Thursday, 27 August 2009

15. The Mezuzah

I know we’re stereotyping here (well, I’m stereotyping—I won’t drag you into it), but let’s say there’s a type of person—a type of Jew—a type of Orthodox Jew—who puts his fingers to the mezuzah whenever he enters a room and then kisses the digit or digits that touched the mezuzah. We’ll call this overgeneralization of a person The Mezuzah Kisser.

The Mezuzah Kisser is an interesting type of person.

He is passionate and consistent in his observance of this mezuzah-kissing practice. If he is too short to touch the mezuzah with his feet on the ground, he will jump to reach it. On the rare occasion that he passes a mezuzah without kissing it, he will, immediately upon realizing his oversight, dash back to the doorpost to complete the kiss. In a crowded entryway, he will inconvenience himself (and, sometimes, others) to work his way through the masses to reach the mezuzah.

In other words, he is a person trying to do the right thing with alacrity, discipline and fervour.

Unfortunately, his ardour is somewhat baffling from a Halachic perspective.

The Halachic details surrounding the mitzvah of Mezuzah involve, primarily, the writing and hanging of the mezuzah. These mitzvoth, naturally, are relevant usually only once per mezuzah. The recurring obligation is to focus attention on the mezuzah when entering and exiting a room. The mezuzah, then, acts somewhat as a checkpoint so that those entering and exiting pause to conduct a personal examination of their thoughts and motives before proceeding. For some (the tactile among us), focus might be more easily achieved with some physical interaction with the mezuzah. There is precedent for this, as can be found in TB Avodah Zorah 11a, a gemara which is quoted by Halachic sources as evidence of a custom to touch the mezuzah when entering and exiting a room. As we are accustomed to do with most holy objects (the Torah, a siddur, a sefer, etc.), it is logical to assume that after touching the mezuzah, it would be the respectful course of action to then kiss one’s finger. While there is no mention of kissing the mezuzah in the Rambam or the Shulchan Aruch, the Aruch HaShulchan (Hilchot Mezuzah, 285:4) mentions a custom to place the third finger on the mezuzah and, after saying a short prayer, to kiss this finger. (If the reader knows of an earlier source for kissing the mezuzah, please comment with it below.)

Essentially, the kissing of the mezuzah is a byproduct of a byproduct of the actual mitzvah: the fundamental mitzvah is to concentrate—the outgrowth of this is a custom to touch the mezuzah—the outgrowth of this outgrowth is to kiss the finger(s) that touched the mezuzah.

If the Mezuzah Kisser was determined to kiss the mezuzah because he recognized the underlying role of this action in relation to the actual mitzvah, his behavior might be understandable. But this is not the case. We witness that his attention is on the kiss, whereas the duration of time that his fingers actually rest on the mezuzah is minimal.

The Mezuzah Kisser is so entranced by the gestures of Orthodoxy that he has allowed the routine to gain superiority over the purpose.

Do we laud the Mezuzah Kisser for his devotion or do we condemn him for his misguidedness?

Generally, we try to do both: we encourage him where appropriate while redirecting him as necessary. We do not want to diminish his zeal but we would like to see that zeal applied as accurately as possible.

But this solution addresses the Mezuzah Kisser’s actions; it does not concern itself with his personality. The Mezuzah Kisser is committed but impetuous; he is meticulous but surface-oriented; he is excited to learn but satisfied with the knowledge he has.

The Mezuzah Kisser has many relatives. For example, there is a weightlifter in the gym that never misses a day’s workout. He does not talk to anyone while he exercises, his mind entirely focused on the task at hand. He pushes himself constantly to lift heavier weights and to increase the number of repetitions he does. But to all the professional trainers on the floor, he is viewed as a fool. His form is terribly flawed. Despite all the effort that he is putting into his workout, he will not see significant results. In fact, if someone doesn’t correct him soon, he has a very good chance of injuring himself, perhaps seriously, perhaps permanently.

Now what question comes to mind when such a person is encountered? Do we question the person’s actions or do we look to the source, to the person’s character?

Why would someone undertake a potentially dangerous activity without first acquiring the necessary information to do it properly? Why would someone expend that kind of energy without first determining whether the energy was being used efficiently?

A friend may approach the novice weightlifter and correct his form. But when the weightlifter starts a new exercise, he will be prone to the same errors as before. It is a character flaw, not only a behavioral flaw.

Our mind has the ability to separate certain intermingled entities to see each part as an exclusive whole. But it is often the case that our minds deceive us, that these two parts are interdependent.

Proper passion in Torah observance is unquestionably essential and praiseworthy. But passion can be cultivated in many different ways. The Torah system is a study-based system. The fundamental drive of the Jew is the uncovering of the mystery of God and Torah—in other words, the pursuit of Truth. When this drive is the source of the Jew’s passion, he is permitted to step back from the moment and see a larger picture. Sometimes, this passion drives the Jew to action. Sometimes, this passion tells the Jew to “go and learn.” There is a purity to this passion. It is not bred with the desire for immediate spiritual gratification or with the need to feel Holy or with any number of other contaminants that regularly plant the seed for passion. In truth, these factors do not merely infect passion but they engender an entirely different strain of passion. The Mezuzah Kisser’s devotion cannot be detached from his impetuousness because the latter is integral to the former.

Is there some Mezuzah Kisser in all of us? Perhaps. It is not difficult to lose sight of the essence of a mitzvah and focus instead on its byproducts, especially when it is culturally acceptable to do so. We can be quick to act sometimes when deliberation would have been more appropriate. We can find ourselves so determined to achieve a certain goal that we actually sabotage that goal. These mistakes are apparent in action but they stem from a person’s character. We undermine the Teshuva process if we limit it to the realm of action. If the proper passion for Truth is found, the actions will follow. Our internal Mezuzah Kisser should not be reduced to a series of mistaken actions, repairable with instruction. He has the ability to change at his core. But if we exonerate his zeal while denouncing his mannerisms, we will merely be putting a mask over what he will still be underneath: the Mezuzah Kisser, unscathed. And how long before we are all contented to be masked?

1 comment:

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