When I first started coming to Sinai and using the Reform Machsor for High Holy Days there was always one part that particularly intrigued me, but which I could never find when I tried to look at it in the intervening months. It is written by Franz Kafka, and I assumed, incorrectly, that it could be found in the pages of the Study Anthology. I now know it can be found right at the end of the Machsor – a section the editors describe as ‘two closing parables’ – I suppose as the end of the fast approached my thoughts were on other more mundane matters!

The Kafka parable follows a section of Midrash about Moses. According to this Midrash, when Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Torah he is continually challenged by various angels who try to turn him back. Initially he simply pushes them aside after stating that he is there with God’s permission, but each new angel is more powerful than the last, until finally he is confronted by the angel Hadarniel who is 60 myriads of parasangs taller than any other angels. Now I am sure you all know that a parasang is an ancient Iranian measure, about 5 km or 3 miles in old money. 60 myriads of parasangs is 60 times 10000 times 3 miles; so Hadarniel was something over 2 million miles in height! This section of Midrash is both a parable and clearly something of a tall story. Hadarniel roars at Moses, and as he speaks lightning blazes from his mouth, and Moses is terrified and falls back – but this time God takes pity on Moses and intervenes, finally leading him to the Torah.

In stark contrast Kafka’s parable is all about a doorkeeper who stands guard over The Law – capital T and capital L. A man approaches and begs to be admitted. The doorkeeper considers and then says ‘It is possible … but not at the moment.’

The door is open and the man tries to peer inside. The doorkeeper laughs at him and says ‘If you’re tempted give it a try, try and go in even though I say you can’t. Careful though: I’m powerful. And I’m only the lowliest of all the doormen. But there’s a doorkeeper for each of the rooms and each of them is more powerful than the last. It’s more than I can stand just to look at the third one.’  

The man is perplexed, he thought the law was accessible to everyone, but taking a close look at the doorkeeper, who is a frightening figure, he decides to wait until given permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool to sit on, asks him about his life and background. The man offers gifts to the doorkeeper, who accepts them saying ‘I’ll only accept this so that you don’t think there’s anything you’ve failed to do’.

This goes on for many years. The man gets old and eventually is so weak he can hardly see and is unable to stand up. He feebly beckons to the doorkeeper, who has been standing there the whole time. The doorkeeper has to bend over as the difference in their sizes has changed very much to the disadvantage of the man. ‘What is it you want to know now?’ asks the doorkeeper, ‘You’re insatiable.’ ‘Everyone wants access to the law,’ says the man, ‘how come, over all these years, no-one else has asked to be let in?’ The doorkeeper can see the man’s life is coming to an end, his hearing has faded, and so the doorkeeper shouts to him: ‘Nobody else could have got in this way, as this entrance was meant only for you. Now I’ll go and close it’.”

Kafka wrote this parable as a stand-alone item, and it was published in 1915 in the New Year's edition of the independent Jewish/Zionist weekly Selbstwehr – Self-Defence! Later he incorporated it word-for-word into his book The Trial, where it forms the focus for a discussion between Joseph K, the man who is arrested at the very start of the book, and a priest.

Kafka has been described as a ‘secular Jewish mystic’, and he must have come across the passage from the Midrash in one form or another, since his parable is clearly a response to it. But note how it differs, in the Midrash Moses is determined to reach Torah, the Law, and manages to make his way past the early challengers, only needing divine intervention when confronted at the last by Hadarniel. But in Kafka’s version, the man never gets started, he fails to make any headway at all. But the biggest difference is that while Moses is striving to bring Torah to the Israelites at Sinai and all those who come after them, for Kafka it seems as if each one of us has to strive on our own to reach the Law, and that it may well appear to be blocked by insurmountable challenges.

Kafka’s prose and narrative are beguiling and captivating, but perplexing and confusing. The term Kafkaesque conjures up aspects of modern life that have a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality. I have read several commentaries on Kafka’s parable, and not found any of them very convincing. They try to wrestle with what may have always been intended as a paradoxical and absurd text, and critically none of commentators I came across seems aware of its link to the section from Midrash.

The editors of the Machsor were clearly far more perceptive, deliberately juxtaposing the two and placing them together at the close of the Yom Kippur Neilah service. But in its own way the decision to do this is also puzzling. It is far too easy to overlook the two closing parables in people’s eagerness to get home to break the fast. But also by the time we reach these pages we have come through 10 days of penitence starting with Rosh Hashanah, culminating in a 25 hour fast and a sequence of services that, amongst other things, recalls the Yom Kippur service in the temple conducted by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies.

With the end of the fast close at hand, we come to Neilah which starts with the Sephardic poem or piyyut, written by Moses ibn Ezra in the 12th century; El Nora Alila, God whose work is awesome – each verse ending with a phrase about the Gates of Mercy closing bi-sh'at ha-ne'ilah. This image of closing gates clearly resonates with Kafka’s parable, and the piyyut itself is arranged so that the first letter of each verse forms the phrase Moshe Hazzak – Moses may he be strong – which links to the section of Midrash.

OK – so far so good – there is a link to each parable; we have closing gates and Moses being willed on to great strength, so that he finally reaches his goal. Kafka’s tale on the other hand is in stark contrast, nothing is achieved, all that is left is despair and disappointment. Kafka seems to be telling us that life and pursuit of the law are ultimately futile; we lack the strength and the will for the struggle. None of us is Moshe Rabbenu.

Neilah opens with the singing of El Nora Alila, which was only added to the liturgy in the 12th or 13th century to mark a joyous point as we come to the end of Yom Kippur. In fact the Neilah service itself was a relatively late addition to Yom Kippur – only being added around 2000 years ago.  The traditional jubilant tune for El Nora Alila – which you will hear sung beautifully this afternoon – is in stark contrast to the sombre tone of most of the others for Yom Kippur. And this tone is set for the whole of the Neilah service.

Indeed, within the Chabad Lubavitcher movement, this upbeat tone to Neilah is maintained throughout so that at the end of Neilah the congregation joins in dancing and chanting to an unusual melody. It’s not Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen, it is not Feed Me from Little Shop of Horrors, nor even Food Glorious Food from Oliver, the melody, Napoleon’s March, was the one played by Napoleon’s armies as they invaded Russia in 1812. Make of that what you will.

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Anyway, by the end of Yom Kippur we should not be feeling that life is Kafkaesque; nightmarish, bizarre and illogical. On the contrary we should be feeling elated and full of optimism as we embark upon another year. And I think I have finally worked out why the editors of the Machsor put these two parables together and placed them where they did. Just before the man from the country summons the doorkeeper to ask why no-one else has tried to enter via this door, he realizes he is ailing, and his eyes are growing dim.

‘He no longer knows whether it’s really getting darker or just his eyes that are deceiving him. But he seems now to see an inextinguishable light be­gin to shine from the darkness behind the door.’

Of course it is too late for him, but perhaps he now understands that despite all the discouragement and obstacles that appeared to be placed in his path, there was an entry point specifically for him; one which he never really tried to access.

Kafka’s parable focuses solely on this one person, implying that each one of us has our own door, with its doorkeeper who must be confronted, and pushed aside if each of us individually is to strive to access the Law. Yet Moses goes to get the Law, Torah, for everyone; not just for himself. So one reading of Kafka’s parable – maybe one he intended, maybe not – is that in glimpsing the inextinguishable light, the dying man finally understands that although each one of us has to take responsibility for the law, fundamentally it requires a collective effort that we each need to undertake for the common good. The light does not die with the man, it is inextinguishable.

Now the first Torah portion we are about to read also concerns Moses going to fetch the Torah … for the second time. The first time ended in disaster when Moses came down from Sinai and found the Hebrews worshipping the golden calf, resulting in Moses smashing the tablets to smithereens. We read this on Yom Kippur because it speaks of God’s forgiveness. Although you need to note that Exodus chapter 34 verse 7 includes the phrase “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” If you read the commentary section in the Machsor, p.923, Hermann Cohen, the Kantian philosopher, notes that the Rabbis who prepared the Talmud deliberately left out the word ‘not’ so that the Hebrew can be read as “he purifies the guilty”.

The second portion, Leviticus 19, details a number of ethical commands, including most of the 10 commandments or 10 statements, also a version of the Golden Rule “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.” This replaces the more traditional portion for Yom Kippur – Leviticus 16 – which gives a detailed account of the priestly rites for the service and sacrifice, and release of the scapegoat into the wild, in Biblical times. And this again no accident on the part of the editors of the Machsor; substituting a section about ethical behaviour to replace one about ritual intricacies encapsulates the way in which Progressive Judaism differs from less progressive forms.

And then this afternoon in Mincha we will read Nitzavim which includes the section

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

Across these three portions we have a composite view of the law as something for everyone, to be experienced and accessed and sustained directly by one and all. The inclusion of Kafka’s parable can then be understood as a warning to each of us not to waste our days hanging around waiting for the right time, until as our end draws near we finally see the light and can only regret the missed opportunities of our existence. We may not be Moshe, but if we act as a community we can access the Law and sustain an ethical and equitable communal existence.

The Yom Kippur liturgy makes this very clear. Kol Nidre opens with the phrase ‘May we be absolved of all vows and obligations to God in vain’. Later we recite Oshamnu­ – the long list of sins that are all in the first person plural – we have abused and betrayed, we have misled others … and so on. Similarly al heyt – for all the sins we have committed, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

I have referred to the two closing parables in the Machsor, and I want to end with a third one attributed to Rabbi Haim of Romshishok. Who he?

Rabbi Haim of Romshishok was an itinerant preacher, Romshishok is a small town in Lithuania. Rabbi Haim travelled from town to town delivering religious sermons that stressed the importance of respect for one’s fellow beings. He often began his talks with the following story:

I once ascended to the firmaments. I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament.

Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so they could not bend either elbow to bring the food to their mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.

Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell – row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal.

As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had their arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented them from bending their elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat?

As I watched, one person picked up their spoon and dug it into the dish before them, then stretched across the table and fed the person across from them! The recipient of this kindness thanked the person who had fed them and returned the favour by leaning across the table to feed their benefactor.

I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other.

I ran back to Hell to share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. I whispered in the ear of one starving person, ‘You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbour, and they will surely return the favour and feed you.’

‘You expect me to feed the detestable person sitting across the table?’ was the response. ‘I would rather starve than give anyone the pleasure of eating!’

I then understood God’s wisdom in choosing who is worthy to go to Heaven and who deserves to go to Hell.

 G’mar chatima tova: a good and final seal.