In the winter of 2005, I traveled to New York with my family for a cousin’s bat mitzvah. Our hotel was on Central Park and across the street, in the park, was an installation by the artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude. It consisted of 7,500 temporary gates running through the park, each gate hung with a panel of saffron fabric. Looking out from our window, the gates created an enchanting glow against the bleak winter landscape. During our stay, we made numerous trips to the park, visiting different sections of the installation. My children were entranced by the endless doorways leading through the scenery. I was intrigued by the way the gates re-framed familiar sights. I also couldn’t help but think of how Judaism uses the image of a gate as a spiritual metaphor for the process we undertake over the Days of Awe, the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I love the symbolism of gates at this season of the year. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that, rather than building great physical edifices, Judaism created sanctuaries and palaces in time. When we light the shabbat or holiday candles we are opening the gates to these great dwellings of the spirit.

Tonight, as Rosh Hashanah begins we speak of opening the gates of the new year, an image that speaks of expansiveness and possibility.

In our tradition, these gates have many names: gates of repentance, gates of compassion, gates of righteousness, gates of heaven. All these names speak of opening gates within, the barriers inside ourselves to truth and change, compassion and a sense of eternity. Marge Piercy’s poem, “Shabbat Moment” speaks to this internal opening the Days of Awe also ask of us:

Untie the knots of the will,
your clenched grip
barren hills of bone.
Here, no edges to hone,
only the palm [of the hand]
open as a rose abo
to toss its petals.
What you have made,
what you have spoiled
let go.[1]

In another poem, “Coming Up On September,” Piercy addresses a different aspect of gates:

The New Year is a great door
that stands across the evening and Yom
Kippur is the second door. Between them
are song and silence, stone and clay pot
to be filled from within myself.[2]

As Piercy implies, gates can also provide boundaries, flanking an enclosure. We can experience the Days of Awe as a protected space in which we have the security and the freedom necessary for the inner work we face. Perhaps we might visualize this sanctuary of time as a garden, perhaps the original garden of Eden in which we were once whole. Rabbinic tradition compares the Garden of Eden to the womb, a place where there is nurture and all needs are met without effort or conflict. This image is especially appropriate to observing Rosh Hashanah. Poet Marcia Falk notes:

As we celebrate the birthday of the world,
the great creation out of which we are born
we bring attention to the ongoing creation of
our lives, by which we make ourselves new
each day.
We enter the gates, grateful
for the blessing of renewal.[3

In Jewish mystical tradition this time between the gates is one of an exceptional connection between the material and spiritual worlds:

The Zohar teaches that [this period is] when the world
we live in..—the world of creation, inevitably a world
of brokenness and disconnection—unites with the world
above…where all is One.”[4]

The gates are also metaphors for the markers of a human lifespan from birth to death. On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of everything, ourselves included. On Yom Kippur we rehearse death—a physical removal from the world which includes abstention from food, sex, bathing, and other attentions to our bodies as well as dressing in white, reminiscent of both shrouds and the clarity of angels. This ten day cycle is meant to remind us of both the transience and significance of our individual lives, encouraging us to make the most of our time between the gates of beginning and end. Poet Yehuda Amichai observes human experience this way:

Open closed open. Before we are born,
everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live,
everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.[5]

Reading this poem and thinking of the rhythm of the words—open, closed, open / open, closed, open makes me think of the rhythm of our breath or our heartbeat as another image of the gates opening, closing, opening, closing with the flow of life going through them.

Where does this image of the gates come from? It is probably as old as the Temple in Jerusalem whose easternmost entrance consisted of two golden doors, one called the Gate of Repentance, the other the Gate of Mercy. They marked the boundary between the sacred space of the Temple and the outside world. This portal was aligned so that the rays of the sun shone through it at the autumn and spring equinox, the times of the Days of Awe and Passover. The Psalms speak of Gates of Righteousness and Eternity. Talmudic accounts give this doorway seven different names, including the Gate of Turning, and the Foundation Gate. Christians and Muslims came to call it the Golden Gate, perhaps because of a tradition that a golden object placed over the entryway reflected the rising sun. Rabbinic legend also recounts that it was through these gates that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, went into exile when the Temple was destroyed.[6]

Whatever their names or origin, the gates are always spoken of in the plural. They are always multiple, more than one path is available to us if we wish to enter. The Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder Hasidism, taught that an opened heart is the key which unlocks any spiritual gateway. Tonight we stand again at these widening gates, on the threshold of a splendid sanctuary in time. May the gates represent an opening of our hearts and minds to the extraordinary possibility of life renewed.  Shanah tovah.


[1]Marge Piercy, The Art of Blessing the Day

[2] Marge Piercy, The Art of Blessing the Day

[3] Marcia Falk, The Days Between

[4] Rachel Barentblat, Days of Awe                                                                                                            

[5] Yehuda Amichai, Open Closed Open

[6] [Julian Morgenstern, “The Gates of Righteousness,” Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 6 (1929), pp. 1-37]