August 23, 2019 |

Do Not Leave Your Doorway Until The Morning

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Israel occurred on Shabbat morning. After davening at the Kotel we went to look for my cousin who studies in a Yeshiva in the Old City. Turns out he was davening in the recently renovated Churvah synagogue which is located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. We walked over to that synagogue and as he was walking out of the petach, the doorway of the synagogue, we banged into each other. We then walked into the synagogue together and I was blown away by the absolute beauty of the synagogue and its powerful history.

I had never seen the synagogue in its rebuilt form and I was not expecting to see what I saw: a magnificent, towering and awe-inspiring, sanctuary.

The synagogue carries a strange name: Churvah, which means “ruins.”

How did a synagogue come to have the name “Churvah?”

The synagogue was first built in the early 18th century by a Rabbi named Judah he-Chasid (who is not to be confused with the medieval scholar also known as Rabbi Judah he-Chasid.) The synagogue was built with money borrowed from Arab lenders. The worshippers in the synagogue were unable to pay back the money they had borrowed in order to fund their synagogue. So in 1721 the leaders of the community were imprisoned and the synagogue was burned to the ground by the lenders. The synagogue was left in a pile of rubble and so it became known as the churvah the “ruins.”
In 1864, the synagogue was rebuilt, and even though it carried a different name, it was still known as Churvah. In the ensuing years it became known as the main synagogue to pray at in the Old City. It was the center of Jewish life in the entire land of Israel and the spot in which the chief rabbis of the land in that period were installed into their positions. But it was again destroyed during the war of Independence in 1948.

Finally in March 2010 the synagogue was again rebuilt and fully renovated. And so when we visited the “Churvah” synagogue we did not see a synagogue in ruins, but instead one of the most beautiful synagogues I have ever seen.
Although the churvah is a modern synagogue, there is an earlier reference to an ancient place of prayer in Jerusalem that is also called a churvah.

The Talmud Berachot (3a) tells the following story: “Amar Rebbe Yosi paam achat hayiti mehalekh baderekh venikhnasti lechurvah achat mi-churvot yerushalayim lehitpallel. Bah Eliyahu zachur latov veshamar li al hapetach. Rabbi Yosi recounted: One time I was walking along my journey and I entered into a churvah—a ruins—in Jerusalem in order to pray. Along came Elijah the prophet and he stood guard by the, petach, by the doorway and he protected me until I finished my prayer.”

Why was it so necessary for Elijah to guard the doorway while Rabbi Yossi prayed? On a simple level this is because Rabbi Yossi was praying in a dangerous place, an abandoned building and so Elijah was guarding him while he prayed to Hashem.

But on a symbolic level it means much more.

On a symbolic level the doorway represents the path between two boundaries. One can go on the right path in life or on the wrong path. Rabbi Yossi was living in the days following the destruction of Jerusalem and the destruction of the holy Temple. He and the Jewish people could easily have gone off of the path. They could have lost their connection to Torah and to Hashem. So Elijah the prophet stood at the doorway—he stood at the border—and made sure that Rabbi Yossi did not go off of the correct path.

Elijah the Prophet was not the first person in history to stand by a petach—a doorway--and protect his charges.
Let us remember that Abraham himself used to stand at the petach. The verse says, “Vayera elav A-donai be-elonei mamre, And God appeared in Elonei Mamreh and Abraham was standing (petach ha-ohel) at the entrance to the tent in the heat of the day.

According to Rashi, Abraham was standing at the entrance to the tent in order to seek out travelers who might need his help. Like Elijah he was standing at the doorway in order to protect his charges.

So the petach is a doorway that symbolizes the edge of danger. And often our great protectors – like Abraham and Elijah -- stood there in order to offer help to the vulnerable people of the world.

But there is another reference to a petach and it is found in this week’s parsha.

We are told that Moshe commanded the Jewish people to take a paschal lamb and slaughter it on the fourteenth day of the month. Then they were supposed to take the blood of this lamb and spread it on their doorposts and lintel and wait the entire night as Hashem smote the first born of the Egyptians. When Hashem would see the blood on the doorposts of the Israelites, He would pass over their homes and spare their first born.

The Israelites are then commanded by Moshe: “Ve-atem lo tetzu ish mi-petach beito ad boker, and you shall not go out from the petach of your home until the morning arrives.”

On a literal level the Israelites are simply being told that they cannot leave the petach of their homes until morning arrives, for to do that would expose them to the angel of death that was traveling around Egypt that night.
But here too, we should look at this verse on a deeper level. They are not being told that they can never leave their petach; but they are being told that they have to wait until morning (boker) in order to leave their petach.
Why is Avraham allowed to leave the petach of his home whereas the Israelites are not allowed?

The crucial difference is that Avraham is in the land of Canaan and he is thus in a secure position and able to help others who are in danger. In contrast, the Israelites are in Egypt and thus are themselves in great danger. Therefore if they would be leaving their homes to protect others they would be exposing themselves to harm. So before they can help others they must help themselves. They must not leave their petach. They must first wait till morning when redemption will arrive.

This contrast between the petach of Avraham and the petach of the Israelites of Egypt points to a fundamental, historical difference between the spiritual life of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and the Jews of Diaspora.
The Jews of the land of Israel are generally more secure and better protected in their spiritual connection and are thus better able to stand at an open petach and look out from the petach to help others. In contrast, the Jews of the Diaspora must guard their homes carefully; they must shut their petach lest they go out and are destroyed spiritually by the Angel of Death.

This is true as a historical phenomenon and it is true in today’s world as well.

As I walked through the streets of Jerusalem on my recent trip I saw scenes that I would never see in the Diaspora. On multiple occasions I witnessed school children walking through the streets at all hours of the day singing Jewish songs and outwardly displaying their Judaism. Here in America if one displays their Judaism too openly and publicly it is an abnormality, in Israel it is the norm. I felt that in Jerusalem the people were like Avraham standing on the petach, while in America we are like the Israelites unable to walk outside of our doorposts until the morning.

Now this is a little bit of a depressing feeling and I don’t want to leave you with that. Instead, I want to make a helpful recommendation to you.

So the basic question is: if we are symbolically being commanded not to leave our doorways until the morning, what should we in the Diaspora do? How can we strengthen ourselves in the Diaspora? How can we live here as Jews even while recognizing that our spiritual life will be qualitatively different than the more secure spirituality of the Jews of Israel?

Here are suggestions about two mitzvoth that we in the Diaspora can do in order to better secure our spiritual lives:
First, we should follow what the Torah itself says to do. The Torah tells us to place a mezuzah on our doorposts. A Mezuzah is a piece of parchment containing the first two paragraphs of the Shema. The Torah requires us to place this on our doorposts in order to provide protection. It is providing spiritual protection for us, for every time we walk through the doorpost of our home we are supposed to look at the mezuzah and kiss the mezuzah and recite: “Hashem shomri Hashem tzili al yad yemini Hashem yishmor tzeiti uvoi mei-atah vead olam,” as a way of praying for Hashem’s protection.

If we are punctilious about this mitzvah we will see our entire world through the prism of the paragraphs contained in the mezuzah. We will recognize the unity of Hashem and the centrality that He needs to play in our lives and we will remember to always be grateful to Him. Proper performance of this mitzvah will help us be more secure in our own doorposts.

What does it mean to be punctilious about this mitzvah? First, we should notice the mezuzah each and every time we walk into a room. Second, we should be careful that we are obeying the mitzvah properly. We should make sure that every room and doorway in our house (excluding a bathroom and closets that are too small) has a mezuzah. We should make sure that our storage areas and if possible, our offices, also have mezuzot scrolls. We should learn the laws of the mezuzah and carefully apply them in order to provide spiritual protection for our homes.

Adherence to the mitzvah of mezuzah will better secure our own petach, doorposts.

But there is another mitzvah that I want to suggest we all take upon ourselves in order to secure our own doorposts. We should all perform the mitzvah of visiting the land of Israel.

According to some commentators it is a mitzvah to visit the land of Israel because all of our mitzvoth our performed in an enhanced manner when visiting the land. (Listen to a wonderful shiur on this topic by Rabbi Michael Taubes: .)

In this vein, Rashi writes (ad Deuteronomy 11:18) that we should perform the mitzvah of mezuzah even outside the land of Israel so that we can properly perform the mitzvah when we eventually will return to the land, “asu mezuzot kedei shelo yehiyu lachem chadashim ke-shetichzeru.”

In other words all our mitzvoth when performed in the land of Israel have an extra spiritual quality to them; they are naturally enhanced by a closer connection to Hashem.

So my recommendation to everyone in the room is to seriously consider visiting the land of Israel as it is a mitzvah and it will boost your own spirituality. By performing this mitzvah you will better be able to come back and guard your own doorpost and infuse it with spirituality.

We are told in the Torah that when we placed the blood of the lamb on our doorposts, Hashem watched for the blood and then passed over those homes. The midrash says “dalag,” he skipped over the homes. But the commentaries say that when He saw us performing the mitzvoth, He did not skip but jumped for joy over the houses.

I want to close with a story about jumping for joy when performing the mitzvoth.

On Friday night, I went with my son Roey, to daven Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Kotel. Alas, right when we arrived it started to drizzle. So we decided to go to the indoor part of the Kotel in order to be dry. But many other people also had that idea. So we decided to stay outside as it was only a light mist. So we started to daven. There were just a few of us in the group. Maybe 15 people. But then it started to rain harder…and harder…and harder. And the harder it rained the more people joined us in singing praises to Hashem. And then it started to really pour. By this time our group had grown ten-fold. I thought for sure that the rain would drive people away. But the harder it rained, the louder we sang, and the faster we danced, and the higher we jumped in service of Hashem.

And now that we have returned to DC, every time we go to kiss our mezuzah, we are still jumping in service of Hashem.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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