|By Sam Glaser
July 8th was a deliciously brisk, sunny day in Vancouver, Canada. I took my family on a mountain bike adventure through one of the most gorgeous urban parks on the globe, Stanley Park. As we careened down bike paths and trails I did my best to capture the moment with my handy Canon compact camera. Regretfully, I tried 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 the finely tuned rental bike seized up and flipped me over the handlebars. I broke my 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 to catch up to family who were well ahead and oblivious to my aerial dexterity.
Thankfully a nearby lifeguard patched up my wound and we finished this dream ride that I was so excited to share with my family. Then we went on a six-mile hike into the Canadian Rockies that began with the crossing of the famous Lynn Canyon suspension bridge. Spectacular deep green forest and a chain of pristine lakes graced this beautiful trail. A few miles in and my wrist started to throb. I figured I was letting too much blood get to the area because I was hiking with my arms hanging down. I fashioned a sling out of one of my kid’s sweatshirts and that took care of the discomfort. But something told me that I messed myself up worse than I initially suspected.
Back in Downtown Vancouver my wrist was now double in size and super sensitive to touch. Not a good thing for a piano player. I walked with my kids over to the emergency room and waited with a sad variety of patients with problems much worse than mine. I finally walked impatiently over to the window to get an update. The cheery attendant told me that I would have at least a three-hour wait to be seen, longer than that to get an x-ray, and be charged a minimum of $800 that may or may not be covered by my US 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 the drug store and returned to our 33rd floor hotel room.
We had a beautiful Shabbat dinner over the lights of Vancouver. I was able to ignore my swollen wrist thanks to three Advils and a fine Canadian ale. The next morning we walked over to the local Chabad where there was a standing-room-only crowd for services. Thankfully Mussaf was followed with a hearty lunch where 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. The x-ray I understand. But check my mezuzot? That seems to be a standard Lubavitch response to preventing seemingly random mishaps.
After returning from our wonderful trip I kept thinking, “maybe I should check those mezuzot after all.” Then I’d reason, “what could have gone wrong with them…they are just hanging there and no one is messing with them.” In the meantime, our local hand and wrist specialist gave me a removable cast to immobilize the hairline fracture where my wrist bone meets my thumb. This allowed me to continue to play my gigs over the month but isolate the area the rest of the time. I was well on the mend but 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. I asked my neighborhood sofrim (scribes) what was involved with checking them. A $200 house call plus $7 per mezuzah to check plus repairs if needed, plus new parchments if there were irreparable issues. Thankfully, the new rabbi at the shul down the street is also a sofer and was willing to do it without the house call fee. OK…you got a deal!
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, of course.) What has motivated Jews over the course of history to do so at their peril knowing that anti-Semites are on the prowl? Why would God command such a strange thing, and then command us to repeat the exact wording of that very commandment twice a day? First I’ll tell you what happened and then I’ll explore the answers I discovered.
This sweet, unassuming rabbi carefully took down every single mezuzah in our home, using great care to keep the batim (housing) and the scrolls together. He sat at the desk in my studio with a powerful magnifying glass and scrutinized each one. Seven of the twenty were posul (not fit for use.) The two on our front and back door had weathered to point where they were unreadable. Many of the others had letters that 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 and clean them up so that they could be put back into service. I know some of you are thinking: “this guy just wanted to sell me more mezuzot!” But he went to great pains to show me exactly why each one was deficient and explained the detailed halacha why certain things can’t be repaired. We received many mezuzot as housewarming gifts sixteen years ago…let the buyer beware…you have to get a scroll 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. This is going to sound weird but as soon as he hung the final now kosher mezuzah I felt a surreal sense of light and healing pervade our home. Like everything was going to be OK. I wasn’t thrilled about writing that check but in retrospect it’s the best money I’ve spent in a long time. Kosher mezuzot are an intangible but invaluable asset to any home. I have an indescribable sense that doing this mitzvah right really does make a difference. I even booked three gigs that first week!
The rabbis insist that a mezuzah is not an amulet. The magic of the parchment is the same as fulfilling any mitzvah – the power of enhancing one’s connection with the Commander-in-chief. However, there are a few sources that resonate with the concept of 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 is special in that it serves as a conduit for Divine blessings for the home and its inhabitants. Perhaps it’s because it heightens our awareness that a home has the capacity for holiness; it’s more than just a place to hang our hat. That simple act of reaching to kiss a mezuzah when you pass through a gateway has a powerful effect on one’s consciousness. It’s like my house wears 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.” Emphasizing the establishment of judicial systems is one of the great contributions of the Jewish People to the world. But there is a grammatical concept that begs inspection here: “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 claims that 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 a spiritual guardian at the source of input into our lives. We live in an age of 24/7 bombardment of the senses. It is more relevant now than ever that our gates are guarded to monitor the input. How much news do I need to hear? How much TV? Do I need to see every blockbuster movie? What dosage of violence, sex, gossip is appropriate? Is this something I should eat? Is this someone I should touch? Without sounding like Church Lady, in this passage clearly God is sending us a much-needed prescription for spiritual living.
A chassid approached his rabbi to complain that he couldn’t keep sexual thoughts off his mind. He felt helpless and despondent, unable to focus on his learning and prayer. The rabbi recommended that the chassid go to a certain home at the edge of the town and ask to speak to the owner. The chassid dutifully walked the distance and knocked on the door several times. No one answered so the chassid sat down and waited. Eventually he fell asleep and was awakened the next morning when the man inside finally answered the door. The chassid stated, “how could you have left me out here all night?” The man replied, “I chose not to let you in.” The chassid was furious and reported the incident to his rabbi who replied, “only we can decide what or who comes in or out.”
One of the best ways I’ve found to break with the societal norm of letting everything in the “gates” of the senses is the gift of Shabbat. The full cessation of using anything with a screen reminds us that we can indeed break free if we so choose. I have my kids turn off cell phones and computers completely, not only to save the battery life, but to increase the sense of freedom from those machines that overwhelm us with input. Twenty-five hours of peace has never been so great a gift as it is in our high tech, gadget filled times.
Speaking of gates, my brother Aharon requested that I sing my Pitchu Li song at his wedding. This ballad from Hineni, my first Jewish album has always been one of his favorites. He asked me, do you know what the “gate of righteousness” is that the psalmist was hoping to open? I sheepishly said, “no, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He replied that the best gateway to achieve righteousness is that of mastering gratitude. Now it all comes together: by guarding our personal gates or senses, we are more apt to let the space for holiness take root, and in the process deepen our appreciation of God’s gifts in our lives.
Please allow me one final insight. The Torah dictates that we are required to let slaves go free in the seventh year. The sabbatical laws state that a slave who prefers to stay with his host family must be taken to the doorpost and have his ear pierced with an awl. This is the symbol of his having relinquished his right to freedom, wounding him in the very ear that heard the imperative for liberty at Mt. Sinai. It was also on the doorpostthat we were commanded to sprinkle lamb’s blood so that the angel of death would “pass over” our homes during the final plague in Egypt. Something about this parchment on our doorpost brings us right back to this concept of freedom. By electing to fulfill God’s will and affix a mezuzah, regardless of what the neighbors think about our strange customs, we are walking in the shoes of those generations before that have used their freedom to connect with 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. But rather than serve as our undoing, it is the very essence of our survival, the core of our protection over the millennia. By using our freedom to enter the realm of the servant/Master relationship, we connect with eternity. It is no wonder God commands us to repeat this mitzvah orally twice a day. In fact we conclude the crucial V’ahavta paragraph with the word “gates.” Accepting God’s partnership in the guarding of our physical and spiritual gates is the key to our success as individuals and as a people. Just like the lesson we learn when we leave our comfortable homes on Succot, the mezuzah reminds us of the true source of our protection.
Before my parents became frum, my brothers and I convinced them to put up mezuzot in all the rooms of their house, not just the front door. They did so at great expense – they had a big, beautiful home that they eventually sold to actor Dustin Hoffman. We also had to convince them to leave the mezuzot up when they moved out. Jewish law dictates that if you know you are selling to a Jew you don’t take the mezuzot with you when you go. My folks weren’t terribly happy about leaving this small fortune in parchment on the walls for Mr. Hoffman, but were committed to doing the right thing. I’m confident that the reward in heaven far exceeds the money they had to spend for new scrolls.
I’m not sure if it’s due to our new certified-kosher mezuzot but God has slowly but surely returned my wrist to full function. I still marvel at the clean new skin where an open wound festered a mere month before. I’m back to hammering my left hand octaves and carrying my suitcases. I’ve even gotten back on my bike and yes, I am avoiding the temptation to film as I ride. Reach up for your doorposts. Is there a mezuzah there? Protect the spiritual gates of your home with a piece of parchment with God’s prayers for creation, written by the hand of a holy scribe. Protect your personal gates by monitoring the input you subject yourself to. Take concrete steps now to show our Creator that you are ready for a holy, healthy, happy new year filled with growth and sweetness. Shana tova umetuka!