Rabbah Gila Caine: Yom Kippur and the essence of t’shuva

Rabbah Gila Caine

By Rabbah Gila Caine

(AJNews) – An ancient Jewish tradition holds that the arc of the High Holidays, from Rosh Hashanah to Sh’mini Atzert, tells of our soul’s growth. This movement describes the pilgrimage our neshamah (soul) undertakes on the New Year, as it goes out to explore life and the awesome glory of Creation. We then move through Yom Kippur as our neshamah encounters the reality of death. And our journey ends (for this year) at the source of all joy, at meaningful connections and sacred relationships as they are symbolised through the Rain rituals of Sh’mini Atzeret.

There is so much to learn from the cyclical path we undertake every year, but for now, let’s focus on one crucial moment at the end of Yom Kippur. The final prayer of the day is “Ne’ilah” – locking. But locking what? Liturgy places these words in our mouth “Open for us the gate at the time of closing the gate, for the day has declined. The day declines, the sun goes down and declines, let us enter Your gates.”

What are these gates and why are we standing there? The basic explanation suggests this is a reference to the historic gates of the Mikdash/Temple, as they closed at the end of the sacred day. We could delve deeper and find meaning in these gates as a metaphor for the old year closing as the new one opens. Going one step deeper (in a stairwell of many many steps) we understand these might be the inner gates of our soul.

So, what does it mean that we call out for our soul to open up as we end a day of contemplation and purification?

Midrash tells us how critical it is to have cracks in Creation, and it brings us back to the moment when God decided to make the world:  “ ….He began to trace (the foundations of) the world before Himself, but it would not stand [that is, the world kept destroying itself]. They told a parable, what is this like? To a king who wishes to build a palace for himself. If he had not traced in the earth its foundations, its exits and its entrances, he could not begin to build. Likewise the Holy One, blessed be He, was tracing (the plans of) the world before Himself, but it did not remain standing until He created repentance.” (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 3).

In this story, God realises that in order to create a world, he must first create gates, tools for opening and closing the world. The interesting thing is that our ancient rabbis understood those gateways to be the place of t’shuvah. Perhaps even, those gates themselves were the essence of t’shuvah/ repentance, and what makes creation viable.

The same goes for the viability of our soul, in that it too needs space to open and close in order that we may live. Our assignment is to learn and open up our soul at the right times and lock it up on others.

Sefer Yetsirah is an ancient book of Jewish mysticism that teaches us, amongst other things, that the human body is a microcosm of the universe. In that book there is a moment where we read: “…and the Seven Gateways of the Soul of Man—the two eyes, the two ears, the mouth and the two nostrils.” (Sefer Yetzirah 4:12). Our senses are the gateways to our soul. Isn’t that lovely? Notice yourself for a moment and focus on your sense of smell, taste, hearing, seeing. Close your eyes and open them, focus on listening as intently as you can. Not only is our body the pathway leading deep into our soul, but it is also under our control in many ways. Through the practice of controlling to some degree what enters our body, we learn the art of guarding our soul. Of noticing what, in the things we hear, taste, smell, see, might harm our soul.

We learn not to fill our ears with rumours, not to let our eyes indulge in harmful scenes, not to taste cruelty. And so on and so forth. As we pray every morning, our soul is pure, and it is up to us to shut the gates and keep invading armies out. But it is also up to us to learn how to open up our senses so our inner soul might touch the world.

After a day of prayer and fasting we might be tempted to imagine the purity of our soul and the sanctity of Creation is best kept locked and guarded. We might imagine that by cleansing everything and shutting all gates to mistakes and cracks, we are upholding the world of God.

But no. The very tail end of Yom Kippur reminds us that after all the work of purification, we must leave open spaces to breathe. Make mistakes. Repent. We must develop enough compassion to see the beauty of open gates and cracks in the souls of those around us and closest to us. This is what allows our souls to touch each other and allows the world to exist.

I would like to wish all of Am Yisrael a happy and healthy New Year and may this truly be a year of healing.

Shana Tovah.

Rabbah Gila Caine is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Ora, Edmonton’s Reform Congregation.

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