Friday, 14 June 2019

Gates and the Jewish Question

I’ve never given a sermon on gates before.

It’s not the sort of thing that happens very often in a Rabbinic career – that you get to dedicate new gates.

Of course there’s a kind of irony dedicating gates on a day you can’t see how the click-button, magnet wielding thing works, but trust me if they look good and work well on a Shabbat and Yom Tov, it’s better during the week.

We’re very happy with them. Thank you everyone who has been involved in helping fund them.

So, here are some thoughts on gates.

I should say I get that the real reason to build some big gates and high fences is that we live in an unsafe world. I’m sorry about that. I’m sad about that. I’m hugely grateful we now are so much more physically secure. But I’m not going to give a sermon about that. I’m more interested in the religious idea of a gate.

Actually, there’s a lot to say.

Here’s the opening of a parasha we’ll read in September – Shoftim uShotrim BChol She-arecha vshaftu et ha-am mishpat tzedek (Deut 16:18) Place judges and officers at all your gates and judge the people a justice of righteousness. I love the classic Hassidic reading given to a verse like this – actually it’s the same reading the Hassidic Rabbis would give to any verse – what are your gates, they ask. The verse doesn’t say the gates of your house, or your city, or your place of worship.
Your gates are the exit and ingress points into you – the human being. Places judges and officers before your eyes, at your ears, at your mouth. Protect and ensure that there is justice in what you say, what you consume, what you see, turn your ear to hear that which is just.

It’s a beautiful idea. The gate is not so much the protection from the outside. It’s the place where we work out how that which is inside engages with that which is outside. In that sense the glorious flight of poetic fancy that allows the Chassidic Rabbis to read the verse so radically – so transpersonally - is actually, not that radical after all. The point of the gate, in that original verse,  Shoftim uShotrim BChol She-arecha vshaftu et ha-am mishpat tzedek is that it mandates us to act justly. The point isn’t that the gate stops people from the outside coming in or even that it stops people inside from going out.

Gates are the way-points by which we express the values by which we present ourselves to the outside world.
That’s the understanding of a gate that emerges from the word’s most famous Biblical appearances in the Shema.

Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad … UChatavtem al Mezuzot Beitecha uVisharecha
Understand[1] this O’ Israel Adonia is our god, Adonai alone… And write these words on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

Again the point of this writing on gate posts isn’t to protect or divide, but rather to ensure that we pass through we re-instill our values with us. Every time we walk past a Mezuzah the idea is that we are reminded of what it means to hold, as the singular power of the Universe a creator who is beyond knowledge and description, but a creator who, somehow is aware of us and our actions as we rise in the morning and when we lie down at night, a creator who demands that the actions of our heart, our soul and our might are dedicated towards acts of holiness not only in our own generation, but in the way we raise our children, both w­­hen we are inside in the privacy of our own dwelling and when we are going along the street.

I’m an Ashkenazi, I wasn’t raised this way and it’s hard­ for me to change, but I love and feel a little envious of my Sephardi cousins who, as they cross the threshold through one gate or another reach up to re-imprint this commitment, and mark it with a kiss, a gesture of fondness and respect.
A little Halacha – for those who have noticed the absence of Mezuzot on our new gates. It’s something addressed in the literature – of course it is. You don’t need to place Mezuzot on your gates or doors unless you sleep in the property. You don’t need to place Mezuzot on the gates of your office buildings or Synagogues. So we haven’t – at least not yet.

So that’s the first thing about gates – they are the opportunities to remind and re-instill in our souls our values as we pass from inside to outside.

The second thing is that interesting stuff happens at the gate. And that if you want to understand interesting stuff you should pay close attention to the people of the gate. You should probably attempt to be one of them.

The haftarah of Parshat M’Tzora is set at Petach haShar – the opening of the gate. The mighty King, Ben Hadad of Aram has mustered his army against the Israelite nation and besieged it. It’s a brutal siege, there is desperate starvation in the city. The head of a donkey goes for 80 shekels of silver so intense is the hunger. The Israelite King is desperate and sends for the prophet Elisha, Elisha tells the King not to fret and that the siege would lift. The King is unimpressed. Meanwhile, BPetach HaShar– at the gate of the city are four lepers. They are forbidden from entering the city, struck as they are with a contagion. It’s the lepers who decide to wander into the camp of the fearsome enemy. It’s the lepers who discover that the prophet Elisha was quite right – the siege is over. The Aramean camp is deserted. God struck terror into the hearts of the enemy in their camp and they fled.

The only thing was - no-one in the city realised it. Inside the city the people were desperate, starving and hunkered down. It took the gate-dwellers to look beyond the limited horizon of the city-insiders and see possibilities that those who lived inside the city could never discover themselves.

The Latin word for doorway is limin. The English word liminal expresses the creativity, the possibility that exists at the gateway. To mix metaphors, the gate is the place for the canary of the mine. It’s the place to see danger from afar and the place to see possibilities unknowable from inside. It’s a very Jewish place.

That’s the role of the gate in the Book of Ester. Mordechai – Mordechai HaYehudi – Mordechai the Jew, spends his time at the gate. The gate is where Mordechai hears about the plot to kill the King, the gate is where Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman. The gate is where Mordechai went in sackcloth and ashes to call Esther to save her people. You get the picture. It’s where the people with their eyes open towards the future spend their time.

The second thing is that interesting stuff happens at the gate. And that if you want to understand interesting stuff you should pay close attention to the people of the gate. You should probably attempt to be one of them.
Speaking of which, we are keen to expand our cadre of volunteers who will take their turn on our security rota. Can you give up a Shabbat once a month, even less often than that, to help keep us safe? It will mean you get to stand at the gate, which is, as I hope you are getting the sense, a good thing.

The second thing is that interesting stuff happens at the gate.

The third thing is that the gate is a symbol of our wishes for the future.

Shir Hamalot L’David – a Psalm of David, Omdot Hayu ragleinu bshaarayich Yerushalaim – Yerushalaim habenuyah kir shechubarah lah yachdav.’[2]

Our feet were standing, Jerusalem, O’ Jerusalem the built city, like a city destroyed but now togethered.’

I know, that’s a horrible translation. That Hebrew resists simple translation. The point, I think, is that the Psalm records a time when Jerusalem was destroyed – destroyed by Nebuchanezzer, but then rebuilt and now come together – yachdav. But it’s not clear, it’s not even clear if the rebuilding has happened already, or is believed to be rebuilt into the future. The verse is tricky enough to draw me into a wander into Rabbinic commentary. This is Rabbeinu Bachya a fourteenth century Spanish commentator[3]

The point, says Bachya, is that there are really two cities of Jerusalem. One is the very earthly place – Yerushalayim Shel Maata – the earthly centre of our faith, but a place challenged by … being beloved by many peoples. And the other is a celestial Jerusalem – Yerushalayim Shel Maala, a place of peace and gentle ease.

And the verse, Our feet stood in your gates Jerusalem, a city Yachdav is a prayer for the time when the ease and peace of the heavenly Jerusalem is fused and becomes part of the earthly Jerusalem. The gate is the place to go to pray for earthly peace, the place to go to to believe in the possibility of earthly peace – may it come to us all, and to Jerusalem most especially speedily and in our time.

The gate is also the place to go to work out how to make peace. You can’t make peace from fully inside your own dwelling. That’s self-obvious, though I’m not sure how many of us live out that obvious truth in our daily attempts to incline the world in which we live towards a more peaceful direction.

Gates are good.
Our gates are very good indeed.
Standing at gates is a very good thing to do.
We should all do more of it.

Shabbat shalom

[1] Rabbi, Lord, Jonathan Sacks is the first I have seen to translate the word Shema as understand – I think it’s absolutely right. Shema is a command addressed to the head, the heart and the way we live our life, not the auditory nervous system
[2] Psalm 122 1-3
[3] On Bereishit 6:6, second comment (thank you Sefaria’s ‘connection’ button!)
 וכן כתוב בפירוש (תהילים קכ״ב:ב׳-ג׳) ירושלים הבנויה כעיר שחוברה לה יחדו, ירושלים הבנויה למטה כעיר שחוברה לה יחדיו למעלה.

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