Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Before the Gates of Mercy Close

Posted on: October 11, 2019

Notes for discussion at the synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur 5780

There are six prayer services on Yom Kippur: Kol Nidre when the sun has set, signifying the commencement of the day, the 10th Tishri,  then, the next day, the morning service, additional service, afternoon service, memorial service and concluding service. The concluding prayers are called Neilah, beginning with a hymn El Nora Alilah of which the refrain, in the translation in our Reform prayer book (Days of Awe 1985, edited by Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and Rabbi Lionel Blue), is

Help us to forgiveness Before the gates of mercy close. 

המצא לנו מהילה בשעת הנעילה

The author of the hymn was Moses Ibn Ezra, eleventh century, from Granada. He was related to and contemporary with Abraham Ibn Ezra, the biblical commentator.

Neilah means locking, so sha’at ha neilah is the hour of the locking or closing of the gates. The gates themselves are not mentioned in the hymn, but there may be a play on words, as sha’ah, hour or time, sounds somewhat like sha’ar, meaning gate.

The action of the long day seems to accelerate when we reach the hour of  Yizkor, the memorial service, and as we begin the concluding service, Neilah, there is a sense of hurry, of using the remains of the day, to complete our business of repentance, teshuvah and achieving atonement, kappara, which, despite fervent prayer, is not in our own gift.

Lest there be any doubt that there is limited time now to complete the task, we have the Neilah hymn, which reminds us that the gates of mercy are closing.

The sense of urgency towards the end of the Day of Atonement may be compared to the times in life when we feel we have a short time in which to accomplish a great task.

It can happen on the night before an exam or an interview, or the days before a baby is due, or clearing a home prior to the completion of a sale.

It can happen towards the end of life, when there is something to be accomplished before the gates finally close.

It can happen towards the end of life of another person, a loved one, when there is not enough time to say or do all that we want to say or do.

Towards the end of  Neilah, we often read a fable by Kafka, included in our machzor. Kafka’s parable is troubling as the doorkeeper finally closes the door in the supplicant’s face, telling him ‘No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since the door was intended only for you, and now I am going to shut it.’ Who is the man who locks the gate? A white-collar jobsworth from Prague or an angel guarding the gates of heaven? Does the closing of the gate signify the hour of death, or the limitations of mercy?

.Those of us in the study group were all familiar with the Kafka story as it is in our prayer book, and some of us thought it was a depressing choice of text, so close to the concluding of Yom Kippur.

I had written a sequel which I read to the group and here it is.

*

His name was Shmulik, the man who waited outside the gate of the Law. He had come all the way from a small Bohemian town called Liberec where he taught at a cheder for little boys who called him Reb Shmulik. His wife had died and he had no children. He hoped to enter through the Gate of the Law and perhaps hear his wife’s voice again, as he had felt at a loss since she died. When he prayed, it was according to the rite but without kavanah.

When he first set eyes on the doorkeeper, he was intimidated by his height and breadth and by the massive furs, which made him appear even larger, but the doorkeeper, despite his unapproachable demeanour, was never threatening and Shmulik became less fearful as time went by.

‘Why is it,’ he asked, ‘that no one else has come seeking admittance?’

‘No one but you could gain admittance through this door, ‘said the doorkeeper, ‘since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.’

Older, frailer and more depressed than when he had started out on the journey, Shmulik returned to Liberec. It was night time when he arrived  at his cottage where he lit the one remaining candle and ate a beetroot which had somehow appeared on his work table. Besides teaching at cheder, his main work was making aprons.

At cheder the next day, Reb Shmulik was teaching the boys about Yom Kippur. He spoke about the shofar, and the ram caught in the thicket, in Genesis 22. One of the boys asked if Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice Isaac. It was a difficult question, but Reb Shmulik said ‘Abraham Avinu was always right, and so it turned out in this case, because of the ram in the thicket.’

A boy called Elisha, not known for good behaviour, called out ‘Not if you were the ram, he wasn’t!’ and some of the boys laughed. Others looked troubled and Reb Shmulik said, ‘If you’re ever worried or troubled by something you learn in this class, you can come and talk to me about it. My door is always open.’

That night, when Shmulik arrived home, there was a bright light streaming from his door. Thinking that he must have left it open by mistake, he hastened his step, fearful that someone had stolen the sewing tools or cloth he used, for making aprons. Arriving at the open door, he saw with trepidation the huge, fur-clad figure of the doorkeeper but, on this evening, the doorkeeper looked milder than usual.  With a courteous nod of his head, he held open the door and said, ‘The gates are never closed for ever.’ Then Shmulik went through the door, into the light.

Gillian Lazarus

*

During the morning service, at about midday, our rabbi had told us of the attack on the synagogue in Halle, and that there had been fatalities. That is all I knew until the evening, when Yom Kippur had ended. I read several reports and learned that two people were killed by the far right terrorist, one in the street and one in a kebab shop. I had thought that there must have been guards outside the synagogue, just as we have security guards but, according to news reports, it was the doors of the synagogue which thwarted the killer. Even using a grenade, he was not able to breach the doors. These were the gates of mercy and those who had entered them were saved.

Halle, Germany (CNN) A gunman pushed on the doors of a synagogue, fired several shots at a lock on the door, stuck an explosive in a door jam and lit it.

But he couldn’t get in.

The fact that the door held likely spared the lives of the dozens of people inside the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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