Burst Open the Gates of Justice – September 1, 2011
As we approach our High Holiday session, I am reminded on one of my favorite verses from the book of Psalms: Open for me the gates of the righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to God. (Psalm 118:19)
This verse may sound familiar as it is found a number of times in our High Holiday liturgy. The theme of opening and closing gates is very prevalent in our liturgy; for instance, the final service of Yom Kippur is called ne’ilah or closing, referring to the closing of the proverbial gates. In the context of the High Holidays this Psalm is all about personal repentance and finding peace within ourselves. It is about asking God (however we may define her) to keep the gates open for us to enter and be sealed for another year in the book of life.
However, this verse may also be viewed in a very different context. It can be seen as a call to social justice. It is a call for all of us to work together and as Isaiah (58:12) says, “to raise up the foundations of many generations and be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.” This social justice focused reading of text occurred to me recently while having a discussion of Hebrew grammar with our summer intern, Josh Franklin, about the first words in this verse.
The word in Hebrew for ‘open’ is ‘pitchu.’ This verb appears at first glance as though it is in an ‘intensive form’ meaning something much stronger than ‘to open’ – perhaps to break through or to smash open. If we read this verse with that new meaning, we are no longer asking for the gates to be simple opened, but we are asking for the gates to be flung open in a dramatic intense way. To me, this speaks of a strong, powerful action needed to achieve justice in the world, in our lives, in our city. It is not enough to simple open the gates and hope for the best, we need to burst through them with all of our strength.
After further grammatical discussion however, Josh and I realized that this verb could actually be in a different form which would give it another related meaning; instead of to open, it could mean to develop, to improve and to invent – almost implying an opening up of ourselves or an opening up of new ideas. If we take this meaning, then the verse is asking us to step out of our comfort zones, to be creative and work with a clear plan to achieve justice for ourselves and our neighbors.
There is one more interesting grammatical perplexity to this word, ‘pitchu.’ The verb is in the plural form. If this were an appeal to God to open the gates for us, as it is often interpreted in our liturgy, one would expect the command to be in the singular, as it is speaking to a singular entity, God. However, the plural form of the verb, implies a reading more akin to my wife Laurel’s Texas roots, “Open the gates, Y’all!” We are not asking God to open the gates of justice for us, but in fact asking all of our congregants, friends and neighbors to be a part of this process.
This verse also has one more interesting grammatical point. It does not just say ‘open the gates…” but it says, “open the gates for me…” “For me” or “li” in Hebrew implies that we are not engaging in social justice work for other people alone, we are doing this for ourselves. It is so easy to forget sometimes that we all have brokenness in our lives in some way or another and that real change occurs when all of us work together to find solutions to our shared pain. The ‘li’ speaks to us saying that in the work of social justice, each of us needs to take some ownership of the problems and the solutions.
Rodeph Shalom is one of 35 congregations from every section of Philadelphia who have joined together to transform the social and economic policies that are impacting our families and neighborhoods. Over the past year, we have formed a new multi-faith group called P.O.W.E.R. – Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild. This exciting and growing organization crosses the socio-economic, cultural, and neighborhood lines of our city, and is organizing to promote a new vision, a POWERful and faith-filled voice for change in Philadelphia!
When we were planning this important event, many of the non-Jewish clergy asked me if this date was acceptable even though it was so close to our High Holiday season. I told them that not only was it ok, but it was perfect. What better time to found our new organization than a few days before Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate the founding of the world. What better time to engage in tikkun olam(repair of the world) than when we turn our thoughts to repairing ourselves and our community. And besides, the High Holidays are so late this year, I bet you’re all itching to do something Jewish. What better way to begin the High Holiday season than with one of the most Jewish acts I can think of; opening the gates of justice for all Philadelphians.
I begin this article with a translation of Psalm 118:19; let me leave with you a very different translation of the same verse.
Hey y’all! Burst open the gates; develop, improve and invent a new narrative for Philadelphia, and do it for yourselves. And then and only then can we all enter together and give thanks to God.
We have POWER in Philadelphia and we’re going to show it on September 25th. See you at the convention