, songs and symbolic foods designed to reenact the passage from slavery to freedom, we end with the prayer that next year we will celebrate in Jerusalem. The same declaration concludes the most important public ritual in Judaism on this very day of Yom Kippur. After 25 hours of prayer and confession marking the passage from sin to atonement, we will sound תקיעה גדולה on the shofar and sing out, Next year in Jerusalem.
Returning to Jerusalem is linked to our aspirations for freedom and for atonement, but that is not all. In our saddest hour, when as mourners we step away from the grave, our friends line up in two rows and greet us with traditional words of consolation: May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Thinking about Jerusalem is meant to soften the blow of our most painful loss, and yet we also refer to Jerusalem to temper our most exuberant joy. At the end of the wedding ceremony it is customary to recite Psalm 137, אִם אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם, If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour. We then break the glass, recalling the destruction of our ancient Temples, even as we establish a new family and pray that God will dwell with them and bless their home.
Jerusalem serves as an intensifier of Jewish emotions—our greatest joys and sorrows, our individual and collective aspirations, our most keen memories of loss, and our fondest hopes for renewal are all linked to our ancient capital. And although the modern city of Jerusalem confounds any simple description, Jewish imagination still treasures the image of a faithful city, the קריה נאמנה, and even more, of the heavenly city, supernal Jerusalem, ירושלים של מעלה. This idea of a double-decker city, with the blemished urban reality below linked to its ideal ized potential above, is associated with Psalm 121 which speaks of rebuilt Jerusalem as a city that has been linked together, יְרוּשָׁלִַם הַבְּנוּיָה כְּעִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה לָּהּ יַחְדָּו:. Early traditions found in the Aramaic translation of Psalms and then later Midrash and commentary speak of ירושלם דמתבניא ברקיעא, a Jerusalem built in the sky to match the one on earth.
When we walk the streets of Jerusalem today, we may smell garbage, hear unpleasant noises and encounter disturbing people, yet somehow all of that softens a bit as our imaginations take flight in the mountain air, allowing us to anticipate an ideal city and a perfected self.
Visions of rebuilt Jerusalem suffuse our prayers—every service of the day includes a prayer that God, “return in mercy to your city Jerusalem and dwell within it as you promised” ולירושלים עירך ברחמים תשוב. Likewise, the grace after meals, Birkat HaMazon, includes a prayer that God in mercy rebuild Jerusalem.
On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, we imagine the holiest person, the Kohen Gadol, entering the holiest part of the Temple in Jerusalem, and in that potent combination of space, time and service, accomplishing the most astonishing transformation—atonement for the sins of the Jewish people. This is such an important ritual that some 19 centuries since it was last performed, we continue to meditate on the imagery of the Avodah in the Musaf service this afternoon. We are so far away in time, space and experience from the strange rituals that we will describe, and yet they preserve their power. Why? Why does Jerusalem continue to occupy our hopes and dreams?
The first thing to know is that Jews are hardly alone in our devotion to Jerusalem. The astonishing new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is called Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. With hundreds of objects and photos, videos and sounds, this exhibit illustrates the unique appeal of Jerusalem for medieval Christians, Muslims and Jews. One of its insights is that none of the monotheistic faith groups was itself monolithic—Christians were divided among Orthodox and Catholic communities and their many individual religious orders; Muslims were divided among Sunni and Shiite groups, and among ethnic and language differences. The Jews too were divided among Rabbanite and Karaite sectarians, and it was the Karaites who most developed the devotional practices and texts associated with mourning for Zion. Yet all of these peoples of faith were united in their devotion to Jerusalem.
The variety of objects in the Met exhibit is astonishing. From the Christians we see reliquaries and swords, Bibles and books of prayers, sculptures and soaring churches. Muslims beginning in the 7th century with the Umayyad dynasty built in Jerusalem some of their most magnificent edifices, notably the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aksa Mosque. Muslims also developed a literary tradition called the Merits of Jerusalem, Fada’il al-Quds, which praised the value of prayer, fasting and giving charity in Jerusalem. Illuminations from these Arabic and Persian books feature images of Muhammad making his night journey, the Isra, on his magical steed Buraq to the farthest mosque of al Aksa, from where they believe he ascended to heaven.
The Jewish community of Jerusalem in medieval times was exceptionally poor, and thus little ceremonial art remains from their presence. European pilgrims brought jewelry and other art to Jerusalem, but the greatest Jewish treasures of this exhibit are its manuscripts. The JTS Library has loaned many magnificent items, which given our construction project makes the Met a great place to appreciate the treasures of our library, including a letter signed by Maimonides, and a map of the Temple that he drew after visiting its ruins.
The object which most held my interest was a glorious illuminated Mahzor from 13th century Germany, which is on loan from the National Library of Israel. The Mahzor is opened to the beginning of Shaharit for Yom Kippur, which features a special poem for the day. You can see the poem, but not the picture in our aniconic Mahzor Lev Shalem on p.71. This early piyut blesses God who, “opens for us the gates of mercy, giving light to those who await Your forgiveness,” הפותח לנו שערי רחמים ומאיר עיני המחכים לסליחתו.
In the illuminated Mahzor from Worms, the Gates of Mercy are depicted as an idealized image of Jerusalem above the archway, with golden palmettes and acanthus vines twisting down the columns, and two blue lions below, their knotted tails blocking entry to the gates.
I love this prayer that petitions God to open the Gates of Mercy, so that those who wait for God’s forgiveness can be enlightened. The image of gates of mercy seems to be early medieval. In the 9th century Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon, the burial prayer known as צדוק הדין includes an image of angels of mercy opening the gates of mercy to admit the deceased and welcome him to heaven. A geonic responsum ends with a poetic prayer, May it be the will of the glorious king to open for you the gates of mercy, the gates of wisdom, to enlighten your eyes with the light of Torah…. And the late Midrash Tanhuma claims that the gates of prayer are sometimes locked, but the gates of mercy are always open. So it is appropriate today of all days to speak about the Gates of Mercy. But why were they associated with Jerusalem?
In the Mishnah there is a lovely description of the Temple gates. Apparently the custom was to enter the right door on the southern steps, which you can visit to this day, and circle to the right, coming back out to exit the other gate. However, mourners were instructed to enter on the left and circle against the flow of traffic. People would notice this and ask them why they were walking backwards. The person would reply, “Because I am a mourner.” And the others would respond, “May the One who dwells in this house comfort you.”
Later rabbinic texts like Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer and Sofrim expanded on this idea, imagining that the architecture of Solomon’s Temple was employed not only to offer comfort to mourners, but also congratulations to newlyweds. Although these texts do not use the expression, it is easy to imagine that these gates of the ancient Temple could have been known as the Gates of Mercy, שערי רחמים, and that it was this image of a perfect city, a place where not only the physical but also the emotional needs of the people are accommodated, came to be our vision for Jerusalem. It was a place to see and be seen, to comfort and be comforted, to celebrate and express the best of our humanity.
Is this your experience of Jerusalem—a perfect city, a place of mercy, of care for the physical and emotional needs of its people? Sadly, we are all too aware of ירושלים של מטה, the very real troubles of the lower Jerusalem. Just this week two people were murdered in the vicinity of Ammunition Hill, and there has been a steady if low level of terror incidents over the past year. I spent most of last December in Israel and will be returning there for a shorter visit this December. As I drove into Jerusalem last time, an attack had just occurred to my right, and I watched as ambulances raced to a bus shelter where a car had rammed into a crowd waiting for their bus. I attended a Bar Mitzvah in the Old City and heard that one of the local teachers had been stabbed and killed the day before at Jaffa Gate. These were experiences of Jews as victims, but I also saw evidence of Jews as victimizers, such as a cab with the sign נהג יהודי, or Jewish driver, implying that it was not safe for Jews to ride with Arab drivers. Even worse, there was the leaked video of a wedding in the West Bank where drunken guests took turns stabbing the photo of an Arab child who had been murdered in an act of Jewish terrorism. This elicited condemnations from leaders in Jerusalem and around the Jewish world, but it reminded us that the scourge of hatred remains active in our midst.
Jerusalem of today is a vibrant city, much like ours, which chooses not to slow down more than necessary to deal with the ugliness of terror. When an incident occurs, all energy is directed to stopping the attack and saving the victims, but then life goes on, much as it did for us in NY a few weeks ago after the bombs went off in Chelsea and Seaside Park, NJ. Life can be painful, but don’t let that slow you down. Just keep on moving. Unless you are affected directly, just move on.
I don’t know, maybe this attitude is the best we can hope for. But it seems to me that we have the opportunity to choose another option beyond just condemning terror or ignoring it. What a righteous city requires is positive action to address divisions and to transcend them. We need to build not only security gates, but also Gates of Mercy to enlighten the eyes of those who dwell within. We need an ideal city to raise us up and bind us together.
Fortunately, Jerusalem is not filled only with those who hate, or those who bravely rescue, or those who try to just move on with their lives. Within the city of Jerusalem there are also people who are actively trying to transcend divisions and build bridges between alienated communities. Among my friends, I’d say that the most idealistic of them are those who live in Jerusalem. Let me tell you about two of them.
Alick Isaacs is one such friend—originally from Scotland, he made aliyah in the 80s, studied in yeshivot and universities, served in the army and earned a PhD in Jewish thought. A few years ago he published a book called A Prophetic Peace, and with his brother-in-law Avinoam Rosenak, he founded an organization called שיח שלום, Peace Dialogue. One of Alick’s contentions is that the political structure of democracy and the values structure of human rights are not adequate to the task of making peace in the Middle East. Many of the people who live there, especially the Muslims and Jews, are deeply committed to older mythic structures of religious devotion, of covenant and of peoplehood. What is required is theological disarmament—getting religious people to identify the most peaceful aspects of their sacred traditions and draw on them to reduce conflict. A western process based on individual rights misses much of the energy that motivates people to live in this difficult place.
After my visit Alick and I exchanged a series of long emails trying to articulate our aspirations for Jerusalem. I’d like to quote just a short passage that he wrote to me:
The land of Israel is a place of being seen. It is the idea of being seen that underlines the meaning of pilgrimage. The land is the place where God’s eyes are upon us. Jerusalem and the Temples are the places where we gather to be seen. Being visible and feeling visible are transformative interactive experiences that both validate us and hold us accountable….
This is my everyday experience here. We cannot get away with impersonal inter-human interaction. There is no greater cause of pain here and though it sounds extreme, I think this is closer to the root of the conflict than ideological or even national diversity. The question is whether or not I can engage others openly – with a circumcised heart.

Alick’s response to the conflict is not to look at maps and figure out who can compromise what piece of land and give up on what part of their dreams. Instead, he tries to bring people of disparate dreams together and to get them to see and be seen—to examine and validate the fullness of the other person’s being. Settler rabbis and imams—people who normally view the other in dehumanized terms—he invites them to talk to each other about their lives, their families, their dreams. Too often we define the conflict in zero sum terms. What, Alick asks, if we were willing to attempt actually to see each other? To be honest, I don’t expect enormous success from Alick’s initiative—the forces of anger and violence are so powerful and the brutal realities of people contending for limited space are unforgiving—but he is a person who tries to build in Jerusalem Gates of Mercy, and who knows if he won’t make things just a little bit better. When I say next year in Jerusalem, I mean in a city that is theologically disarmed, and filled with conversations of peace.
Another friend of mine in Jerusalem is Rabba Tamar Elad Appelbaum. It is pretty much impossible to explain who she is and what she does, since there is so much. She is a poet, a community organizer, a rabbi and a leader. When I met her for sushi one rainy night in Rehaviah last winter I simply could not keep track of all that she was doing. But I brought my entire family to Kabbalat Shabbat services in her new congregation, Kehillat Tzion, which is in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood.
It was Shabbat Veyehi, December 25. In parts of Jerusalem it was Erev Shabbat VaYehi, but not so far away it was also Christmas. At services, Tamar told us about what she and many members of the congregation had done the night before. They went to church. You see, in Jerusalem and actually in the entire Middle East, Christians are very much a minority, and not a very comfortable one at that. On a daily basis monks and other religiously identified Christians get spat upon and taunted in the Old City, and I am sad to say, this is often done by Jewish youths, yeshivah bochurs.
Tamar has created an interfaith women’s group—Christians and Muslims and Jews who study together and build human bonds of friendship. They also perform acts of justice, and it is powerful to see women work together across the lines of religion and make peace together. The Christians had frequently visited Tamar’s synagogue, but this was the first time she had brought her people to them. To be in their house, on their holiday, to see them worship, to listen to their songs, and to offer them respect and love. Tamar is building Gates of Mercy, שערי רחמים in the city of Jerusalem. Not in the Jerusalem of heaven, but in the real Jerusalem of limestone and twisting alleys. When I say Next Year in Jerusalem, I think of Tamar’s community—multifaith, multi-ethnic, religious and secular, coming together to make peace in Jerusalem.
This evening when we complete our fast and cry out next Year in Jerusalem, where do we really want to be? Is it our goal physically to move from here to there? That is a nice goal, but not sufficient. Merely to be in a different location does not allow us to be different in a deeper sense. When I cry out Next Year in Jerusalem, my intention is to imagine a better place, a place of kindness and justice, a place of mercy and peace. Over there, but also over here in NYC. We will soon say Yizkor, and I will take that image of Siddur Amram Gaon with me—imagining angels of mercy opening the gates of mercy for my loved ones, and someday for me. But I will also remember that the Gates of Mercy can be built right here in our very real city—in our big, noisy, smelly and chaotic city. When we are willing to see and be seen, to become comfortable in our differences with those who are so close and yet so far, then we too can open and enter the Gates of Mercy, and we can enter an image of Jerusalem—a place where people do not fear or harm one another, but where they finally learn to welcome, to respect, to protect and to love. May we all merit to enter such a city this year. May we work to make ourselves more compassionate and dedicated builders of such a city. And may God bless us all with a good year of life, of mercy and of peace.

 

Sources

[1] תהלים פרק קלז, ה-ו (ה) אִם אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי: (ו) תִּדְבַּק לְשׁוֹנִי לְחִכִּי אִם לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי אִם לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת יְרוּשָׁלִַם עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי:

[1]  תרגום. ירושלם דמתבניא ברקיעא היך קרתא לאתחברא לה כחדא בארעא. מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת פקודי. וכן אמר דוד ירושלים הבנויה כעיר שחברה לה יחדו (תהלים קכב) כלומר כעיר שבנה יה ותרגם ירושלמי דמתבניא ברקיע בקרתא לאתחברה כחדא בארעא ונשבע ששכינתו לא יכנס בשל מעלה עד שיבנה של מטה. רש”י תהלים פרק קכב פסוק ג. ורבותינו אמרו יש ירושלים הבנויה בשמים ועתידה ירושלים של מטה להיות כמותה:

[1]  סדר רב עמרם גאון (הרפנס) צידוק הדין. הנה מקום, הנה מלון, הנה מנוחה, והנה נחלה. אשרי כל אשר יאמר לו באסיפתו, שלום בואו. מלאכי השלום הממונים על שערי שלום, הם יצאו לקראתו ויאמרו לו שלום בואו. מלאכי הרחמים הממונים על שערי רחמים, הם יצאו לקראתו ויאמרו לו שלום בואו. יבוא שלום ינוחו על משכבו, יבא שלום וינוחו במנוחתו. יבא שלום וינוחו בבית עולמו.

[1]  תשובות הגאונים – הרכבי סימן שכח. יהי רצון מלפני מלך הכבוד שיפתח לך שערי רחמים שערי חכמה ויאיר עיניך במאור תורה ותזכה לכל כתריה ומעלותיה ותשב בסוד חכמ’ לעולם הבא ושלום השמים יהי עליך לעולם: וע״ע פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) אסתר פרק ב. בן יאיר בן שמעי בן קיש איש ימיני. מה נפשך אם ליחסיה קא אתיא ליחסיה וליזל עד בנימין, אלא מאי שנא הני תנא כולם על שמו נקראו, בן יאיר, בן שהאיר עיני ישראל בתפלתו, בן שמעי, בן ששמע אל תפלתו, בן קיש, שבקש על שערי רחמים ונפתחו לו. איש ימיני, שהיה משבט בנימין. יהודי, שכפר בע”ז:

[1]  מדרש תהלים (בובר) מזמור ד. ר’ חנינא שאל את ר’ שמואל מאי דכתיב סכותה בענן לך מעבור תפלה (איכה ג מד), אמר ליה שערי תפלה פעמים פתוחים פעמים נעולים, אבל שערי רחמים אינן ננעלין לעולם, שנאמר כה’ אלהינו בכל קראנו אליו (דברים ד ז.)

[1]  משנה מסכת מידות פרק ב משנה ב. כל הנכנסין להר הבית נכנסין דרך ימין ומקיפין ויוצאין דרך שמאל חוץ ממי שאירעו דבר שהוא מקיף לשמאל מה לך מקיף לשמאל שאני אבל השוכן בבית הזה ינחמך שאני מנודה השוכן בבית הזה יתן בלבם ויקרבוך דברי רבי מאיר אמר לו רבי יוסי עשיתן כאילו עברו עליו את הדין אלא השוכן בבית הזה יתן בלבך ותשמע לדברי חבריך ויקרבוך:

[1]  פרקי דרבי אליעזר פרק יז. רָאָה שְׁלֹמֹה שֶׁמִּדַּת גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים גְּדוֹלָה לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וּכְשֶׁבָּנָה בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ בָּנָה שְׁנֵי שְׁעָרִים, אֶחָד לַחֲתָנִים וְאֶחָד לַאֲבֵלִים וְלַמְנֻדִּים. וְהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל הוֹלְכִין בַּשַּׁבָּתוֹת וְיוֹשְׁבִין בֵּין שְׁנֵי שְׁעָרִים הַלָּלוּ, וְהַנִּכְנָס בְּשַׁעַר חֲתָנִים הָיוּ יוֹדְעִין שֶׁהוּא חָתָן, וְהָיוּ אוֹמְרִים לוֹ, הַשּׁוֹכֵן בַּבַּיִת הַזֶּה יְשַׂמֵּחֲךָ בְּבָנִים וּבְבָנוֹת. וְהַנִּכְנָס בְּשַׁעַר אֲבֵלִים וְהָיָה שְׂפָמוֹ מְכֻסֶּה אָז הָיוּ יוֹדְעִין שֶׁהוּא אָבֵל, וְהָיוּ אוֹמְרִים לוֹ, הַשּׁוֹכֵן בַּבַּיִת הַזֶּה יְנַחֶמְךָ.

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