2013: OPEN UP THE GOLDEN GATE
A lot of us have read Dan Brown’s new novel Inferno. The basis of this book comes from Dante’s classic poem about a journey through the levels of Hell. When you get to Hell, Dante wrote, there is a sign on the gate:
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Let me be very clear: I don’t believe in Hell. I believe that while there is an afterlife for good people, bad people just die and that’s the end of them. But while I don’t believe in Hell, Dante’s definition is very useful as a metaphor.
Think about Hell in a more sophisticated way, not about an underworld after life but as a metaphor for things that happen during life. In our lives, what’s Hell?
The sign on Dante’s gate is right: Hell is a life without hope. Many of us have experienced levels of Hell in our lives.
We have lived through unbearable sorrow, and tragedy, and heartache.
We have seen our worst fears actually happen.
We have seen our loved ones suffer.
We have experienced pain beyond all endurance.
We have been tormented by people who were supposed to love us.
We have been isolated; we have been abandoned.
We know a lot about the levels of Hell, don’t we?
But the sign on the gate is right: You really enter Hell when you lose all hope. Hell begins with despair.
So, thinking about this symbolism, I asked myself this out-of-the-box question: If there’s no hope when you go through the Gate of Hell, what gate can I go through that will bring me hope?
And I have an answer.
If you’ve ever been to Israel, you’ve gone to Jerusalem.
And if you’ve gone to Jerusalem, you’ve gone to the Temple Mount.
And if you’ve gone to the Temple Mount, you’ve had a tour of the ancient walls. And while you were taking pictures, you weren’t listening to the tour guide who was talking about those walls. The tour guide lectured on walls and gates and Solomon and Herod and you weren’t listening to a word. You were at the exact center of the world and you were thinking about lunch.
So if you’ve been to Israel and haven’t listened, or you haven’t gone to Israel yet, let me tell you about something you’ve missed.
Jerusalem had many gates. One of them is often called the Golden Gate. It is the oldest of the gates in the walls of the Old City. The gate is located in the middle of the eastern side of the Temple Mount.
According to Jewish tradition, it was known as Sha'ar Harachamim, the Gate of Mercy. Our tradition says that the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, used to appear through this gate, and will appear again when the Messiah comes. Jewish people used to pray at this gate for mercy, for the Messiah, for a new and better world. It was, in other words, the Gate of Hope.
In Christian texts, it is said that Jesus passed through this gate on Palm Sunday. Both Jewish and Christian traditions state that the Messiah will return to Jerusalem from the summit of the Mount of Olives and then proceed into Jerusalem through the Golden Gate.
But in 1541, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sealed off the Golden Gate to prevent the Messiah's entrance. The Muslims also built a cemetery in front of the gate, in the belief that Elijah, who would come right before the Messiah, would not be able to pass through the Golden Gate. According to Islamic teaching, Elijah is a priest, a kohen, who is not permitted to enter a cemetery. So if Elijah can’t go through a cemetery, he can’t go through the gate.
And if he can’t go through the gate, the Messiah can’t come.
Still, adherents of all three faiths have chosen to be buried as close as possible to the Golden Gate, believing that those buried in the immediate vicinity will be the first to be resurrected when the Messiah comes.
But the gate has remained closed to this day. If you are wondering why you never heard about this gate, it‘s because you were too busy thinking about felafel. You can go on-line and see pictures of the closed Eastern gate.
When I go to Jerusalem, I look at that gate, that closed gate, and think about what it would be like to open it.
Now you’re probably also wondering why Suleiman closed the gate. He was scared of that gate. He did not want the Messiah to come. He wanted to stop the Messiah.
He believed in the power of that gate, he believed in the power of hope, and so he wanted to close the gate and stop hope.
In this, he was like a lot of powerful people throughout history, evil people who, in seeking to maintain power, have done everything they can think of to foreclose the hopes of everyone else.
If you’re Jewish, you have often wondered why so many evil leaders throughout history have hated the Jewish people. It is the mystery of anti-Semitism. The reason all haters hate the Jewish people is because they want to close the gate, they want to end hope, they do not want the world to change, they do not want peace.
They know that the Jewish people is the people of hope. We always have been. We are the survivors of history. We are the ones who have always looked forward.
Israel is the symbol and the reality of the Jewish people. It is the symbol that has become real again. There are real life people in Israel and they have taken a land that very few people lived in and made it bloom, they have drained the malaria-infested swamps and made the desert green.
And all that is hope, and all of that is life, the forces of life, unlike the swamps and the deserts of death.
“We have to stop this,” say the forces of death and destruction. “We want the desert to be desert and the swamps to be swamps.
“We want the poor to live in sickness and poverty and we, their leaders, will have all the power. And if anyone gives our people money, we will take the money for ourselves and keep them poor. Our name is Arafat and Hamas and Hezbollah and the Islamic Brotherhood.”
These leaders want their own people to live in one level of Hell or another.
They want this earth to be a Hell for people
A Hell of hatred and despair.
We Jewish people have always been on the side of those who hope.
And that’s what Israel is, Hatikvah, which means “the hope.” That’s why Hatikvah is Israel’s national anthem. Israel is all about hope.
And that’s why so many want to destroy Israel.
Israel is bad news for the bad guys. Israel is bad news for the bad guys. And that is why, among so many other reasons, our support for Israel must be constant and unwavering,
why we must refute the false claims of the liars who fabricate lie after lie about Israel. Evil people tell lies in order to bewilder and paralyze good people and make them think that Israel is evil. We know what their game is. It is to destroy hope and make this world a living Hell.
Let’s move from Israel and the world scene to our own lives and think about our personal hopes and our personal hells where we live without hope.
Let me tell you about two people I know. Neither of them belongs to this congregation.
I’m thinking of a man who has an idea about his life. The idea is that no one cares about him. His parents thought his older brother was the king of the world and he, well, he was just an afterthought. But his parents were what I was referring to the other night, “good enough” parents, they provided a safe and stable home and they never yelled at him and they sent him to college. But they weren’t good enough; not really. He needed and wanted more. So he developed his idea of life, that you should not expect much from anyone, that you’re on your own, that no one cares very deeply about you.
And he went to school and college and out into the world and he got married and it was all ok. And he and his wife had a girl and he loved his wife and his daughter but none of them were close. It was all ok, but it wasn’t really ok. And then his wife decided to leave because she wanted more.
And the man said, “You see, I told myself. No one really cares.”
But then a miracle happened. He met a woman and she had her quirks and her baggage but she really loved him. And he couldn’t get it. The woman was patient and devoted and consistent and she was the best thing that ever happened to him.
But he wouldn’t open the gate. The gate was closed. He didn’t want hope to walk in. He was too afraid that if he hoped and loved, his whole construct of life would have to change and he was comfortable in his skepticism and hopelessness.
He had built his own level of Hell and he would not leave it. He had abandoned hope and he could not grasp its reality and its power.
And on numerous occasions I have sat with him and his wife and pleaded with him and tried to show him that things in his life really are better, that someone really cares about him. I beg him to open the gate of hope. But he cannot believe that he’s happy. He will not open the gate. But I won’t give up. I’m going to get him to open the Golden Gate.
Here’s a story from the other end of the spectrum. A woman lost her husband. It was a great marriage. They did everything together. And when he died, like so many others, she said, “What do I do now?” In my terms, the gate had always been open but now it felt closed.
She was asking, “What hope do I have now?” (This is what I was talking about on Rosh Hashanah, about becoming single the hard way.) And we sat trying to figure out how to open the gate again. It isn’t easy. It is a struggle, every single day.
And finally, I arrived at a seemingly simple formula, what I call Hopes for the Day. Every morning, I ask myself: What are my hopes for this day and for this week and what can I do to make them happen?
By thinking out the day, I focus on the things I need to do, and hope that I can do each of them well. Some of my hopes are serious, like helping someone in need or teaching or speaking well. Some of my hopes are a little less serious, like finally beating Level 208 of Candy Crush Saga. I try to set up these very specific and concrete goals for every day. And then if I meet the goals, I feel this sense of little victories, of accomplishment. I arrived at this conclusion: Hoping, without doing, is another form of despair. If you hope but you don’t think you can do anything about it, and you won’t even try, you are not really hopeful at all.
I talked about this to the woman who found herself alone and in despair. And I told her about the Golden Gate in Jerusalem and how we need to open it. I showed her a picture of the closed Eastern Gate.
I am not saying that these thoughts magically changed her life. Her husband is still gone. But one morning she called me and said,
“Today it was so bad that I couldn’t get out of bed. And I was so desperate that I played your game, Rabbi, but I couldn’t find anything to hope for in the day ahead. Not one thing. So I visualized going to the Golden Gate in Jerusalem and prying it open with all my strength and fingernails.”
That’s what I’m talking about. You have to open the gate of hope every day, even if it means scratching at the wall. You have to find reasons to go on. And what this means, very simply, is that you say: “What can I hope for?” Not “what can I idly fantasize about?” but “what can I reasonably hope for?” And once you have those hopes, you have a program for the day and the week and the year. Once the gate is open, you have a lot to do.
We’re sitting here on Yom Kippur and we’re thinking about the year that just passed and the year coming up. We should be focused on our hopes for this coming year. If we’re not doing this, we’re in trouble.
It’s very simple: If you don’t have hope, you’re in Hell. You must find things to hope for in every day and every year and every part of your life.
Hope can come from faith in G-d. With G-d, you don’t have to open the gate all by yourself. I read an article by a Jewish atheist who says that he goes to shul and celebrates the holidays because Judaism has fictions that have so much truth in them that they give him hope. The author of that article is sophisticated enough to see hope in a set of beliefs that he does not literally believe in but from which he wants to draw optimism for the future. This atheist sees that G-d is a golden gate of hope.
We have to give each other hope. In every relationship we have, we have to give each other the right encouragement.
In May, my baby daughter Sarah graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. And on the day she graduated, she was very happy to remind me of the first time I brought her to Penn for an orientation session for prospective students, and I saw her falling in love with the school and I whispered to her, “Honey, don’t get too excited. I don’t think you can get in here.” When she gleefully reminded me of that remark, I started thinking about whether I should have said that. You know what I was doing. I was trying to be a good parent. As a rabbi, I see too many parents raise their children with this unhealthy obsession that they have to go to a certain school or they should “expect” to get in here or there and it usually raises hopes too high and increases the disappointment when the kid doesn’t get in. I was afraid that if Sarah didn’t get in, she would be terribly disappointed. So I was trying to say the right thing.
In my defense, that’s a really hard school to get into. And while I was trying to prepare her for not getting in, I was doing everything I could to push her hopes further.
Still, I shouldn’t have said, “I don’t think you can get in here.”
I should have said, “We’ll really try to make this happen.”
I tell you this personal story because there is a very blurry line between being realistic and being pessimistic. We should always be thinking about how we raise and dampen hopes. In just about every relationship we have, we are called upon to find the balance between realism and optimism and realism and pessimism. Our words, for the people we love, are very important.
For our own sake and the sake of our loved ones, we have to open up the gate of the Eastern Wall, the Golden Gate.
And we have to open up the Western Wall, too. I’ve talked about a wall you don’t know about, the Eastern Wall, so let me talk about the Wall you do know about, the Western Wall.
Most of us have heard about the controversy over the participation of a group called Women of the Wall that has made international news in the last year. It has been difficult to read about ultra-Orthodox protesters harassing women who want to pray at the Wall. But this became more painful for me personally when a member of our congregation, Linda Spivack, had a terrible, disturbing experience. She and her family were invited to a Bat Mitzvah ceremony on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. Throughout the week prior to the Bat Mitzvah ceremony, everyone in Israel kept talking about the demonstration that would take place at the Kotel that morning since it was the first Rosh Chodesh after the court decision to allow the Women of the Wall the right to daven, put on tefillin, and read from the Torah at the Wall. This legal and heartfelt expression of prayer was met with the loud, angry, ugly protests of the ultra-Orthodox who threw water bottles and other objects and shouted insults at the Women of the Wall.
When they threw that water, they were trying to pour cold water on hope, on the hope that everyone can be equal.
I know the history; I know that men always had all the rights and women did not. And I know that in this world today, men are doing everything they can to keep their exclusive rights to their first class status in their religions.
But they are wrong and narrow: Everyone is equal. The Wall is for everyone. And we in America should do everything we can to support those brave women who simply want to pray at our holiest place of prayer.
We have to open up the Eastern Wall and we have to open up the Western Wall, so that hope can come for everyone.
And by the way, no one is stopping you from praying here.
In your life, there is hope and comfort waiting for you, and it is to be found in your relationship with G-d, in prayer, and in being a part of this community.
But I gather that most of us in this room don’t want hope, most of us don’t want perspective, so we only come to this gate of hope when we either have an invitation or a ticket.
Don’t be like Suleiman the not-so Magnificent.
The Gate of Hope has been sealed shut for centuries and in our own lives.
There is hope here
There is perspective here
You can’t do it alone, you can’t do it by yourself. Don’t close the gate on hope
Don’t close the gate on the possibility that other people can help you find what you need
The truth is that all too often, you find yourself living in a personal Hell.
We have to open the gate of hope together.
Help us to push it open, like my friend says, with all our strength and fingernails.