The service that concludes Yom Kippur is known as ne’ilah, roughly meaning “the hour of the closing of the gates”—a reference to the last opening afforded to us for repentance and renewal as the Days of Awe draw to an end.
As this sacred season ends, so it commences. This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is always read at the beginning of Elul, the month of self-reflection and preparation that precedes the fall holy days. It opens: “Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.” On a surface level, this injunction calls us to establish a legal system, but most commentators delve deeper into the imagery of gates. The Hasidic teacher Mei Shiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica) reads the passage as a spiritual imperative, identifying the gates with the seven physical openings through which we take in the world: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth.
What does this metaphor teach us? If we understand the “gates” in the passage to be the instruments of our sensory perception, what would it mean for us to appoint “judges” over each of them? Mei HaShiloach implies that we must carefully govern both the information we seek to acquire and the ways in which we use that information. Our challenge is to make every effort to view the world through positive attributes such as justice, kindness, compassion, and honesty. If this was true for Mei HaShiloach almost two centuries ago, all the more does it apply to us, for we live in an age of information overload. Our senses are bombarded daily with images and ideas—many of which are far from positive. What we choose to take in goes a long way toward determining what we, in turn, put back out into the world. Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant guardians of our “gates.”
In his wonderful book on our fall holy days, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us: “Judges shall you put in all your gates. This is how Teshuvah begins. When Elul comes around again, watch the window. Keep a mindful eye on the gates of the soul.” As Elul begins, this Tuesday, and through the days that will bring us to Rosh Hashanah, try paying closer attention to all that enters your “gates” and how it affects your emotions and actions.