A Lesson From Igor on How to Return to Shul

The famous novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote a book called “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Apparently, he meant that the concept of “return” is a misnomer, because after a while, things have changed so much that neither the person nor the place has remained the same.

Perhaps.

But boruch Hashem we can go back to shul.

I returned for the first time in three months this past Shabbos. I cried a bit as I approached the aron kodesh. Luckily, I was wearing a mask to catch the tears of joy. But I also realized how much I had missed tefillah b’tzibbur, receiving an aliyah and the host of devorim shebikedusha that can only be said with at least nine others. I must confess that I had mixed feelings about the glass barrier – recommended by doctors and family – between the tzibbur and myself. At first, I felt like a chassidishe rebbe whose congregation was not allowed to come too close. But then any ego-connected delusions of grandeur were shattered when I heard people talking about the rov’s “penalty box.” Hashem’s reminders to be humble can come in various forms, devices and names.

To be sure, I have told myself and many others throughout this ordeal the classic consolation promise: “If you’re avoiding shul for the right reasons and following the Torah, it’s as if you davened with a minyan. Absolutely true, but I also kept remembering the mussar that Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l once gave someone who had great excuses for not learning: “There are two types of am ha’aratzim (ignoramuses),” he intoned, “with an excuse and without. Apparently, you are of the first variety, but either way you will remain an am ha’aretz.”

I was beginning to feel that I had too many excuses – even good ones – not to be davening in shul. And now I was back, but the paranoia was setting in. Will my davening be better? Will I appreciate all the old/new gifts of a bais haknesses? In an attempt to forestall this stratagem of the yeitzer hara, I began to contemplate the great gifts we all receive in shul. This little essay is an attempt to share a special moment.

Let us begin with exactly where we are when we daven in shul. The novi Yechezkel (11:16) famously relates Hashem’s promise that “I have been for them a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary.” Chazal (Megillah 29a) teach that this refers to all the shuls in Babylonia and, by extension, the entire world. It is also cited by the Mishnah Berurah (151:1) as the source for treating each one of them with great deference and awe. According to at least one opinion, this is not a mere metaphor. The author of the Shevet Mussar, in one of his somewhat lesser known works (Aggadas Eliyahu, Peah 7:11), quotes a Medrash that says that “when the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, Hashem scattered its stones into the entire world. Wherever such a stone landed, a shul was built.” The author cites as proof the posuk of “Sacred stones are scattered at the head of every street” (Eicha 4:1). Thus, we should realize that we are in fact entering the Bais Hamikdosh every time we go to shul (for more on this, see Otzar Pelaos HaTorah, Bamidbar, page 72).

The Maharal (see Nesiv Ha’avodah 5 and Chiddushei Aggados) cites a cryptic but extremely pragmatic Gemara (Brachos 8a). Chazal tell us that “a person should always enter two doors into a shul and then daven.” The Gemara explains that this doesn’t necessarily mean double doors (although some shuls are careful to fulfill this literally). It means “the distance of two doors.” The Maharal (see also his commentary to the siddur, page 580) elaborates that this means to first “completely shut out the outside world.” (Doesn’t this sound like a “call” to leave the cell phones outside?) Then, and only then, he will be able to perform the other requirement (the “second door”) “lehisyacheid im Hashem – to become one with G-d.” This may be a very tall order for a visit to the shul, but it is easier to contemplate when we feel that we are entering the Bais Hamikdosh.

These thoughts burned through my neshomah when I first stared at the paroches on the aron after 96 long days.

I remember an extremely powerful shmuess that I heard from someone in Lakewood several years ago. Rav Matisyahu Salomon got up and announced a discovery he had made. In his inimitable tones, he shared finding a new approach to saying Krias Shema every day. He first cited the words of the Shulchan Aruch (94:1) that “When reciting Krias Shema, a person should turn toward Eretz Yisroel and also have in mind Yerushalayim, the Bais Hamikdosh and the Holy of Holies.” The Mishnah Berurah adds that “one should imagine that he is actually standing in the Bais Hamikdosh in Yerushalayim in the place of the Kodesh Hakodoshim.”

Rav Salomon noted that this is not merely a matter of good kavanah. It requires us to consider ourselves being transported to the holiest place on earth.

Now, let us take Rav Salomon’s words a literal giant step further. The Shulchan Aruch and Mishnah Berurah were even talking about davening at home or some random unsanctified place. A thousand times more so, we must tremble when we are privileged to pray in the place that is truly invested with the kedusha of the Holy of Holies itself.

To get some idea of the kedusha of the very walls of a place where Torah is learned and taught, let us listen to a question and answer from two gedolei Yisroel. When the Chevron Yeshiva moved to the Givat Mordechai neighborhood in Yerushalayim, the Yomim Noraim Baal Mussaf was Rav Sholom Schwadron, the famous maggid. He approached the Steipler Gaon with an interesting shaalah. Since the yeshiva had not yet begun learning in the new bais medrash, should they perhaps daven in the old building, where the walls had absorbed so much Torah and kedusha, or should they begin davening immediately in the new building? The Steipler’s answer was as clear as a bolt of lightning. “When a yeshiva travels,” he thundered, “the walls travel with them. Go to Givat Mordechai!” (Chaim Sheyeish Bahem, Nisuin, page 217).

This is a dramatic example of the question of a chochom and the answer of a gadol hador. We, too, should reenter our shuls and breathe in deeply the Torah of all the shiurim, chaburos, chavrusos and individuals who have sung the song of Torah between its walls.

I would like to point out something of a spiritual danger stemming from the past three months. Many people have become comfortable in minyanim outside the holy walls of shuls. For many weeks and months, these minyanim were necessary and a great mitzvah. However, now that we will soon, be’ezras Hashem, have the option to daven together b’rov am, in our precious botei medrash, let us not fall into the twin traps of comfort and convenience. This once happened in the great city of Minsk, where the rov, Rav Dovid Tevil, author of the classic Nachalas Dovid, was one of the major talmidim of Rav Chaim of Volozhin. He would storm against the “home minyanim” that were taking place even without the pressure of a Covid-19 situation. One day, someone asked him why these minyanim bothered him so much. He responded that there were three answers:

First of all, people cannot daven with the same kavanah in a home as in a shul. There is no sense of “Know in front of Whom you are davening.” What is lacking is what Yaakov Avinu felt when he declared, “How awesome is this place. It must be the house of Hashem.” Furthermore, when a person comes to shul, if he is a bit early or the minyan has not yet assembled, he will pick up a sefer or recite Tehillim. This is usually not true in a home. Thirdly, what about tzedakah? In a shul, people collect tzedakah or the gabbai goes around with a pushkah.

The Nachalas Dovid taught us that the strange yeitzer hara to avoid shul is older than any of us and should be fought relentlessly (Shimush Chachomim, page 77).

I would like to close, as I have been doing for several weeks, with a personal story. First, an introductory quote from this week’s Pirkei Avos. “Ben Zoma says, ‘Who is wise? He who learns from every person.’” One of my best teachers indeed was our shul custodian, a jolly Russian gentleman who took advantage of glasnost to leave the former Soviet Union to come to the United States. Alas, one of the casualties of the evil assault on religion by the communists, Igor remained a secular although very proud Jew. One fine day, at age 65, he came to a few of us and declared that he would like to have a bris milah. Overjoyed, although quite puzzled, we quickly arranged the event. Rabbi Moshe Weitman zt”l, founding dean of TAG and an expert in adult circumcision, was the mohel and a beautiful seudas mitzvah was prepared. To our shock, Igor emerged moments after the bris, which was conducted without anesthesia, face shining and ready to dance with us. After a few moments, he stopped the circle and asked to say a few words. “You want know why I ask for brit? I tell you. Every week I clean shul.” Here he stopped to give us a full list of every place he swept and mopped. “One day, I stop by big ark,” he said, pointing in the direction of the aron kodesh, “and I think: Not nice to clean by Torah without brit milah.”

That was mori v’rebbi Igor. He could not bear the thought of sweeping in front of the Torah as an oreil, an uncircumcised Jew.

Now that we are going home again, shouldn’t we be thinking about how worthy we are davening in our holy bais haknesses? Are we talking to Hashem while our thumbs are communicating elsewhere? Are we talking to the person next to us even as Moshe Rabbeinu or Yeshayahu Hanovi are trying to get our attention?

So, maybe we should learn from Igor how to return properly, so that we, too, can dance because we have made Hashem happy.