Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ne'ilah's Gates

Before Yom Kippur, a friend and colleague (the some one with the clever Rosh Hashana suggestion) had a good suggestion for thinking about ne'ilah. (This is the short closing service on Yom Kippur just as the day is ending. It literally means the closing of the gates, either of heaven, repentance, or prayer.) He noted that many people imagine themselves outside the gates as they are closing. (I did.) The problem is that this conveys a pretty unpleasant message: you didn't make it, or at least not yet. He suggested that I instead think about myself as being inside the gates as they are closing.

I tried it. About halfway through neilah, I imagined that I had made it through the gates and I thought of my tallis as the wings of the shechinah around me. But then I had two problematic thoughts: (1) I started worrying about the people who had not yet made it through the gates, and (2) now I didn't have to daven so hard since I was already through the gates. Blah.

So I started thinking a little more about the gates, and I had two contradictory but helpful thoughts.

The indisputable fact is that Yom Kippur is ending. And once the day is over, we will all be in the next day. So the gates of the day itself are closing, and they are closing for everyone. So everyone is on one side, the good side, the Yom Kippur side. And as the sun sets, we all move through the gates together, the gates close, and Yom Kippur is over. The holiday was whatever we made of it, and we are done.

I then had a second thought. The gates are the special gates of prayer or of repentance open only on Yom Kippur. We ourselves do not actually go through the gates; only our prayers or our repentance do. And they close for everyone when Yom Kippur ends (although other gates are certainly open then).

Here, as in many other parts of Judaism, there are multiple, overlapping, and even contradictory ways of thinking about the same idea.

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