The gates of the ancient rabbis

This essay appeared in the RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, in 2014.

I’m guessing that many of us have given a d’var at some point that cited the passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 32b, that reads, “From the day that the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been closed . . . but even though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are not closed.”

I’ve always been struck by what this, and some of the surrounding passages in the Talmud, appear to reveal about the attitudes of the early rabbis towards God. For instance, right after this sha’aray dimah [gates of tears] passage, we also read, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has been established between Israel and their Father in Heaven.” (I left the male God imagery unaltered because it offers the poignant metaphor of a child unable to access his or her parent.)

Llagrimes_(tears),_pastel_portrait_by_Robert_Perez_Palou
       Llagrimes (tears), pastel portrait by Robert Perez Palou.      By Rpp1948 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

As one studies the whole of this page of Talmud, one also finds passages that nevertheless offer reassurance that, with great effort and sincerity, we can still reach God and move God to compassion. For instance, “Every person who lengthens their prayer – their prayer will not be returned empty  (ayn tefilato chozeret ray-kam).” And, “If a person sees that s/he has prayed but it is unanswered, s/he should pray again, as it says in Scripture, ‘Wait for the Eternal, be strong and let your heart take courage,’ etc.” Continue reading “The gates of the ancient rabbis”

Toldot – my words 7 years ago – do they still apply now?

I gave this talk at Yom Kippur in the fall of 2008, not long before the U.S. elections that year. It draws heavily on parts of our upcoming Torah portion, Toldot.

Yom Kippur D’var Torah 5769                  By Rabbi Maurice Harris

A long time ago, a matriarch of our people went through an agonizing pregnancy.  Her name was Rivka, or Rebecca in English, and Genesis tells us that she went through excruciating physical pain while she was carrying twins.[1]  The text, written in poetic Hebrew, reads:  “…the children struggled in her womb, and she said, eem ken, if it has to be like this, lammah zeh anochi, why should I exist?”

Rebecca was a decisive woman, and she went directly to God to ask for guidance or an explanation.  God answered her with a prophecy:

שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ – two nations are in your womb.

וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ – and two separate peoples will issue out from your body.  One people will be mightier than the other, and the older will serve the younger.[2]

And God’s words were fulfilled.  Rebecca gave birth to twin boys, Esau, who came into the world red and hairy, and Jacob, who followed grasping onto his brother’s heel.  According to tradition, Jacob went on to be the forefather of our people.  Esau went on to be the founder of the ancient nation of Edom.  The rabbis later told us that Esau was also the father of their arch-enemy, the Romans.

Today we are all like our ancestor, Rebecca, on two fronts.  First, we are, as Americans, pregnant with twins.  Two nations are within us, two competing visions of what this country should be.  Similarly, as Jews who love Israel, we are also pregnant with twins.  Two Israel’s are within our people’s consciousness – competing visions of what Israel should be.  Each of these sets of twins have been locked in a painful struggle of wills for a long time, but we are on the verge of a birth here in the US and in the land of Israel as well. Continue reading “Toldot – my words 7 years ago – do they still apply now?”