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Michelangelo once said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
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Home » Education, Elul, Nitzavim, Seventeenth of Tamuz, Vayelech

Nitzavim Vayelech: The Key is Education

Submitted by on September 18, 2011 – 4:31 amNo Comment | 2,753 views

Returning The Keys

When the marauding Babylonian army broke into the Temple they found priests going about their sacred duties in ecclesiastic devotion. Some prepared meal offerings, others stoked the altar’s flames, yet others inspected logs to ensure their perfection. Outside the battle raged, but inside, the worship continued without distraction.

As the Babylonians set fire to the temple, the priests remained at their posts. When the flames began to lick the Temple’s walls priests leaped into the inferno and returned their souls to their maker.

One class of priests had a special duty to discharge before surrendering their souls. These were the gate keepers, who held the keys to the temple and opened its gates every morning. Familiar with its tunnels and byways these priestly youths escaped the mayhem below and climbed to the rooftop.

There they pulled out their keys and proclaimed, “Dear G-d, as we don’t merit being your faithful gatekeepers, please accept your keys,” and with this, they hurled the Temple’s keys heavenward. The Talmud relates that an image in the form of an open hand appeared out of the heavens to collect the keys. Task completed, the priests hurled themselves into the cauldron, returning their souls to G-d. (1)

Doom and Gloom

The heart trembles at the sound of this tale, especially during this time of year, when we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, our day of judgment. The Torah portion that we chant on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah speaks of that terrible time when our land was overrun, our Temple destroyed and our people exiled. With this in mind, we shudder to think of our own judgment.

Yet, as we read on we discover a promise made in the Torah. The very G-d who extended His hand in punishment reaches out in love. He promises that notwithstanding our sins He will bring us back to the land of our forefathers and rebuild our holy Temple. With this encouraging thought we return to the Talmudic tale to seek a deeper and perhaps more uplifting meaning.

The Gatekeepers

This story speaks not only to the bravery of the gatekeepers, but also to their culpability. G-d entrusted the Temple’s gates to these keepers. the key is education - innerstreamThey were given Divine authority over access to the Temple, but when the Babylonians approached they were powerless to stop them. Their Divine authority was suddenly inept against a temporal force.

This could only happen because the gatekeepers were unworthy. Had they been worthy of keeping G-d’s gate, had they previously denied access to every inappropriate visitor, they would have asserted their Divine authority and no temporal force could have overrun them; the onslaught would have been repelled and the Temple would have survived. If the gatekeepers were overrun it was due to their unworthiness. They had been slack in their duties and had forfeited their authority. (2)

You, dear reader, might wonder how the gatekeepers could have saved the Temple if G-d Himself had decreed its destruction. The answer lies in a famous Talmudic dictum, “abide by your host’s every instruction, but for the instruction to leave.” (3)

Jewish mystics applied this dictum to our relationship with G-d. G-d is our host in this world and we are His guests.  As host He is free to impose upon us us as He chooses, but there is one thing He will never impose. He will never bar us from His presence. He will never close the door completely and drive us from His home. (4) Even when He finds us guilty in judgment He is prepared to accept our repentance because when we insist on returning, no lock is strong enough to seal the door between G-d and His children. If we truly desire to draw closer to G-d, He does not hold us back.

Even though their previous unworthiness had stripped them of Divine authority the gatekeepers still could have stopped the Babylonian onslaught and saved the Temple. Had they resisted the enemy with their dying breath G-d would not have turned them away. Instead they surrendered and returned their keys to G-d. It was done in dramatic fashion and in His acceptance of the keys G-d accepted their surrender, but had they done more, had they fought to their dying breath, G-d would have saved the Temple.

The Spiritual Temple

Today we don’t have a physical home for G-d, but, in our hearts, we create a spiritual home for Him. This home is personified by our commitment to our heritage, our passion for our traditions and our enthusiasm for Torah.

The keys to G-d’s home weren’t held by the veteran priests or learned sages, they were held by the priestly youth. As it was in days of old, so it is today. The gatekeepers of our Temple are the youth, our precious children.

The message to us is that if we raise our children in the spirit of Torah, if we offer them a proper Jewish education, G-d’s home will remain intact. Even if we are unworthy, even if we are without passion and enthusiasm, G-d’s home will not be destroyed so long as our children are worthy of its keys.

The Key is Education

If the next generation is raised to serve in G-d’s home, their parents will find a way to enter too. The gatekeeper’s task is not only to bar the unworthy, but to throw the doors open wide for the worthy. The gatekeeper is further tasked to go out and teach the unworthy how to become worthy. Thus, if our children are the gatekeepers, we too shall enter for they will ensure our rehabilitation (5)

Let us therefore commit ourselves to the best of Jewish education. Let us ensure that our children are taught not only how to read the Torah, but how to love it. Not only how to understand the Torah, but how to observe it. Not only how to know about G-d, but how to live for G-d. (6)

If our children are grown let us offer aid to other children by contributing, in person or in kind, to their Jewish education. Each, in our own way, can contribute to the success of Jewish education.

Finally, let us never forget that we are all children. Let us not give up on ourselves only because we are on in years. Age, it is often said, is just a number. Youth is characterized by unbounded enthusiasm and unquenchable thirst. We can all be young at heart with a thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm for learning.

We can each be a gatekeeper. All that is required is that the child within be granted free expression. (7)


  1. Babylonian Talmud; Taanit 29a.
  2. Being overrun was itself the indication that they
    no longer controlled G-d’s gates. Indeed, as the story indicates, it was
    only after they were overrun that they acknowledged their unworthiness.
  3. Babylonian Talmud; Pssachim 86b.
  4. Reishis Chochomo, Gates of Sanctity, ch. 16.
  5. The criteria to enter the Temple was not
    scholarship or even piety, it was ritual purity. The ritual of
    purification entailed immersion in a Mikvah, a ritual bath. Maimonides,
    (Mikvaos, 11:12) in a homily on the ritual bath, explained that
    purification hinges on intention, not just immersion. Just as one who
    desires to be pure is purified through immersion in water, so too one
    who desires to cleanse the soul of vain thoughts and harmful ideas
    attains purification through immersion in the waters of wisdom, which is
    the Torah. Attaching our mind to the Torah’s values and thinking
    exclusively along the lines it demarcates is a form of immersion that
    purifies. Purity was the sole criteria to enter the Temple of old and
    remains the sole criteria to enter its modern corollary, the home for
    G-d that we create in our souls.
  6. Just as a mother would never compromise on the
    health of her child’s diet so should we never compromise on our
    children’s education. Indeed, food fortifies the body whereas education
    fortifies the soul.
  7. This essay was culled from an address delivered by
    the Lubavitcher Rebbe on 18 Elul, 5711.

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