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D'var Torah: Yom Kippur

For the Jewish community and for the rest of the world, Yom Kippur is definitely unique. For us, it is exceptional because as citizens of the 20th century, we are not accustomed to this complete suspension of all of our normal activities. For the “outside” world, it is difficult to understand because of our answers to that annual question from neighbors and colleagues: what do you do on Yom Kippur? We fast. We pray all day. We repent. We ask forgiveness. The culture in which we live is not equipped to accept this kind of an answer.

It is also very clear that Yom Kippur is the central interior experience for the Jewish community, world wide. It is the one time when every Jew feels something special, and when it is impossible to avoid feeling something special.

Today, in our calendar, we stand midway between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. We have opened the New Year at Rosh Hashanah with joy and feasting, with reunion and celebration. We will move to Sukkot, another time of joy and feasting, of reunion and celebration. But today, midway between the two, we fast, we pray, we repent.

Furthermore, right this minute, as I speak, we have just passed the middle of this day’s cycle, which began last night at sundown. We are situated now in the center of the eye of the High Holidays. In a sense, the word “center” summarizes the experience of the High Holidays and especially of Yom Kippur, for this is the time when we as individuals and as a community center ourselves for the coming year. And the phrase “turn” which is used so often in the liturgy can be seen as a way of describing that centering process when we adjust ourselves, set our feet in the path to come, turn our face slightly left or slightly right and choose the direction our lives and the life of our community will take.

To help us in this centering, Yom Kippur has its own set of readings, of course, which guide us in a step-by-step progression: we always start with the accounts of ancient ritual of the scapegoat (today, Leviticus chapter 16) an account with a subtext which addresses guilt and innocence, sacrifice and purity, major preoccupations of the Days of Awe. And we read repeatedly the explicit commandment to observe Yom Kippur itself from the book of Numbers. And finally, we read from Isaiah the promise of the Lord in the haftarah. This afternoon we will read the service of the Kohen Gadol who stood as the congregational representative and the story of Jonah-the-Everyman, both of whom bring to our attention the different forms of dialogue between God and humankind, between God and us.

There are many phrases and images which could serve as a focus for a d’var—there is, for example, Aaron, who is a very intriguing figure, or the scapegoat itself, but I would like to talk, for a few minutes, about gates. Our liturgy is full of references to gates. We read over them quickly, and we do not pay enough attention to them, I feel. We are commanded to take the words “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” to heart, we are commanded to teach them to our children, and we are commanded to put them on the doorposts of our homes and upon our gates. The words of the Psalmist are familiar ones to us: “Lift high your lintels, O you gates!” from Psalm 24. And later on, today, we will reach that most compelling of phrases from the Concluding Service: “The Gates are Closing.”

Let us think first about the literal gates. Biblical authors are clearly not talking about the doors of a house, but rather the outer perimeter of a large establishment, a compound, or a city. And they are not focusing on the walls, but the entryway. And that entryway is not free; there is a gate. This is a concept that requires us to use our imaginations a little bit. For us, freedom of movement is one of our rights. We expect to be able to enter and leave any city, any state, any country at will. We are not living in a culture with gates to be opened at dawn and closed at night. And of course, it was not always so. Because I teach medieval French literature, I am reminded of the plague years in medieval France when some cities lost so many citizens that there were no people to close the city gates at night. Wild animals came in to roam through the streets. Thieves and bandits pillaged the city at will, until the community gathered together and re-established the safety of being within the gates at night.

The gates therefore represented a community boundary and they also stood for a special kind of relationship between the individual and the community. When the gates were closed, it meant that the community implemented a final decision: “no” meant no, “yes” meant yes, and the gates were closed for the night. The individual had the choice of coming in or staying out, but the location of the gates and the closing of those gates were not up to the individual. The individual was expected to adjust to the community custom.

Another aspect of the gate closing is the notion of urgency, of immanence. For there was a clearly defined last minute. For the people who wrote the phrase, “The Gates are Closing,” the last minute was being announced, in precise terms which the hearers could understand with ease. For them, the gates stood for the edges of the community, for safety, for protection, for common values, for shared beliefs. When one came within the gates, one chose to stand inside, to stand with, to share, to belong, but one had to act in time.

Literally, there were real gates, and it was easy for medieval writers and for storytellers to transform them into the Gates of Heaven. Our folklore is replete with stories, some of them quite irreverent, about the gates of heaven and what happened there or what did not happen there. Even though the phrase “the gates are closing” surely did mean the gates of heaven, I will not carry my discussion that far. There is simply too much here on earth for me to handle today.

So much for antiquity, so much for the literary gates, what about us? I have already mentioned that we are accustomed to value freedom of movement, particularly as Americans. Jean-Paul Sartre visited the United States in the 1940s and he observed that cities in Europe turned inward, in circular fashion; they had a city center; cities in America, he wrote, were like a backbone, and the road through town was the spinal column. He felt that in America we have no city centers. We are a people on our way out of town. To relate to the biblical gates, we have to stretch our imaginations again to think of the communities within whose metaphorical gates we are standing. And when we begin to think of how many communities with which we are associated, we are surprised at how long our list is—family, Kehillat, school, workplace, neighborhood, political party, action club... the list goes on and on and on.

And as we review these communities, we are struck at once by the fact that these are not static, picturesque villages. They are dynamic, fluid, turbulent groups, and in the past year, they have undergone tremendous changes. Eretz Israel has not only absorbed the Russian immigrants, but the Ethiopians are celebrating the High Holidays in Jerusalem this year. Jews in the former Soviet Union find themselves, like other citizens, this year not in the Union—some are in independent countries, some are almost in independent countries, all are worried about hunger in the months ahead, for the gates of their community have shifted so dramatically that they cannot say for sure where the gates are located this yontif.

Closer to home, although our country seems stable, our national community faces divisive debates about health care financing, abortion, how to educate our children—who shall live and who shall die; who shall rise and who shall not. If we have a gate as a nation, it is the Statue of Liberty, and what message, what commandment is inscribed on its base? “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Should this commandment be on our national gate anymore? What are we doing about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free within our gates? Or our university, whose gates are still in the same place, but all of whose procedures and rituals are due to change, now. In our university, the Gates of the Quarter System are Closing. Finally, our families. Several of our members have shared the upheaval in their family circles, changes which are continuing to occur this very week.

For anyone in Middle Age, the phrase “The Gates are Closing” is a very strong, powerful image. I know that I am in middle age, and there have been days when I felt that one door was closing after another, all day long. As we review our communities, every single one of us, this year, feels anxious and uncertain about what is happening in those communities within whose gates we belong. And we feel that time is running out.

Yom Kippur is our special time for turning inward as individuals and as a group, as a community, every member of which today is “in touch.” Having heard the anxiety around us, let us resolve this year to nurture, to support, to care for each other. This is something we can do, in very little ways, starting today, one to one to one. define them, but first of all in this community to nurture, to We have been given the privilege of living in anxious times, as a community; let us center ourselves and help each another as the gates close for the year to come.

—Ann T. Harrison
September 18, 1991

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