High Walls and Open Gates

7 September 2018
By: Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen and Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits

Over the last few months, we’ve been deeply troubled as we’ve witnessed a marked contraction of Israeli democracy: The passage of the Nation-State Law and the narrowing of the freedoms that Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised to Jewish and non-Jewish citizens alike. The clamping down at Israel’s points of entry and the detainment of progressive American Jews who seek to enter the country. The restricting of the activities of Israeli human rights activists in the occupied territories and the leniency towards those settlers who violently attack them.

Here in the US, we’ve been horrified by what’s gone on at our own borders too, and we have both stood up to fight against the Trump Administration’s shockingly cruel policies toward migrant families, including the separation of small children from their parents as they have crossed our southern border.

Ironically, one of the central metaphors of the High Holidays is the opening of gates. This season in the Jewish year is intended to be a time of the gates being thrown wide open, of unlocking our hearts to forgive, of releasing old hurts, of allowing ourselves to imagine a renewed way of living.

The gates of prayer are pathways to healing.

Our tradition understands that it’s easier to remain closed. This state of openness of the Days of Awe requires a spiritual and emotional self-awareness that might be too vulnerable, too raw, too much work to sustain throughout the year. In the final hours of Yom Kippur, our tradition speaks of those metaphorical heavenly gates being sealed shut as the day wanes, ending that brief open moment.

Perhaps, this also serves to create a sense of urgency to spur us into action, to make sure we work to repair broken interpersonal bonds while we can. In the final hours of the fast, a liturgical poem is traditionally recited pleading for the gates to remain open and for the brief moment of unfettered connection to continue.

Petach Lanu Sha’ar! –
Open the gates for us
Even as the gates are closing
For daylight fades.
The sun is waning…
Let us enter your gates
… have mercy upon us,
have compassion for us,
show us kindness…

When doors are slammed shut, when borders are sealed, when walls are built, our ability to show kindness, love, and mercy is circumscribed, this text teaches. From a place of constriction, we learn nothing new, for we are unable to witness the suffering of those beyond our immediate experience. When we open our gates, however, our hearts are opened, and we can begin to repair the world.

Despite the real constriction of Israeli democracy by its current leadership, the New Israel Fund and our grantees and activists continue work to make sure the Israel we love does not wither.

Don’t give up.

During this High Holiday season, stay open to the possibility of change. Please continue to look for ways to open the gates that too often separate Israelis from each other and from their supporters around the globe. This is part of the path to creating a better Israel in which everyone is treated with dignity and equality.

Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen
Senior Director, NY / Tri-State Region

Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits
Director, LA / Southern California Region

Photo Credit: Greg Johnston