While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, thousands upon thousands of Jews would enter its gates every day to join in the business of Jewish offerings to the Divine. Along the southern wall of the holy complex was the Hulda Gate, actually a pair of passages – three arches on the right side and two on the left. Any person entering the Temple came through this entryway.
The Mishnah recounts that there was a very particular process for entering Beit HaMikdash – the Temple – through the Hulda gate. Not much different than the system of driving or walking that we live out to this very day, everyone entered on the right and exited on the left.
Thousands of Jews every day, approaching their Creator in service and admiration passed through the three arches on the eastern side of the Southern Wall as they entered, and passed through the two arches on the western side as they left. Imagine the enormity of the experience. Thousands of worshippers walking through three narrow passages on their way into the complex, and then again through two even narrower passages on their way out. A flood of devotees approached through small channels of entrance and exit all in the same direction.
But there was an exception to this flow.
We learn in Masechet Midot of the Mishnah, that everyone entered on the right side and exited on the left, except for those to whom something had recently happened: those who had been injured, those who were in mourning, those who had been excommunicated. They, in fact, entered on the left, and exited on the right.
Now picture this image. Lone individuals moving backwards against a steady flow of an endless sea of pilgrims. Imagine this very sanctuary, filled to capacity tomorrow morning, every one of us entering at the same time through those small doors on the left, and then a handful of others, passing backwards against the flow.
This directive was instituted, we are taught, in order to force those of us walking the normal route to be directly confronted by the non-conformity of those moving backwards, so that we could not miss the need to offer them words of support or consolation. The jarring backwardness would force us to wake up from our slumbers of normalcy and routine and realize that while we approached the Divine in servitude and offering, others had different needs at the moment, others had a different agenda. Everything was not normal.
This was not the only way that the Temple forced pilgrims to leave behind the quotidian as we approached the extraordinary presence of its physical reality. The very existence of the Temple Complex was itself an in-your-face affront to the mundane. A home for God on earth, with its ever-rising stack of smoke from the alter of offerings, forced those nearby to realize that something was different in this space. It was never business as usual.
Even the steps by which one ascended the Temple Mount were constructed in such a way that you cannot approach the House of God without full intention and awareness in your being. Each step – you know this firsthand, if you’ve ever visited the Southern Excavations of the Kotel in Jerusalem – each step is uneven from the one prior in its spacing, such that you must pay close attention to every step you take as you ascend the Mount or risk falling.
You cannot enter the sanctuary of God on autopilot. You cannot enter the Temple without taking a moment to recognize the reality surrounding you. You cannot enter Beit HaMikdash without being physically confronted by that which is not normal and is right in front of you.
The Temple was our antidote to blissful ignorance, the cure for the unconsciousness that so often infects our lives and metastasizes throughout our being.
In light of that reality, understanding the way in which the Temple, by its design, intentionally forced us to awaken from our slumbers of normalcy and routine to recognize the situations staring us in the face, I wonder whether we look a similar gift horse in the mouth today, tonight, these High Holy Days.
How many of us have shown up tonight without having taken the time to honestly reflect and introspect on the year prior? How many of us have sat through the davening this last hour, touched by the musical notes which reach our ears, yet numb to the words that leave our mouths? How many of us have gone through entire High Holy Day Seasons in years past without being moved from our sleep, continuing in static movement through the gift we call life? How many of us go through our lives entirely, without ever waking up to live.
We put our heads down, we go through the motions on autopilot. We complain or boast about how busy we are, and then we blink, and it’s all over.
We will explore, tomorrow, the possibility of better-appreciating all that we have, the lives that we live and all that which others give to us – the very nature of gratitude – but the first step in our journey, the first issue we must tackle, the pressing concern tonight as we begin this new year of 5774 is whether we can appreciate the opportunity that these holy days offer to shake us from the static normalcy which spreads through our experiences until we are no longer able to detach from routine and reflect on who we are and what we have done, wether we can realize that Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the ten Days of Repentance, are, from inception, meant to open our eyes and lift up our heads so that we can see that which is staring us in the face.
Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, the awesome holy days through which we celebrate and contemplate, commemorate and masticate, are our Temple Complex. They are by design meant to shake us into awareness, to force our eyes open once a year and reflect, introspect and change. They are a giant stop sign posted in the middle of the road we call life giving us the opportunity, ten blissful days every year, to pause.
They are to the year what Shabbos is to the week – a time to stop, to cease doing everything that is normal and then to assess, to realize, to appreciate and to After all, these ten days lead us in progressively building anticipation to Yom Kippur – called by our tradition, “Shabbat haShabatot” the Shabbat of Shabbats.
We have the opportunity, these ten days, to actually sit back and think. To stop, to block out all the news flashes and distractions, to turn off our cell phones and computers, and to actually, truly, maybe for the first time all year assess who we have been and who we are becoming. This holiday shakes us with the opportunity to be present. To stand in front of our God, to stand surrounded by those we love, and, like Abraham and Moses before us say, “Hineini”, here I am.
The High Holy Days are nothing short of a grand present to the Jewish people. Built into our calendar is a period during which we are commanded to take stock of what is, what has been and what will be, to recognize that we are mortals who fail, yet have the capacity to thrive, a period in which to close the cover on last year’s book at the same time that we work to secure ourselves a page in the next.
So, during these waning moments of our first hour of prayer together among many more to come these next few weeks, I beg of us to wake up. Open our eyes. And now stop. Stop being distracted. Stop worrying about things that don’t matter. Stop blinding ourselves of our power to change, of our capacity to renew, your God-given ability to grow.
Fully present, let’s truly look at the ways that we have not been the person we hope to be this last year. What are the stumbling blocks preventing us from becoming that person? What do we need to change in order to get there?
Get lost these next few days in the flow of the liturgy, the ring of the melodies, and allow the experience to serve as a vehicle for transformation. Go into these holy days a caterpillar and emerge a butterfly.
Having learned to be present during these holy days, the experience may transform our ability to be present during the rest of the year – to look the people we love in the face and be with them, to listen to those speaking with us, to set aside the distractions for a minute, for many minutes each day, and live a life seeped in mindfulness.
The opportunity stands before us, if only we reach out and take hold of it.
Let us not act these High Holy Days like a Pilgrim in Jerusalem, who enters the Temple with her head so low that she does not see the poor souls moving against the flow of traffic. Let us not stumble our way into this palace of time because we didn’t take the moment to notice the uneven steps at our feet. Let us look up, look up at the majesty of the structure in front of us and all its potential in our lives and for our people. Let us get excited and celebrate, as we look deep inside ourselves to contemplate.
The opportunity is before us. It is not too late. This is just the beginning. Tonight we gather on the precipice of the Days of Awe.
As the Psalmist teaches, “This is the day that God made, let us rejoice and celebrate it.” Let us open our eyes and be present for the great opportunity that stands before us. This day. Every day.
Shanah tovah umetukah.
Rabbi David J. Singer
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5774