Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The boy whistled, and the gates of heaven swung open.

You've heard this story, if you went to any sort of Jewish school. It's the one about the congregation that was itching to start praying one Yom Kippur eve, but couldn't because the Rabbi had seen the Gates of Heaven and they were closed. A small shepherd boy went to the front of the shul, pounded on the table, and from the depths of his soul, he whistled. The congregation was impressed by the boy's act of devotion and so, apparently was God. "The Gates of Heaven are open," announced the rabbi, and the Yom Kippur prayers commenced.
(Note: Please read the comments. "Simon" has brought to light new and important information about this story. 9/22/04)

I hate this story on many levels. It's offensive to logic, to the tradition and to common sense. On one level, though, I like this story very much.

First the gripes:

1 There has not been a Rabbi since Moses, who could see the Gates of Heaven, and tell us when God's favor was withheld. The Rabbi in the story is lying. He has some other reason for putting off the prayers, or maybe he's demented or drunk. In any event, he's not being honest with the congregation and his dishonesty is leading the congregation to sin, because...

Prayer services aren't delayed. We're required to pray at set times. There's nothing in the rule book about putting off the services in the unpresedented event God decides to hang a "Be Back Soon" sign up on the pearly gates.

3 Gates of Heaven, in fact, is a Christian conceit. Jewish heaven isn't some upper class community with stern walls to keep out the riff-raff. Nowhere in our books is it ever described thusly. in the Jewish imagination heaven is a study hall, not a private resort. Perhaps when the story was first told, God was called angry, or absent. That's a mistake, but at least it's a familiar Jewish mistake. Despite the efforts of the Rishonim, Jews persist in assigning emotions to God. (See the Yad, Sefer Maadah, where the Rambam makes it clear as an unmuddied lake that god has no emotions like anger, and he's not the sort to take a vacation.)

4 Acts of devotion, like whistling, mean nothing to God. He doesn't want whistling. He doesn't want acrobatics. He's no fan of fire eating. He wants us to follow the laws, to the best of our abilities, and that is pretty much it. (Being "a good person" covers a great many of the laws, but not all of them) If it's time to pray, he wants us to pray. If the gates of heaven (or whatever) were actually closed, the congregation should have been praying. If God appears to be ignoring us, the answer is always prayer. Not whistling. Prayer.

5 Whistling, is not a form of prayer. If it was, the Anshei Keneset HaGedolah would have prescribed it. They did not. Instead, they gave us all those words to say. Tiresome, I know. If you find it boring, by all means stay home. In fact, stay home and whistle if you like. But, please, no pretending that whistling is a suitable substitute. It isn't.

Ok, now let me tell you what's good about the story.

This morning one of of our vendors, a middle-aged Jewish lady, called me. We never discuss Judaism, never even acknowldge that both of us are Jewish. I always imagined she was reform, or reconsturctionist, or indifferent. Today she wished me a happy new year, and after a few seconds conversation about shul and brisket and other things Jewish I realized that she's probably Conservative, and that she takes certain rituals very seriously. She heard shofar on Thursday and Friday. She'll fast next week. She eats matzo on the first night of Passover. She's not perfect - none of us are - but she does more, cares more, than I thought.

The point? We have no idea who is holy, and who is not. Our eyes and ears can detect physical flaws and physical merits. They are not wired to detect holiness or its absence. People who anounce their holiness, through their clothing, for example, are sometimes like the pig, an animal which announces he is kosher by showing us split hoofs, though he is, in fact, quite treif .

We exist, to an extent, on the merits of others. This is why we pray communally, and speak communally in our prayers. But whose merits? No one knows. It could be the rabbi at the front of the room who's holy enough to see that the gates are closed (snort) Or it could be the dirty, shepherd boy. Being able to whistle is not meritorious, so the shepherd boy in your shul, in your neighborhood, is not a whistler. He's learning in secret, or he's taking care of the sick, or he's giving charity, or he puts the honor of his fellow man, above his own, or he's superbly meticulous about Shabbos. You'll never find him, but he's there. It's impossible to know who is good and who is not, and this story, for all its flaws, is urging us to remember that we are men, and our perceptions are imperfect.


Check out Berachos 32b for two gemaros that contradict points 2 and 3.
G'mar chasima tova,

Can you tell me more? I'd like to argue.

My hunch is you are citing agados, and as Shmuel Hanagid reminds us in "mevoh l'talmud" agados aren't to be taken at face value, a point reiterated in the Ramchal's "ma'amar al ha'agados"

Further, I may not know the Gemarahs you mentioned, but the Rishonim certainly did, and they are the ones who insisted that prayed take place at its set time. Not me.

Did you like the rest of the post, my friend? It did have a point, you know.


It's a stupid hasidic story, so what do you expect?

Only those morons think that singing songs are better than prayers, and only those morons think that praying at the appointed time is an outdated practice deserving of reform.

Thanks for throwing the light of reason on their gross dumbness. Hope you'll do it again soon, though I expect that the phony hasidim who oppose the modern world but own computers and like to read you are going to cry.  

Your ending was sappy I want you to know. Skip the maudlin historionics  

Have I been DOPEd? Hmmm... The story, to my eye, isn't significantly Hasidic.  

Reb Adam:
First of all, sorry, I meant point 3 is contradicted from this gemara:
Gemara Berachos 32b: "R' Elazar said: From the day the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed, the gates of prayer were locked, as it says, "Even when I cry out in prayer, my prayer is blocked (Eicha 3)." Although the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears were not locked, as it says, "Hashem, hear my prayer - to my outcry, listen - don't be silent to my tears (Psalms 39)." Rava did not proclaim a fast-day on a cloudy day, because it is said, "You have covered yourself with a cloud, not allowing prayer through (Eicha 3)." Rabbi Elazar said: From the day the Bais Hamikdah was destroyed, an iron wall divides Israel and their father in heaven, as it is said..."
As far as Agadata is concerned, we certainly can use the terminology that is used in agadata. Also, you wrote, "agados aren't to be taken at face value." What you should have written is, "Not all agados are to be taken at face value."
Yes, Davening should be at the proper time.
As far as the rest of the post? Look - the point of a chassidishe ma'ase is to inspire the listener. No one is going around whistling in Shul even though this story was repeated thousands of times. If you are not inspired, find a different story that does inspire you! Not every Rebbe is for every Chassid.

Your citations do not disagree with point 2. They discuss tears and prayer, not heaven; they do not describe heaven as being gated or walled off. I stand by my statment that "heavenly gates" is a Christian conceit. However, you've taught me today that "gates of prayer" is a Jewish conceit. If I tell this story again, I'll say the Rabbi saw that the gates of prayer were closed, not the gates of heaven.

Gates of prayer, of course, is as metaphor; as you agreed, agados are not to be taken at face value. ("Not all" is a distinction without a difference.)

I still don't think this story is especially hasidic, Skeptic's howling notwithstanding.  

Gates of Prayer being closed, is not a reason not to daven!!!! If those gates have been closed since the Temple got burnt, why do we go to shul at all?!?!  

The trouble with stories like this is that they get told and retold in increasingly corrupt form. If you go back to the original in "Kehal Hasidim Hehadash" (yes, it is Hasidic), quoted in Agnon's "Yamim Noraim" Book 3 chapter 23, most of your kashes don't start. It's too long to quote in full, but the shepherd boy is illiterate and unable to pray himself; he blows his whistle while everybody is praying Ne'ila and this makes the Ba'al Shem Tov shorten his own prayer, and he explained afterwards that "the child raised up all the prayers with his whistle and took a weight from my shoulders. He knows nothing, but he saw and heard the prayers and this lit in him a spark of holiness like fire which made his whistle come directly from the depth of his heart for the sake of God's Blessed Name alone, and God accepted the sound of his pure breath and raised up all the prayers."  

Simon, I really appreciate your comment. As you said, it removes many of the story's problems (though you've given evidence of a new, much deeper problem, namely that, as they are retold, stories are often bent out of shape.)

In the corrected version, let me point out, the whistling boy had no affect on God, which is how it should be: whistling isn't prayer, and God does not ask for acts of devotion. Rather, the whistling inspired the Besht. The boys effort and example brought the Besht to a new hight. This is reasonable.

Thanks, also, for confirming the story is Hasidic. Please come again, Simon.  

I saw at least two references in the davening for "Gates of Heaven."  

It's not literal; figurativly, it doesn't mean that heaven is walled off.  
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