Sunday, July 3, 2011

"On the Doorposts of Your House"

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

When we moved to our present home, I noticed a small mezuzah outside my daughter's bedroom. This site explains the purpose of these doorpost cases: Contrary to this site's recommendation, our home's previous owner did not remove the case, but understanding its significance I have treated it with respect.

Among God's commands in the scripture above, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, God says, "Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart... write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (verse 6 and 9). Thus, mezuzah's are literal responses to this scripture, as are tefillin.

This passage captures my imagination on a variety of levels. One is certainly my own failures in being faithful to this, a text addressed to Jews but which we Gentile Christians now also take to heart.

Bible study has its risks. You could have strong opinions about points of biblical interpretation but communicate stubbornness rather than love when you discuss the Bible. I remember feeling so inadequate when, as a new Christian (who felt inadequate as a general rule), other Christians pressed me for my opinion on certain topics about which I’d not yet considered. You could become discouraged in your faith because you can never measure up to the Bible’s standards. Or you don’t know what to do with your doubts and questions because you think you're not supposed to have any. 

But we read the Bible best when, in addition to private reading and devotional time, we’re also part of a congregation of diverse, worshiping people where prayer, preaching, the Eucharist, group study, and service are part of a whole spiritual journey. The Deuteronomy passage is addressed to a people whom God is forming, not a bunch of individuals who happen to be together.

I love this story from the author and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“Once I noticed,” writes a Christian scholar, who visited the city of Warsaw during the First World War, “a great many coaches on a parking-place but no drivers in sight. In my own country I would have known where to look for them. A young Jewish boy showed me the way: in a courtyard, on the second floor, was the shtibl (Hasidic synagogue) of the Jewish drivers…. All the drivers were engaged in fervent study and religious discussion…. It was then that I found out and became convinced that all professions, the bakers, the butchers, the shoemakers, etc., have their own shtibl in the Jewish district; and every free moment which can be taken off from their work is given to the study of Torah. And when they get together in intimate groups, one urges the other: Sog mir a shtickl Torah—Tell me a little Torah.”[1]

I don’t study the Bible that way and I’m unfamiliar with Christians who do. But I love the image and the idea. What if we, who don’t want to be fundamentalists but do want to live as faithful Christians, lived our lives in such a way that Bible study was intimate—and an intimate part of our everyday lives, and a natural part of conversation, the way we talk about the irritating people at our places of work, about our favorite books and movies? We might get angry at least other, but we’d deal with it; we wouldn’t be aloof from each other; we’d accept our disagreements. We’d grow together and perhaps reexamine our cherished yet unhelpful opinions and positions. We’d grow in wisdom and kindness.


Being me, I have to go on a nostalgic reverie, but the Deuteronomy passage is so sacred for Jews that I didn’t want to trivialize it with personal memories, so I’m thinking separately about the image of the doorpost, or, more generally, the primary door of your residence.

My childhood home was constructed in the late 1950s and fits the period style: a long ranch house with large picture windows. The walkway to the front door was parallel rather than perpendicular to the house, and anyone coming to the door was already walking next to the house. The effect was always just a bit creepy, to realize someone was right outside the big windows (although they weren’t necessarily looking inside). I don't know how many times we were startled by the profile of an approaching visitor.

In the 1990s my wife and daughter and I lived in another ranch style house, but the front walkway was perpendicular to the house. However, our street was a cul-de-sac (thanks to the bird brains who ran the adjacent condo neighborhood and decided to block the street to reduce traffic into that neighborhood) so our front door was more seldom used. Our kitchen door opened into the car port and drive way, and down the driveway was our mailbox, which was actually located another street than our address, an anomaly that created much confusion. Our kitchen door became our major entrance, which in turn made the house all the more homey, somehow; visitors stepped right into our kitchen.

For a few years we also lived in a townhouse apartment. There was a solid front door and also a glass door, into which one hapless guest collided (without hurting him or breaking the glass, although he felt embarrassed). Although our apartment was not in a stereotypical “bad neighborhood,” we were sometimes startled awake by late-night knocks on the door; our neighbor, it turned out, was dealing drugs and his customers got the apartment numbers confused. Thankfully our next neighbors were pleasant and more morally employed!

I think of Psalm 121:8 ("The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in fron this time on and forevermore"), which connects well to Deut. 6:9. The psalm refers to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and God’s unfailing providential care, not only for that original occasion but for any occasion. But the lovely imagine of God’s care for our “going out and coming in” means that our relationship with God encompasses our daily chores, our car-trips for errands, our employment places, our yard work, and all the other times we’re in and out the main door of our homes.


Quoted in Stephen M. Wyland, The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 2005), pp. 73-74.

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