July 8th was a deliciously brisk, sunny day in Vancouver, Canada. Our family commemorated my wife’s birthday with a mountain bike adventure through one of the most gorgeous urban refuges on the globe, Stanley Park. As we careened down the bike paths, I did my best to capture the highlights with my handy Canon pocket camera. Regretfully, I attempted the “stupid dad trick” of shooting video while riding. At considerable speed. In the process, I just barely grabbed the front brake lever by accident and my finely tuned hybrid bike stopped on a dime, flipping me over the handlebars and onto the pavement. I broke the fall with my hands and cut up one of my palms pretty badly. Embarrassed by all the attention, I quickly dusted myself off and got back on the bike, soon catching up to my kids who were oblivious to my aerial dexterity.
Thankfully, a nearby lifeguard patched up my wound and I was able to complete this dream ride with my family. Later that afternoon, we embarked on a six-mile hike into the Canadian Rockies beginning with the crossing of the famous Lynn Canyon suspension bridge. This well-worn trail accessed a majestic coniferous forest and a jewel-like chain of pristine, cobalt-blue lakes. My wrist started to throb a few miles into the wilderness. I figured I was letting too much blood get to the area because I was hiking with my arms hanging down. I relieved the discomfort by fashioning a sling out of a sweatshirt. Evidently I had injured myself worse than I had initially suspected.
Back in Downtown Vancouver, the width of my wrist had now doubled and was super sensitive. Not a good thing for this piano player. My kids accompanied me to an emergency room, where the cheery attendant reported that I would have at least a three-hour wait, longer than that to get an x-ray, and be charged a minimum of $800 that may or may not be covered by my U.S. insurance. All this and Shabbat was coming in an hour. I opted to bail on the emergency idea, bought a sling and a wrist brace at a drug store and returned to our well-appointed 33rd floor rental penthouse (yay Craigslist!).
The next morning, we strolled to the local Chabad where a standing-room-only crowd gathered for services. I led a spirited Mussaf (the additional service on Sabbath and holidays) followed by a hearty lunch, during which I had the chance to shmooze with a few local doctors. All of them told me to get an x-ray. Several others told me to check my mezuzot (parchment affixed to the doorways of Jewish homes). The x-ray I understood. But check my mezuzot? That seems to be textbook Chassidic advice for preventing mishaps.
After returning from our inspiring Canada/Alaska cruise adventure, I kept thinking, maybe I should check those mezuzot. My hand and wrist were well on the mend, but I couldn’t shake that superstitious mezuzah mantra. One morning, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I counted twenty mezuzot in our house, including my recording studio. Thankfully, a new rabbi at the shteibl (small shul) down the street was a sofer (one who writes sacred scrolls) and was willing to check them for a small fee.
The whole exercise of putting up mezuzot in our home came into question. Why do we bother affixing parchment with ancient hieroglyphics to our every entrance (other than closets or bathrooms)? What has motivated Jews over the course of history to do so at their peril, knowing anti-Semites are on the prowl? Why would God command such a strange thing? Why do we mention the mitzvah to affix a mezuzah when we say the Sh’ma twice a day? First, I’ll tell you what happened and then I’ll share the answers I discovered.
This gentle rabbi gingerly took down every single mezuzah in our home, ensuring he kept the batim (housing) and the klafim (scrolls) together. He sat at a desk in my studio and scrutinized every detail with a powerful magnifying glass. Seven of the twenty were posul (not fit for use). The two on our front and back doors had weathered to the point where they were unreadable. Others had worn out or were improperly formed in the first place, rendering them useless. Some were reparable; he was able to scrape away ink where letters were touching so that they could be put back into service. One might think, “This guy just wants to sell more mezuzot!” But he went to great pains to demonstrate why each was deficient and explained the particular halachot (laws) specifying which flaws couldn’t be repaired. Let the buyer beware…only buy scrolls from a certified scribe or reputable store.
The total bill came to $450. Ouch. Seven new scrolls, the inspection fee and some new waterproof batim for the outside doors. It was money well spent, however, because as soon as he hung the final mezuzah, I felt a surreal sense of light and healing pervade our home. I just knew everything was going to be OK. Kosher mezuzot are an intangible but invaluable asset to any home. Our sages insist a mezuzah is not an amulet. The magic of hanging this parchment is the same as fulfilling any mitzvah—the power of enhancing one’s connection with the Commander-in-Chief. However, some textual sources elucidate the concept of divine protection. King David writes, “God will guard your going and coming for all time,” a hint towards the efficacy of the mezuzah. The Talmud mentions that the mezuzah serves as a conduit for blessings for the home and its inhabitants. I believe mezuzot heighten our awareness that a home has the capacity for holiness. It’s more than just a place to hang our hat. The simple act of reaching to kiss a mezuzah when passing through a gateway has a powerful effect on one’s consciousness. It’s like our dwellings wear tefillin.
All this doorpost drama was unfolding during the Torah portion of Shoftim. It opens with the famous line, “Judges and officers shall you appoint in your gates (D’varim 16:18).” Emphasizing the establishment of judicial systems is one of the great contributions of the Jewish People to the world. However, a certain grammatical anomaly begs inspection: “YOUR gates” is in the singular, not plural. In other words, we have to appoint judges and officers in our personal gates. Renowned kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620) suggests these gates refer to our sensory organs: sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. Just like a mezuzah offers protection at the entrance to any given room, we must establish spiritual guardians at the sources of input into our lives. As we live in an age of 24/7 bombardment of the senses, it is more relevant than ever to monitor the input. Clearly, this passage in Shoftim is sending us a much-needed prescription for spiritual living.
The Torah dictates we must free slaves in the sh’mitah (sabbatical) year. A slave preferring to stay with his host family is taken to a doorpost where his ear is pierced with an awl. This symbolizes his having relinquished his right to autonomy, wounding him in the very organ that heard the imperative for liberty at Mt. Sinai. The doorpost is also where we were commanded to sprinkle lamb’s blood so the angel of death would “pass over” our homes during the final plague in Egypt. Affixing parchment on our doorpost alludes to the gift of freedom. By electing to fulfill God’s will and display a mezuzah, regardless of what the neighbors think about our strange customs, we are walking in the shoes of generations who made the choice to cling to the Almighty. Therefore, our communal love of this mitzvah in spite of possible danger makes sense. Yes, the mezuzah on the door reveals our faith to our enemies. Rather than serve as our undoing, however, it is the very reason we have freedom, the essence of our survival, the source of our protection over the millennia.
Twice a day, in the Sh’ma, we declare the mitzvah to affix a mezuzah. Jews stand as proud witnesses to God’s presence in history. Responding to the divine imperative to guard and sanctify our physical and spiritual gates is the key to our success as individuals and as a nation. Appropriating the precious gift of freedom to the kindness of our Creator is the ideal kavanah (focus) each time we reach up to kiss a mezuzah.
I’m not sure if it was due to our new certified-kosher mezuzot, but God slowly but surely returned my wrist to full function. Before long, I was back to hammering my left hand octaves and carrying equipment to my gigs. I even got back on my bike and yes, I avoid the temptation to film as I ride.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. His 25 bestselling Jewish CDs include: The Songs We Sing, The Promise, Hineni, A Day in the Life, Across the River and Kol Bamidbar. He scores for film and TV in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and concertizes and teaches in over 50 cities each year. He was named one of the top ten American Jewish artists by Moment magazine, has sung The Star Spangled Banner at Dodger Stadium and Staples Center and has won John Lennon and Parent’s Choice awards. His comprehensive overview of spiritual living, The Joy of Judaism is a current bestseller on Amazon. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com.