Shema. Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
It’s featured in this week’s Torah reading, and in the daily liturgy. It was inside a gift I gave my father before he died. And in one I gave my daughter as she left home last week. More about that, below.
Moses says, Shema! Listen! God is infinite being. Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength. Take my words of instruction into your heart. Teach them to your children. Speak of them when you sit at home, set out on your way, when you lie down and when you arise. ….Write them on the doorposts of your home and on your gates.
Many Jews post these words at the entrance to their homes. They’re on a tiny piece of paper, inside a decorative case. Together, we call them a mezuzah (doorpost). The mezuzah is a physical object but it is also a symbol.
What does it symbolize? Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman says that’s the wrong question. “Symbols symbolize,” he says. But he does not say what they symbolize. That’s because a symbol doesn’t point to a specific thing. Rather, symbols shimmer with our lived experiences. They activate the memories and emotions we’ve invested in them.
So it is with the mezuzah. For me, it activates memories of happy times. For example, when my father was sixty, he bought a house. Finally, he was financially stable enough. Although nothing else about our lives had changed, we were making a fresh start. So, once we were settled in the new home, we put up our mezuzah. We invited a Chabad friend to lead us in a ceremony. My father drank 7 shots of vodka and beamed. It was the only time I ever saw him drink.
And thus, with these memories in mind, I led my husband and our children in a family mezuzah ceremony each time we moved. Once, as we were posting an outside mezuzah, a chipmunk ran in through the open door. We laughed at its love of ritual. But, it turned out, chipmunks sneaking in was a regular feature in that house. One even lived happily there for three weeks, caching stolen cat food in a bedroom closet.
About a year before my father lay down to his final rest, I gave him a special 85th birthday gift. At the local pottery painting studio, I found a mezuzah case. So, I hand-painted it for my Dad. In the center, I put the letter shin, first letter of the word Shema. Around it, I drew a shield, with rays shining in every direction. To me, it looked like a sun. But it also looked like a Superman emblem. A perfect image for my father, who had spent many years fighting, physically and legally, for the well-being of others.
Inside the case, I put a special, personal version of the Shema.
Dear Dad. To borrow from the ancient words of the Shema: These things that you taught me will always be in my heart. I will teach them to my children, and speak of them, when I am at home and when I am out and about, in the morning and in the evening. They shall be evident in my hands when I act, and in my head when I think, and they shall pervade my household. Thank you, Dad, for teaching me so many wonderful things about life, love, and just about everything else. Love, Laura
The mezuzah is personal, but also communal. Because it’s on so many homes, it’s a reminder. Wherever you go, you are still part of a network of Jewish community. Thus, you will always have extended family.
So, what happened last week should have been no surprise. But it was a surprise. Our daughter grew up. She chose a graduate school. And a partner. He chose a fresh start. So, together they left for Toronto, 3,000 miles away from home.
Just as we were saying goodbye, my daughter asked if we had a mezuzah. So they could post it at their new home. And, in fact, we did. We gave her a very special one. The mezuzah case that I had made for her grandfather. Inside, we tucked a brand new scroll with the words of the Shema.
Teach them to your children, indeed. So that they can speak of them when they set out on their way. Godspeed, Hillary and Mark.