Outward and Inward: The Paradox of the Jewish Mezuzah

July 30, 2018

As complex human beings, we have layered and subtle identities, different parts of ourselves that we hold at varying levels of importance. We are split into many small pieces, shaped by our values, experiences, the people we love, and the problems we see in the world that we strive to correct. All of these things direct how we see ourselves; they add up to define our identities.

In addition to the way we see ourselves, there is the mirror image: the way that the world sees us. Our outward identities. How we are perceived, the messages we send about what we value. The aspects of ourselves that we control or, to paraphrase Shakespeare, were thrust upon us.

IMG_9798The Jewish mezuzah is a symbol of both of these aspects of our identities.  It is the marriage of the p’nimiut, the internal, and the chitzoniut, the external. Inside the mezuzah is a parchment or claf, crafted with care and inscribed by a scribe with a feather and ink with the words of the Shema prayer. This prayer encapsulates the deepest tenets of our faith: our belief in one God and the ageless relationship we share. Every child knows this prayer well, and you can overhear them singing it in the most surprising and pedestrian moments. It is, as the prayer itself says, on the tip of our tongues. But then it is rolled up safely and stowed in the mezuzah case. The most intimate words of our faith are both open to all and treasured within.

A mezuzah hung on the front doorpost is a home’s calling card to the world. It is an external identity, proclaiming the faith of those who live there. A beautiful design, a distinctive material, can set a mezuzah apart, beautifying the mitzvah and communicating its worth. It shows how we have decided to convey what we treasure most. Like a sports jersey, a college sweatshirt, a kippah, or a tallit, it speaks for us about our passions and interests before we can even say a word. We are called upon by the Torah to display the mezuzah with pride, much like the Israelites set themselves apart in Egypt by marking their doorposts on the eve of the final plague. It shows our differences, our uniqueness, our most cherished inward faith put into the public eye.

The lesson of the Jewish mezuzah is this paradox. The balance between the internal light and the call to share this light with the world. The siren song of quiet and uninterrupted faith and the directive to stand out, to create positive change in the world. The similarities and differences between how we see ourselves and how the world perceives us.

As we enter our homes and as we exit them into the world, the mezuzah serves as a reminder that we are at once more than this world and also a crucial part of it. That we have faith that goes above day-to-day life, but that this faith is also what gives us the strength and inspiration to improve these struggles for others. Two truths, two identities, one small mezuzah.

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