Gates of Heaven

15 Nov

In the city I grew up in, there were three synagogues – one Orthodox, one Conservative, one Reform.  The Orthodox synagogue was called Beth Israel, meaning the House of Israel.  The Conservative synagogue was called Agudat Achim, meaning a Unity of Brethren.  Both of these names reflect a focus on the People of Israel, the congregation of participants who come together to create a kehilah.

The Reform house of worship was called Temple Gates of Heaven

What did it mean to name a synagogue Gates of Heaven.  It sounded pretty ominous to me!

 Well, it may very well be that the expression got its start in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Vayetze

Yaakov is on the run.  One night he goes to sleep and has a dream.  In the dream, Yaakov sees a ladder with angels going up and down. God speaks to him and promises to be with him, to protect him, and to increase his number so greatly that they will spread throughout the land, bring blessing to all with whom they have contact.   Although he is a man on the run, God promises him that He will ultimately return Yaaakov to the holy land. Upon awaking, Yaakov exclaims:

‘Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.’ And he was awestruck, and he said: ‘How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the sha’ar haShamayim.’ (Gen. 28:16-17)

The house of God – eventually called the Temple

And the sha’ar haShamayim – generally known as the Gate of Heaven.

What did Yaakov mean when he described what he had experienced as the gate to heaven

Rashi tells us that he meant that this was a unique place for prayer, a place through which prayers are raised up to the heavens.  From this description and this understanding eventually came the custom of directing all of our prayers from around the world toward Jerusalem,  toward the Beit HaMikdash – the Temple – which serves as a portal through which all prayers travel in order to reach God, to reach heaven.

The notion that there is some sort of gate outside heaven has translated into the name we have given to the concluding service on Yom HaKippurin – the service called neilah which is actually short for neilat hasha’ar – the closing of the gate. We are stricken with the image that the gates of heaven are closing, and this our last chance to get our prayers through.

Of course, the image of the “pearly gates” has also become for some people common terminology for passing into the afterlife.

Frankly, I don’t like it.

I have never felt comfortable with the idea of a physical gate, a portal of a sort, located in a certain place.  With the notion of God being ever-present in all corners of the earth, not bound by place in anyway, it is hard for me to fathom the idea that one physical place has better prayer reception than any other.  The Beit HaMikdash and its location on Har haBayit has great significance and importance as the central gathering point for Judaism and for its teachings, as the place where God chose to establish “mission control” – so to say – of the Jewish people, from which we are instructed to send forth the teachings of Torah to the world, and to gather as a nation to find inspiration in our mission. But to say that God hears our prayers “better” at the kotel than in Overland Park, Kansas – that just doesn’t make much sense….does it?

In addition, I have a feeling that it isn’t the pshat here – it isn’t the simple meaning of what Yaakov meant to say.

Take a look at last week’s Torah reading, and the context in which the word sha’ar appears there: 

And Isaac sowed in that land, and found in the same year meah shearim; and the LORD blessed him. (Gen 26:12)

If sha’ar means gate there, then Isaac planted seeds that grew into 100 gates – obviously not the meaning of the Torah here.  Rather, there Rashi actually makes it clear to us that the Torah is using the word sha’ar (or shearim in the plural) to refer to measures or portions – that Isaac was blessed with 100-fold the amount of produce that should have actually grown there. (In 1874 a group of Jews left the old city in Jerusalem to found a neighborhood outside the walls which they named Meah Shearim. The residents hoped that like Yitzchak, they too would prosper and enjoy God’s blessings.)

So, applying the meaning of the word in chapter 26 to the word as it appears this week in chapter 28, I would suggest a radically different understanding of what Yaakov was saying when he awoke from his dream, and therefore, an important comment about what he was NOT saying.

As Yaakov ran, his father’s blessings weighed heavy upon his heart.  The blessings were for prosperity, for fertility and success in the land of Israel.  His escape to Padam Aran seemed to negate the intentions of those blessings:

“May God give you of the dew of the Shamayim.”

Side bar: What is the meaning of being blessed with the dew of the heavens? It seems that most places on earth have dew…even if they lack in rain.  To bless him with an abundance of dew would be a blessing…but just dew? That doesn’t seem to be all that special.

Jump to the Book of Micha:

The remnant of Yaakov shall be, in the midst of the many peoples, like the dew from the Lord, like droplets on grass – which do not look to any man nor place their hope in mortals.(Micha 5:6)

Ah ha!  The blessing of dew is a metaphor for God’s protection.  To be blessed with dew is to be blessed with security.

Back to Parashat Vayetze –

Yaakov awakens from his dream, his fears have been allayed. God has promised him that He will be with him throughout whatever lies ahead.  And so, Yaakov exclaims:

“God has spoken to me in this place – this place is a House of God, a place where God has invited me in to feel at home, to feel secure.  And the promise he made to me – to increase my numbers and to protect me from harm – that is the fulfillment of my father’s blessing to me – this is my measure of heavenly blessing (sha’ar haShamayim),  the “dew of heaven” of which my father spoke!”

The ladder and the angels going up and down with God sitting atop it is what makes us assume that Yaakov considered this a gate to heaven, a portal to God. However, years later, when Yaakov returns to that place to build an altar and give thanks to God for having kept His promise, Yaakov makes no mention of it being a “gate unto heaven,” just that it was the place that God had appeared to him as he ran away from his brother, Eisav.

And so I would like to suggest that the idea that there is somewhere a physical gate to heaven runs counter to my belief in an All-Mighty, All-Knowing God. For this reason, I have never put a note in the Western Wall.  It just doesn’t fit into my perception of prayer. 

Today there are numerous organizations that offer various sorts of prayer or Psalm recitation services.  You can fax a note that will be placed in the kotel  within minutes!  Last week I read of the Tehillim Network – you  make a call to a toll free number and within seconds you have people offering prayers for you or your loved one in 3 or 4 “prime prayer locations,” including the Western Wall and a selection of graves of great rabbis worldwide!

And of course, there is always

It just doesn’t make sense to me….but as usual, I am open to your thoughts!


One Response to “Gates of Heaven”

  1. Marc Chervitz Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 10:18 pm #

    First of all, HI! I have been quietly enjoying your “Tuesday’s” in the background. Today I actually have something to say and the time to say it.

    Of course, “one physical place has better prayer reception than any other” is a fallacy. By definition, G-d does not, and cannot hear our prayer “better” in one place than another. These special locations, both in place and time, are not for His sake, but for ours. It is a GIFT TO US that we have a special place, the Beis HaMikdash or Kotel that we can feel has “improved reception.” What is really improved is our personal confidence that in this place Hashem hears me, and lovingly holds me more than any other. My grandfather always loves me, but when I get him alone in his study, the relationship is felt ever more intensely. It’s a gift. Likewise, since Hashem created us in a realm measured by place, and time, there are accordingly special times where this can be felt as well. RH, YK, etc. It’s also possible, as Kabbalists would teach, that in these places and times, Hashem’s “hiddenness” is somewhat reduced affording us the special, increased opportunity to benefit from his presence.

    Rabbi, keep’em coming! As always you and your’s are constantly thought of and missed.


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