Returning the Keys

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

Only when the flames began to lick the Temple’s walls did the priests depart from their sacred duties. Leaping into the inferno, they returned their souls to their Maker.

One class of priests had a special duty to discharge before surrendering their souls. These were the gatekeepers; they held the Temple keys, 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 leaped to their deaths.1

Doom and Gloom

The heart trembles at this tale, especially during this time of year, when we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, our day of judgment. The Torah portion that we read on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah speaks of those terrible times to come, when our land would be overrun, our Temple destroyed and our people exiled because of their sins. It is a stark reminder of the power of divine 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 priests. They 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 happen only 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.2

But even despite their culpability, our sages teach, the gatekeepers could still have saved the Temple. How could a handful of young men save the Temple, if G‑d Himself had decreed its destruction? The answer lies in the famous Talmudic saying, “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 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. When we insist on returning, no lock is strong enough to seal the door between G‑d and His children.

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 rejected their efforts. With true repentance, they would have regained their original authority.

But 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, 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 is that if we strengthen the gatekeepers, if we raise our children in the spirit of Torah and 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 hold fast to its keys.

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.56

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. Youth is characterized by unbounded enthusiasm and unquenchable thirst. We can all be young at heart, with a thirst for knowledge and an enthusiasm for learning.

We can each be a gatekeeper, and as Rosh Hashanah approaches, we will remember the lessons of the past. No matter how unworthy we may feel ourselves, we will let nothing stand between us and our heavenly Host.7