With All of Your Heart
The mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) snuggle next to one another in a ceramic bowl like a litter of newborn puppies seeking each other’s warmth. Peeking out from painted purple butterflies, the golden crown of a Hebrew letter shin reflects a ray of thin February light bouncing off its companion’s metal covering. Shards of the blue glass my husband stepped on at our wedding sparkle in a test tube inside the twisting copper of another family artifact – a mezuzah designed especially for wedding couples. An elephant trunk on my sons’ Noah’s ark mezuzah has broken in half, releasing the intact parchment scroll bearing 22 perfectly copied lines from the Book of Deuteronomy.
Carpenters, plumbers, roofers, floor and insulation installers, painters, and a lone electrician have almost completed their six-month task of making our home brighter and more comfortable. In preparation for the onslaught of dust and paint, we temporarily dismantled the mezuzot that we had so proudly affixed a decade ago, when we first moved into the house. These whimsical containers, whose Hebrew name means “doorpost,” host small scrolls inscribed by hand with passages from the Torah. Passing through the barren doorframes in my home, I have felt uneasy, a transient guest in someone else’s domain.
Now the freshly painted doors invite us to adorn them. My husband leads the odd procession, electric screwdriver in hand. I follow, bearing our collection of old and new mezuzot. Our 10-year-old son trails after us, reciting the traditional blessing after me, as we encounter each door, slowly emptying out the bowl, as if the house itself is feasting on the ritual objects.
My 15-year-old daughter shakes her head skeptically. Her sharp, almond-shaped eyes resemble other clear eyes I have spotted in the black and white photographs of my mother’s relatives – studious eastern European Litvaks, who shunned esoteric mysteries and unmoored flights of emotion of their rivals, the Hasidim. Scholarship and intellect – not the humming of wordless melodies or jubilant dancing with Torah scrolls – would usher in wisdom and holiness. Sometimes the line blurs separating rigorous Talmudic thinking and oblivious superstition. My daughter has inherited the beautiful, but stern eyes of those ancestors.
Smiling at her, I shrug my shoulders. I am a Reform Jew, a rabbi, a teacher of Torah, and my feet straddle two worlds – our modern world of science and the misty realm of traditions and rituals. The words of the Shema prayer, the pinnacle of Jewish faith, complete with instructions for loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, and might are handwritten on the parchment that is rolled inside these decorative cases. The passage instructs the Israelites to inscribe these very words on their doorposts and gates. Of course these ornaments are good luck charms, Wonder Woman’s magic bracelets, amulets with their oversized letter shins raised against any trace of the evil eye, disease, or misery. Scholarly rabbis insist that the ink on the scrolls be examined twice every seven years to ensure that none of the meticulous calligraphy has been scraped off lest the potency of the mezuzah be compromised. The mezuzah should be affixed on the lower portion of the top third of the doorframe, on the right, facing in. Rules abound regarding which rooms require a mezuzah (they are forbidden on bathrooms, and sacred places do not require them). How can it hurt to have them in our homes?
“They represent compromise,” I inform my daughter. One rabbi thought that they should be placed horizontally, and another advocated a vertical pose. A home should be filled with love and compromise and slanted mezuzot that reflect everyone’s viewpoint. Life is not all about facts and reason. Life is not all about feelings.
“Let the mezuzah remind you to be your best self, to do good deeds,” I lecture.
“I think I’m too old for the butterflies,” my daughter informs me. When we’re finished, we search the computer to find a website that sells more sophisticated looking mezuzot. My 12-year-old son seeks one bearing the colors of the New York Mets.
Hands down, the most difficult prayer for my bar and bat mitzvah students to master is the V’ahavta, whose words are contained in every mezuzah. Small mouths filled with braces and rubber bands stumble over phrases describing when a person should recite this very prayer (when you lie down and when you rise up), “u’vshochbecha u’ve-koomecha.” The most universal mistake, however, is the confusion between the words, l’vanecha (for your children) and l’vavecha (on your heart). The students conflate these words, haphazardly transposing consonants. There is much wisdom in their error.