The Gates of the Essential

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February 1, 2013
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Elie Holzer

“Good-bye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” “What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.1

Our sages describe prayer as a “labor of the heart.”2 Can prayer also enable a gaze of the heart? At its core, prayer is a gesture toward radical otherness. Toward the invisible essential within me. Behind me. Beyond me…

Friday, at sunset; Shabbat. Prayer. Community: A call from above. From behind. A frail, silent call from within…

The gates of time have been closed all week. Time has been confined to hours, minutes, calendars, appointments, schedules, deadlines. The gates of the soul are pushed shut by drives, emotions, longings, victories, pain, hopes, and disappointments — sealed by the buzz of the six days. Some weeks, the gates are even heavier.

A voice from far behind: “Thus says the Lord God: ‘The gate of the inner court that looks toward the East shall be shut on the six working days; but on the Sabbath day, it shall be opened.’”3

Then a whisper from behind in a soft, warm, intimate tone: “Please also pay attention to the inner court of time — that is, to Shabbat. And pay attention to the inner court of your own being — that is, to your inner Shabbat. Both should be opened.”4

Open the prayer book. Open the Shabbat. Open the gates.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.5 First, I must pay attention to the words of prayer before me on the pages of the prayer book. We met decades ago, when I was learning to read Hebrew. Back then, they were respectable, white-haired members of the tradition’s welcoming committee. Over time, on occasion, I’ve been able to see beyond their facade and reach out toward their invisible (changing) essentials. In prayerful moments, to utter these words is to meet them anew; I am transcended by what feels like a chord of sound — not individual sounds, but sounds put together. The sounds resonate throughout my being. The resonance comes from a place that remains invisible, but is thus the more present within me or perhaps outside of me. I cannot really say.

The words of prayer create sounds that are capable of moving the inner gates ever so slightly. The words have the power to transform: Rather than massive gates blocking my entrance, they slowly turn into windows. They open to me to allow an inner light to shine through.

Second, I must pay attention to the sound of my voice in prayer. I work to find the right intonation to elevate the words as an offering from within me. But then it just happens; suddenly, the words, the voice, the intonation dance together. “Sh’ma” — “listen.” I listen. The voice itself seems to be coming from an invisible place. Is it within or beyond me?

When will the gates of time, the gates of my soul open? Solitary prayer does not offer enough at this moment. Praying alone is akin to being in a windowless room. Collective prayer is a room with windows.6 Carefully listening to the radical otherness of my voice, I notice the voices of others. I hear the voices that danced with these words in centuries past. I hear the voices of those praying here and now. They are a call from the outside. What is it that I hear in her voice? What do I sense in his?

Shabbat is arriving. I turn to welcome the Shabbat haMalkah, the Sabbath Queen, invisible
yet so present. “Come in peace.” In one movement, I turn with and toward those praying near me and see Shabbat’s holy, invisible countenance in their shining faces.7 Prayer is neither private nor internal now.

The gates are open. I am called. Claimed. Commanded. Held responsible — from within and beyond. The distinction is blessedly lost: “A mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and its initial validity… The mystery is not the unknowable… The recognition
of mystery is an essentially positive act of the
mind, the supremely positive act in virtue of which all positivity may perhaps be strictly defined.”8

And said Rabbi Yitzchak: “The blessing dwells only in what is invisible to the eye.”9

1 Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince, Ch. XXI
2 BT Ta’anit 2a
3 Ezekiel 46: 1. The verse refers to the Temple in Jerusalem.
4 Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, known as the Sfat Emet (1848-1905)
5 Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
6 BT Brachot 31a explains the requirement that a place of public prayer should have windows.
7 Midrash Rabbah Genesis 11:2
8 Gabriel Marcel, Being and Having
9 BT Baba Metzia 42a

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Rabbi Elie Holzer, a professor of Jewish education at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, lives with his family in Jerusalem. He is co-founder, with Tova Hartman, of Kehillat Shira Hadasha as well as of Shma Koleinu: The Center for Prayer and Community, an institute for the study and practice of prayer through teaching, research/publication, and consultation. He would like to thank Sari Steinberg for her insightful editorial work.

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