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Bechukotai 5779 - A Private Moment on Our Front Door

06/04/2019 02:45:57 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

So I recently finished writing a Torah scroll, and I delivered the Torah to an expert sofer in Brooklyn for finishing touches.  For me it was a big project in many ways, but having finished the Torah scroll, I turned my attention to writing mezuzot.

There are a few reasons why I want to write mezuzot.

First and foremost, it is a mitzvah.  It says in the Torah, “u-ketavtem al mezuzot beitekhah, and you shall write these words on the doorpost of your house” (Devarim 6:9).  Not only is it a mitzvah to put up a mezuzah, it is also a mitzvah to write a mezuzah.  (See Gittin 45b, which compares the writing of Mezuzah to the writing of a Torah scroll.)

Second, I feel that there is a real need here.  Around a year ago, one of the biggest importers of mezuzot in the world came to me with a scandalous accusation that the majority of mezuzot being sold in America are simply not kosher.  He claimed that many mezuzot are being written in underground shops by non-Jewish people who are being paid extremely low wages and are disqualified from writing a kosher mezuzah.  I don’t entirely know how to fix this situation but we can make a difference one mezuzah at a time.

Third, as I started learning more and more about writing a Torah scroll, I noticed that even those mezuzot that are written by soferim are often sloppy and not up to standards and they often don’t reflect a love for the mitzvah.

Fourth, from a positive perspective, I feel it can be a very special thing to write a mezuzah and share it as a gift with people in our spiritual community.  I can offer it as a spiritual gift to a person or family to mark a special occasion – off to college, new birth, moving in to a new residence.  

This mezuzah will not be free.  The payment will not be monetary but a willingness to accept a devotion to one additional mitzvah or spiritual activity in your life.  In return for the mezuzah each person must commit to trying to improve in one way spiritually.  (I am not asking for people to tell me their commitment, just to commit.)  

So if you would like me to write one mezuzah for you, let me know.

But there is a catch.  Please don’t expect it too fast.

I thought it would be relatively easy for me to write mezuzot.  After all, I wrote an entire Torah scroll which is made up of 248 amudim, and a mezuzah is just half an amud.  
Boy was I wrong.  This has been a much slower process.

First of all, every letter in a meuzah is magnified so I have to be even more careful with my writing to make sure that the mezuzah reflects the beauty worthy of service of Hashem,

Second, unlike a Torah scroll, a mezuzah must be written kesidran with kesivah tamah.  This means that a mezuzah must be written in order, consecutively.  If it is written out of order it is not kosher.  Practically speaking this means that when I make a mistake, I cannot go back and fix it.

For example, last week, I worked really hard on writing a mezuzah.  It took me several hours.  I thought it looked really nice--meaning as good as I can do so far.  But then I noticed—the whole mezuzah was no good.  The mezuzah was missing one little line in the Alef of asher.  and therefore it was not kosher.  There is nothing anyone in the world can do about that mezuzah now.  It is forever disqualified and will have to be buried.

At first I viewed this as total waste of time and energy.  But then as I continued to stare at that Alef, somehow hoping it would magically fix itself, I realized that this was not at all a spiritual disaster.  I wrote the mezuzah as a service of Hashem, as an avodah.  And when it comes to serving Hashem, it is not about the result, but about the effort.

Our portion this week begins with the words, “im bechukotai teilechu ve-et mitzvotai tishmeru ve-asitem otam, if you shall walk in my path and guard my commandments and do them” (26:3).

Rashi explains that the words, “walk in my path,” don’t only mean to simply do the commandments.  They mean, “hevu ameilim be’torah al menat lishmor ulekayem.”  We are not only to do the commandments; we must also toil in the commandments in order to guard the mitzvoth.  We must engage in the toil of Torah.

What does it mean to “toil in Torah?” This means that the torah and our faith must be at the center of our life. It means that the Torah can’t be peripheral to our lives.  Something that we do if everything else works out ok.  If that’s the case, then our relationship with Torah will be of limited value and the Torah will very easily be pushed to the backburner.  

Our lives are so busy and unless Torah is at the center, it will easily be pushed away.  No.  We must toil.  We must work hard to recognize that everything about Torah must be at the center.

Says the Torah, that if we walk in God’s ways, “venatati gishmeichem be-itam, I shall give you rain in its proper time” (v. 4).  Ask the commentators: why is this the reward for keeping the commandments?  Isn’t the ultimate reward in the World to Come?  Why are we being given an earthly blessing of rain?

Explains the Ketav Sofer (1815-1871), “ki bekhol mitzvah hasekhar kaful, sekhar hatirchah shehayah lo im hamitzvah.” In every mitzvah there are two rewards.  One reward is the reward for the mitzvah itself and that takes place in the World to Come.  A second reward is the reward for the effort that went into the mitzvah.  Since there is a physical element to that, the reward for that takes place in this world.  In this world we get reward for the effort that we put into the performance of the mitzvah.  The reward of rain is for the struggle to do the mitzvah.

In the words of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot: “lefum tzaarah agrah, according to the effort is the reward” (Avot 5:26).

As I sat there looking at my mezuzah which I had worked on for hours, and now was completely useless for this mitzvah of mezuzah, I began to internalize this message and to comprehend what I feel is the real message of mezuzah.

A mezuzah stands at the portal of our house.  It is supposed to be a spiritual protection.  It is supposed to represent our values and our dreams. It is like a signature to the house.  It is visible to the world as a symbol of our Jewish faith. This has always been clear to me. 

But what I now realize is that at the same time that the mezuzah is visible, it is also invisible.  The parchment –which is the mitzvah itself—is on a daily basis seen by absolutely no one.  Only the owner knows how much effort went into procuring a kosher mezuzah.  Did we do the mitzvah properly?  At first glance the mezuzah is a public declaration of our faith, but at its core the mitzvah of mezuzah is really a reflection of our private relationship with Hashem.

As I write the mezuzah pouring my soul into every letter and writing with slow and deliberate care, I feel like Father McKenzie, “writing a sermon that no one will hear” – writing a mezuzah that no one will see.  How often do we look at a mezuzah parchment—once in our lives, maybe twice, maybe three times?

But yet, we pour out our effort into our service of Hashem.  Each letter needs to be perfect, each crown a thing of beauty. 

Ultimately our effort is between us and Hashem.  We write as beautifully as we can and then close it up and never look at it again.  

It is all about the effort.

I don’t mean to sound cranky and whiny…but I am speaking to myself and letting you listen.

Our larger Jewish community needs a corrective in this area: Over the past twenty years or so there has been an emphasis on engaging with the unaffiliated.  We have stress the importance of making Judaism accessible and removing barriers for people to enter.  

No formal Jewish education—no problem.
No affiliation – no problem.
Not married to a Jew – no problem.
Not Jewish – but interested in converting – no problem.
Not Jewish and NOT interested in converting – no problem.

Just come and enjoy our faith and have a Jewish moment or experience and have fun. Just “do Jewish.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I love this approach of trying to light a spark in all those who are interested and telegraphing to people the message that all are welcome regardless of commitment.

But at some point we also have to be clear that this message by itself is not the whole story. We should also transmit the message that if there isn’t a commitment to place Judaism at the center of our lives then all these Jewish experiences will quickly wear thin and not translate into a meaningful relationship with Hashem.  

Judaism should be fun and accessible.  But it also needs to be accompanied by toil and effort.

This is the message of the Book of Ruth, which we will read on Shavot.  We often think of Ruth as an uplifting story of conversion that reflects the beauty and dreams of the Jewish people.  Ruth is often cited as a critique of the Jewish community.  We are told that we need to be more open to potential converts.  After all, what beit din did Ruth go before?  She simply stated, “amekh ami, your people is my people,” and then she joined the Jewish people.

We do need to be more welcoming of converts.

But that’s not the whole story.

Ultimately the Ruth story is about the major commitment she made.  Her commitment was total and absolute.  It was at the center of her life.  “Your people are my people.  Your God is my God.  Where you go I will go.  And there I will be buried.”

And it is not just that speech.   And it is not just Ruth herself.  It is the entirety of her story.

Why do we read Ruth on this holiday? On this holiday when we received the Torah, it teaches us that Torah is only given through suffering and poverty. (Yalkut Shimoni Ruth 596)

There is no kind of suffering not mentioned in the book of Ruth.  There are tragic deaths, starvation, poverty, and humiliation.  Ruth had to overcome all of these struggles.  But she was undeterred in her desire to receive the Torah

The message of the story is that to receive the Torah there needs to be a willingness to commit and to place Judaism at the center of our lives. 

The foil for Ruth in this story is her father-in-law, Elimelekh, who refused to make a commitment.

Elimelekh was the leader of the Jewish people at that time.  But at the first sign of trouble –vayehi raav baaretz, and there was a famine in the land—he picked up and left.  His commitment was thin.  He abandoned his people in their time of need.  He is shamed for all eternity in the Book of Ruth, whereas Ruth is praised forever.

People like to think of the mezuzah as having a magical quality to provide physical protection.  

I don’t know that this approach is helpful and I don’t think of the mezuzah in that way.  I was once told that someone came to the Rebbe and said to him that his house was broke into.  He asked the Rebbe, “Should I check the mezuzah?”  The Rebbe said, “If your house was broken into you should first check the locks.”

Instead we should emphasize that the mezuzah represents spiritual protection.

When we sit at our dining room table, we look at our mezuzah day in and day out.  As we walk through the portals of our house and we look at the mezuzah, we are reminded of what it represents:
When the door is closed, when no one is watching us, what will be at the core of our life—will it be a total commitment to Hashem?  The inside of the mezuzah case—the mezuzah scroll--with its attention to beauty and detail that no one will see, will inspire us each and every time we walk through the doors of our house.

Tue, January 28 2020 2 Shevat 5780