Yom Kippur 5779

Knocking on the wrong door[1]

הפותח שער לדופקי בתשובה
He opens a gate for those who knock in repentance[2]

The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season is all about self-improvement. Realigning ourselves in our service of Hashem, fixing our priorities, and righting past wrongs. The goal is to do teshuva, normally translated as repentance. More accurately, it means to return. This time of year is reserved for returning to our Creator[3], and planning to do better this year. One of the prayers that are said is: “[Hashem] opens a gate for those who knock in repentance”. The implication is that the gates in Heaven are closed, until we knock. We simply have to turn to Hashem, ask for forgiveness, and he’ll accept it. He’ll open the gates of repentance in Heaven for us. The problem is, this contradicts an idea that is taught by our Sages[4]. Prayer is compared to a mikveh, whereas repentance is compared to a river. A mikveh is sometimes open, sometimes closed. So too the gates of prayer are sometimes open, sometimes close. Not every time is an equal opportunity for prayer. However, unlike a mikveh, a river is never closed. So too the gates of repentance are never closed. Teshuva is always accepted. Why then is this prayer indicating that the gates of repentance need to be opened?

One suggestion that is given[5] is that the gates in this prayer are not referring to the gates of repentance. The prayer is referring to the gates of Jerusalem in the (hopefully not too distant) future. It’s referring to when the Messiah will come, and all will flock to the gates of Jerusalem. The problem with this explanation is that it doesn’t fit the context so well. The prayer is clearly talking about repentance, and it would make sense that the gates in question are those of repentance. Another explanation that is offered[6] is that sometimes “to open” can mean “to widen”[7]. For example, the verse, “Hashem opened her womb”, really means He widened her womb[8]. In this prayer, it refers to really big sins. The gates of repentance are open, but sometimes the bigger sins can’t get through. Hashem therefore widens the gates, to help those who knock with teshuva get through the opening.

However, there’s another explanation which may fit better with the wording[9]. There’s a principle, that even though prophets and Angels can see the deepest depths of a person, everything about them, even before they are born[10], there’s one thing they can’t see. They can’t see if a person will repent from their sins[11]. Why is that? The Angels see all the gates in Heaven, which correlate to all the different paths people will take in their life. Sometimes, the way things presently are, they don’t see any possibility for a person to repent. If someone is on such a wicked path, that’s the only gate they see. Hashem, with His infinite compassion, opens new gates for such people, when they knock in teshuva.

There’s a parable[12] that really brings this idea out. There was once a Jew who was traveling by foot in a foreign land, and it started pouring intensely. He needed to seek shelter. Even though it was pitch black, he thankfully found what appeared to be a house. As he approached the entrance, he believed he saw that there was a mezuzah. “Thank G-d!”, he thought, “a Jew will surely help me avoid this storm”. He started knocking on the door, but no answer. The rain intensified, and the man was shivering. He banged harder and harder, but no one was answering. “How could this be?”, he thought. “A Jew lives here and is leaving me to suffer?” He banged as hard as he could, but he couldn’t get a response. All of a sudden, there was a huge flash of lightning, and he got a glimpse of the surface that he was banging on. He was situated a few feet to the right of the door, and was really banging on the brick wall. This is why no one answered. Not so with teshuva. If a person can’t get through the gates of repentance, which are never closed, all they need to do is knock. Hashem will open for them new doors, new gates, and accept them lovingly.

Good Shabbos and Gemar Chasima Tovah

[1] Based on a shmuess given by Rabbi Reznick at a Melava Malka, parshas Shoftim 5774

[2] From the Mussaf prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, s.v. האוחז ביד (popularly known as כל מאמינים)

[3] Rosh Hashanah 18a

[4] Devarim Rabbah 2:12; Eichah Rabbah 3:15; Midrash Tehillim 65:4; Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 24:2

[5] Drushei HaTzlach Derush 13 for the first days of Selichos § 9

[6] Imrei Emes Devarim Erev Yom Kippur 5689

[7] Sifrei Devarim § 306

[8] Genesis 29:31

[9] Ye’aros Devash I § 15

[10] Tosafos to Niddah 16b s.v. הכל says that prophets (and presumably Angels) can see even if a person will be righteous or wicked, as evident from King Chizkiya (see note 11)

[11] Ye’aros Devash proves this from Yishmael, where the Angels couldn’t see that he would repent (see Genesis 21:17 and Bereishis Rabbah 53:14. Cf. Rashi ad. loc.). He also uses this to provide a new explanation of the story in Berachos 10a, where King Chizkiya didn’t want to have children, because he saw that his son Menashe would be extremely wicked. The prophet Yeshaya told him that he can’t see everything; perhaps he would repent. This is exactly what ended up happening

[12] Rabbi Reznick quoted this from the Beis HaLevi, but I couldn’t find it