The other day, I headed out of my apartment and found our mezuzah smashed on the ground outside the door. Stunned, I bent down to collect the pieces with my gloved hand. My sister gave me this mezuzah for college. It introduced my roommates to Judaism and affirmed my identity in the first place I made my home, on my own. For 35 years, it traveled with me from place to place. Ancient looking, it was known affectionately in our family as the dog bone – the shape it resembled. Even though it likely fell from the doorpost and was not the object of a nefarious act, I still felt sick seeing it broken on the ground with the sacred scroll nearby.
The mezuzah (containing handwritten parchment with the words of the Sh’ma) is placed diagonally on the doorpost of a Jewish home, the top portion of the case pointing inside the residence. One might think it should be hung vertically, standing straight and tall. In fact, our 11th century French commentator Rashi believed the mezuzah should hang exactly this way, the top pointing heavenward towards the Holy One. This is how my college roommates imagined the mezuzah, a protective force to guard our home. Rashi’s grandson disagreed. He thought the mezuzah should be placed horizontally. Ultimately, our tradition embraced compromise. Today, you’ll find the mezuzah slanted inward on the doorposts of those of Ashkenazi descent.
Tilted in this way, the mezuzah draws attention to the inside of the home. Here we create a mikdash m’at/mini sanctuary. This is to be our safe and holy haven from the world which swirls outside. Keeping balance and compromise in the home is not always easy, especially these days when our homes host schools, shuls, playgrounds, restaurants, bakeries, computer labs and fitness centers with myriad opening and closing times. As much as we enjoy flip flops in winter, pajama pants with stylish work tops and endless Netflix programming (I say this even as someone who has never watched Netflix!), the challenging reality of home life in corona-times cannot be underestimated. Unexpected joy abounds. Tension and frustration is real. How can we hold the delicate balance of sacred existence in the midst of uncertainty and devastation? Sometimes it feels like we are on the verge of shattering like the pieces of the mezuzah on my doorstep.
In parashat Vayigash, Jacob learns his beloved son Joseph was not destroyed as he had been told. Broken in body and spirit for so long and numb from shock that Joseph is alive! and ruler over the whole land of Egypt, Jacob cannot believe or affirm the truth of Joseph’s existence (Genesis 45:26). When he sees the wagons Joseph sent to transport him to Egypt, Jacob re-engages with what is going on around him and proclaims, Rav od Yosef b’ni chai! Eylcha v’erenu b’terem amut/My son Joseph is still alive! I must go to see him before I die (Genesis 45:28). Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev asserts that still alive demonstrates throughout all this time, Joseph remains connected to his inner core and the teachings of his father. In this knowledge, Jacob finds the spiritual strength to warm his own heart and move towards possibility, even if that means going down to Egypt. As he travels, the dreamer again meets the Gd of his ancestors in a night vision. Here he is assured by Gd, I myself will go down with you to Egypt and I myself will also bring you back (Genesis 46:4). You are not alone. Jacob travels into the unknown to reunite with the past in a new reality. Eventually he settles in this other land, surrounded by family. Here they make their place and grow.
Like Jacob, our lives can fall to pieces when we least expect it. Relationships require attention and work not just for maintenance but to nurture and solidify connections. Our homes provide the space in which to practice how we will be in the outside world, offering a delicate connection based on values which undergird the way in which we face life’s tragedies and celebrations, and how we place ourselves in relationship to individuals and our world. Regardless of how carefully we tend to our sacred sanctuary, we are at times the schlemiel and/or the schlimazel. It is up to us to determine for how long we will remain still, how we mourn, when we open to growth and change, and how we step out into the future.
Each night before bed, my daughter recites the opening words of the Sh’ma. Early on, she added an affirmation to close the prayer. Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, Power -Shalom! Even at almost 11 years of age, these words punctuate with joy the affirmation that she is cultivating a sacred relationship with the holy, planted in seeds of strength and peace. That stance carries her into sleep and through her waking hours. It provides grounding when unexpectedly moved into quarantine, wishing for a dog, and learning of the untimely demise of “the dog bone.” This expanded Sh’ma comes from the deepest place of love within. The source of compassion, empathy, endurance and hope.
When I posted this photo of my beloved mezuzah on my Facebook Page, friends rushed forward with words of support, and suggestions for repair and repurposing. The presence of community in the virtual realm was pure love. A community of hesed takes responsibility for all in its midst. A loving community helps ensure a sense of being alive. To love in Judaism is to live. I think that’s really what we learn from the way in which we affix the mezuzah. To love is to learn to live a bit off-kilter, to open to wonder and possibility, to risk and live with uncertainty, and know that when life comes crashing down, splintering what appeared to hold you, you have the power to collect the pieces and determine how to transform them, over time, into peace.
December 24, 2020/9 Tevet 5781
In honor of Shoshanna Segal for her strength and wisdom, and in memory of her beloved, Irwin C. Feldman z’l