A mezuzah hangs on the doorpost of the naval observatory, home of America’s “second family,” Vice President Kamala Harris and Mr. Douglas Emhoff. Reflecting on the past year in preparation for Thanksgiving, Emhoff wrote, “One of my favorite memories was when our family visited and together we hung a mezuzah on the front door of the Vice President’s Residence.” Pause, and allow the weight of this contemporary reality to sink in. Religious freedom is a hallmark of American democracy. The vice president of the United States is, through love and marriage, a member of a Jewish family. Affixing a mezuzah to the front door of the vice-presidential home buttresses the principle of freedom of religious expression. The presence of this recognizable, Jewish symbol on a home of national importance necessarily reminds us that we should embrace the vast tapestry of faiths and traditions represented by those who dwell in America.
The significance of the mezuzah is manifold. At its heart is parchment containing the sacred text of “Shema,” an unequivocal affirmation of faith. It presents the directive to “love God…with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” It goes on to remind us to keep our sacred teachings and traditions central to our lives– upon rising and with our slumber, in our homes and wherever we may travel. The ancient words of the Shema are often the first Hebrew verses that a young child learns to recite, and tradition suggests that these should be the last words on our lips upon death. We cling to our values and our faith.
The parchment of the mezuzah is encased to protect it from the elements—one can imagine that a small scroll would not fare well uncovered on a doorpost. The details of the casing are flexible. Individuals are free to create or purchase a mezuzah as a piece of art that suits their style. Some choose to have the art of the mezuzah evocative of Israel, thus strengthening the connection between the holy text and the holy land. Others choose a mezuzah in the style of their home, seamlessly integrating the sacred and mundane, both of which share space in our lives. The possibilities are endless. In choosing a mezuzah, we engage in hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of that which is commanded.
The specific way in which the mezuzah is placed on the doorpost presents a midrash—an opportunity to expand the breadth of its message. It is taught that, in medieval France, two great sages (Rashi and his grandson, Rabeinu Tam) cited different opinions for the placement of the mezuzah, one believing it was to be affixed vertically, the other, horizontally. In deference to both, and to model the value of creating peace through compromise, we have inherited the tradition of placing the mezuzah on a slant. The slant of the mezuzah enhances its already rich significance, stretching the meaning to include not only adherence to tradition, but also the value of peace through compromise.
The Vice President encounters many symbols throughout her day. When she comes home at night, she is embraced by the mezuzah, a call to hold to principles, an inspiration to approach the world through the lens of holiness, and the ultimate reminder that peace is in our hands. Though Judaism is practiced by a small minority of Americans, it is our right to observe freely, and to use our values to best influence our world. For all of this, I am thankful.