"Let Us Enter Your Gates"
Translated by Rebecca Katz
On Rosh Ha-shana we pray:
Today is the birth of the world; today all the creatures of the world will stand for judgment, whether as children or as slaves. If as children – have mercy on us like the mercy of a father for his child, and if as slaves – our eyes look toward You, until You are gracious to us and release our verdict as sunlight, O Awesome and Holy One.
“Today is the birth of the world” – We are standing on trial pleading for our souls, “whether as children or as slaves.” In addition to the request itself, this plea comes to teach us about two aspects of divine judgment. Children and slaves represent two very different types of relationships we have with God, who is “our Father [and] our King.”
The central motif of slavery is objectification: a slave is but the property of his master. He cannot enter into dialogue with his judges; there is no basis on which he can petition them.
The Torah portion read before Rosh Ha-shana opens, “You stand (nitzavim) this day, all of you, before God.” The word nitzavim has two meanings. One is literal: you are standing on your feet before God, you are to be found before Him. Similarly, a sheaf of wheat can stand, as in Yosef’s dream (“My sheaf of wheat stood up and remained upright [nitzav]”). However, nitzavim can also mean presenting oneself, awakening and mobilizing – something only a human can do. The Men of the Great Assembly said: “You shall appoint (lit., cause to stand) many students.” The point is that the students should stand on their feet and accept the task of becoming Torah scholars.
We plead before the Almighty to regard us as children and not as slaves. This is not only because it is more likely that a son will be exonerated, perhaps even with a kind word and a pat from his father. Rather, it is because a son, in addition to reporting his deeds in detail (“You remember everything ever done and not a single creature is hidden from You…), also engages with his father in dialogue. There exists a relationship between father and son. In contrast to the slave, the son is allowed to argue and explain, beg and plead.
The status of the son, however, also has its negative aspects. Unlike a slave, a son cannot remain passive and wait to see how his judgment will be decided. The slave’s ability to influence judgment is minimal, and as a result his work is easy. The son must strain himself and put in effort; he must bridge the gap between father and son, from whom he has distanced himself until now.
God has promised: “If you open [to Me] an entrance the size of a needlepoint, I will open [to you] an entrance the size of the Temple’s hall.” But grope in the darkness and wonder: Where is the opening? If only we could reach it! God is transcendent, holy, holy, holy. How can we stand before Him; how do we argue and request, pray and appease Him? How can we open the gate that we cannot find?
But a comfort for us: “For what great nation is there, that has God so close unto them, as the Lord our God is whenever we call upon Him?” (Devarim 4:7).
God appears far but He is close. As said by Rabbi Levi: From the earth to the firmament is a journey of five hundred years, and the thickness of the firmament is a five hundred year journey. From one firmament to another is [a] five hundred year [journey], and so from each [layer] of the firmament. Above the firmament are the hooves of the Chayot [angels]… and upon the throne of glory, and above all of them, is the elevated and exalted King, dwelling until [eternity], and Holy is His name. And even though He is elevated and exalted, He still dwells amidst the lowly and humble of spirit, and a person may enter the synagogue and stand and whisper his prayers, and God listens… (Midrash Tehillim, Psalm 4)
(This sicha was delivered on Rosh Ha-shana 5759 .)