Community Blog Standing Before the Gates: Ne’ilah 5781
The entire season of teshuvah is oriented to this moment when we stand before the gates of repentance and plead one more time for forgiveness, for blessing, for renewed life in the coming year.
It’s a moment that calls to mind for me one of the many wonderful quotes on the bulletin board In my mother’s kitchen. This one, an old Spanish proverb: “If I die, I forgive you. If I live, we’ll see.”
There is something about the closing of the gates at the end of this day that hints at the closing of the gates at the end of our lives and creates a sense of urgency, seriousness, even irrevocability. Ne’ilah, after all, comes from the Hebrew root nun-ayin-lamed, meaning not just to close, but to lock.
Enough denial. Enough distraction. Enough excuses. Enough equivocation. Enough.
We have reached the end of the road. We are running out of time. Will we change what we are yearning to change? Will we forgive? Will we be forgiven? The same gates that have been beckoning us for weeks now begin to threaten: we will not stay open forever. Repentance delayed is repentance denied.
This summons to a sense of urgency has never felt more achingly resonant than it does this year. In fact, in some ways, it feels like this moment has been suspended and extended over the last several months. Many of us wondering whether we are witnessing the gates closing on the world as we know it; on our country as we know it; on our democracy as we know it. We are continually bombarded with calls to urgency that contain more than a trace of panic.
So much so that I confess I have begun to feel some resistance welling up in me. I have begun to wonder whether, perhaps, what we need to cultivate on this Yom Kippur is less a sense of urgency and more an awareness of how much time real change can take. How long and layered the process of forgiveness can be. How much effort and humility is required to commit to living and staying in relationship with each other for the long haul.
I want to share a brief Talmudic aggadah that I encountered for the first time this year. It’s a story about forgiveness; about urgency and patience; about locked gates and what it takes to crack—or coax—them open again.
The story begins with King David, David HaMelech. David is living out the latter portion of his life in the shadow of the sin he committed in the matter of Batsheva—a sin so grave, so defining, that it is referred to in our story as simply, “that sin” – “oto aven.” Familiarity should not numb us to the enormity of the transgression. David saw Batsheva bathing on a rooftop and wanted her—in spite of the fact that she was married to another man. Blinded by desire and a breathtaking—life-taking—sense of royal entitlement, he sent Batsheva’s husband Uriah off to war, knowingly sending him to where he would be killed in battle.
With this act, David embodies precisely the kind of abuse of power for personal pleasure and gain that God was worried about when the people first asked for a king.
Remarkably, later, when confronted by the prophet Natan—who knew how to speak truth to power— David becomes the paradigm of genuine teshuvah. It is from him that we learn what it means to say chatati, to say simply and without self-justification, I have sinned.
In our aggadah from Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud, David stands before God and pleads:
רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, מְחוֹל לִי עַל אוֹתוֹ עָ.
“Master of the Universe. Forgive me for that sin.”
אָמַר לוֹ: מָחוּל לָךְ
And God says: “You’re forgiven.”
Two words: exquisitely simple on the one hand; extraordinarily complex on the other. Two words that open up a world of almost unfathomable possibility—the possibility that a human being can do something terribly, terribly wrong and then experience and express genuine remorse and be forgiven in the eyes of heaven.
One could argue that it’s an outrage. But this is the audacious claim that our tradition makes—that real teshuvah is possible—that we live in a universe where there is a way back even from such deep rupture and pain. But listen to what happens next.
Upon hearing that he is forgiven, David has another request: Aseh li ot b’chayai. “Show me a sign in my lifetime so that everyone will know you have forgiven me.” Oy, Dovidle, I feel like saying. You might be pushing it here. I get it. He doesn’t just want to be forgiven. He wants everyone to know he’s forgiven. And he wants them to know now. Strikingly, to this request, God says no.
אָמַר לוֹ: בְּחַיֶּיךָ אֵינִי מוֹדִיעַ, בְּחַיַּי שְׁלֹמֹה בִּנְךָ אֲנִי מוֹדִיעַ
“I will not make it known in your lifetime. But I will make it known in the lifetime of your son Solomon.”
Already the story is brimming with pathos and unanswered questions. I can’t help but wonder if they are left unanswered precisely so that we are forced to ask them of ourselves.
What are we seeking when we seek forgiveness? What does it mean to move beyond our own desire to feel better, to look better, to have our reputation restored—to seek a deeper repair? And are we willing to wait for as long as it takes? Even if it takes years? Even if it takes a lifetime, or more?
From here, the aggadah leaps forward a generation to David’s son, Solomon, after he has built the Beit Hamikdash and is trying to bring the Ark into the Holy of Holies.
כְּשֶׁבָּנָה שְׁלֹמֹה אֶת בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, בִּיקֵּשׁ לְהַכְנִיס אָרוֹן לְבֵית דְשֵׁי הַקֳּדָשִׁים
But there is a problem.
דָּבְקוּ שְׁעָרִים זֶה בָּזֶה
The gates of the temple won’t open. They cling to each other and refuse to budge.
First Solomon utters twenty-four songs of praise but his prayer is not answered. Then, playfully, the aggadah tracks the words of Psalm 24, reading them as a dialogue between Solomon and the unforgiving gates of the Temple. Se’u she’arim rosheichem, says Solomon. “Lift up your heads, O you gates, and be you lifted up, you everlasting doors; that the King of glory may come in” (Psalms 24:7).
Immediately, we are told, the gates run after him to swallow him. Why? Because they thought that when he said “King of glory,” he was referring to himself! They said to him: “Who is the King of glory?” (Psalms 24:8).
אֲמַרוּ: ״מִי הוּא זֶה מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד״
He said to them: ״ה׳ עִזּוּז וְגִבּוֹר״
“The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle” (Psalms 24:8).
Right answer, it appears. At least the gates stop chasing him. Reinforcing the point, and perhaps his own piety, Solomon continues with the next two verses of the Psalm: “Lift up your heads, O you gates, yea, lift them up, you everlasting doors; that the King of glory may come in. Who then is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts; He is the King of glory. Selah” (Psalms 24:9–10). But still he is not answered.
Now this is interesting.
Solomon is asking that the gates open not for his own sake, but for the sake of heaven, that the true King of Glory may enter. But something about this still does not satisfy the gates; they remain, literally, unmoved. It is not until the next verse (this time quoted from Second Chronicles) that something shifts and the locked gates swing open. Solomon says, “O Lord God, turn not away the face of Your anointed אַל תָּשֵׁב פְּנֵי מְשִׁיחֶךָ remember the good deeds of David Your servant” (II Chronicles 6:42). And finally, Solomon is answered. מִיָּד נַעֲנָ
Immediately, the gates allow him to enter with the holy ark, a fire descends from heaven. David’s enemies are defeated and all of Israel know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, forgave David for that sin. Again, questions abound. But there are two things in particular that capture my heart about this story.
First, that David—whose sin, after all, flowed from the immediate gratification of his own desire—has to learn to wait. He has to unlearn urgency. David has to learn—and, through learning, teach us—about both the rigor and the reassurance of patience. On the one hand, that the consequences of our sins may outlive us. On the other, that healing can continue even beyond the grave.
Second, that Solomon—who has been granted the honor of building the Beit Hamikdash that David was denied, still has to stand humbly before its gates and plead for entry. More than that, he has to ask—to pray—not for himself alone, not even for the sake of the Holy One, but for the sake of another human being, for the honor of his own father, so flawed but finally fully forgiven in heaven and on earth.
The Ne’ilah prayer is familiar to us only in the context of Yom Kippur. But in the time of the Mishnah it was actually said on some other fast days as well—specifically, fast days that involved a strong element of supplication on behalf of the entire community. Certain Taaniot Geshem—fasts to end a period of severe drought. And Taaniot Tzarah—fasts to avert an impending communal disaster.
What makes Ne’ilah special as a category of prayer is that unlike Shacharit, Mincha, Ma’ariv, and Musaf, it does not commemorate any specific sacrificial offering. For this reason, it is understood as ribui tefilah, increased prayer. Its defining quality is that it is more. The gates are closing and we still have more we need to say.
Rabbinic sources debate about ribui tefilah and whether it’s always a good thing. There seems to be a consensus that one can never express too much praise and thanksgiving to God. With prayers of petition, however, there is some dispute and an important distinction is made between pleading on our own behalf and pleading on behalf of others.
If we are pleading on our own behalf, some authorities suggest, ribui tefilah is not necessarily a good thing. However understandable the impulse may be, there may be such a thing as too much private supplication.
But if we are pleading on behalf of others, if we are pleading on behalf of the entire community, then ribui tefilah is not only fully embraced. It is vital.
R. Levi teaches in Masechet Ta’anit of the Jerusalem Talmud that this is the essence of Tefilat Ne’ilah. Whether we are praying to end a drought, to avert communal disaster, or to ask for another year of life and blessing before the gates close at the end of Yom Hakippurim, Ne’ilah asks us to stretch beyond ourselves, beyond our own very real needs and fears, and to pray with all our hearts for the entire community. To pray for each other.
Ne’ilah is an ancient reminder that our lives, our futures, are bound up with one another. That we are connected, at the end of the day, not because we pray with each other (as much as we long to do so in person again!) but because we pray for each other.
Ne’ilah is an enduring reminder that wherever we may stand, the prayer that unlocks the gates of the Holy of Holies is the supplication— both urgent and patient— that we offer not for ourselves alone, but for one another.
G’mar hatimah tovah. Please God, may we all be sealed for a year of goodness, a year of healing, and a year of peace.
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is president of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.