At home and away, I have had opportunities to re-imagine words of prayer that I say all of the time: “in the house and on the way” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
First, standing at Robinson’s Arch during the B’nai Mitzvah service in Jerusalem, I saw these words and the world from a different perspective. There we were, on a Roman era street, running along the base of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. We were just south of Western Wall plaza, in a place set aside for egalitarian and inclusive Torah reading. (Read here: Bar/Bat Mitzvah services and Women’s groups.) It was the last day of our trip. We were counting down the hours before departure, and I was thinking about what memories I wanted to take home. There I was, standing with these young adults, as they read Torah facing the Temple Mount, with rubble from the Roman destruction of the second Temple all around us. We started with Eddie and John putting on tefillin. During this ritual they said the Kriyat Shema (including V’ahavta). I happened to be looking up at the Wall as they recited the familiar words. There was a sudden flash of insight, Beit HaMikdash…House of Holiness. I was thinking, “There, here; Israel, Jerusalem, Temple is a Home and we are departing and going on our way.” In Deuteronomy, G-d instructs us to say these words when you are at home and on your way. What if it’s not just my house and while I am out in the world going about my business, but maybe in Israel and in Diaspora? We find G-d in wandering, and when settled in the land of our ancestors.
This has not been the only time of late when the use of these words has found its way into my teaching. Many of you have stopped me on the way to the Oneg Shabbat and asked about this translation from Mishkan T’filah, “Do not leave them at the doorway of your house, or outside your gate.” (Page 37) A number of you have been bothered by this alternative translation. “Does it really say that we are not supposed to have a Mezuzah,” you ask?” We all know that is the opposite of what G-d tells us in Deuteronomy, so why would someone translate it that way? It doesn’t actually mean to stop putting a mezuzah on your door post. It is a provocative statement: “Don’t stick the mezuzah there and forget.” An artifact only works when you interact with it. It is like the tree falling in woods. If no one is there to hear it, the air moved, but does not become sound. Treasure only has value if it is discovered and used. One has to push the mezuzah and take the feeling of loving G-d into the world or into your house. It is like crossing a threshold of bubble or spider web and taking it with you.
I share these two teachings with you not just to broaden your experience of the V’ahavta. I am hoping that you will take up the energy and make the effort to wrestle with the texts and their meanings yourself. So many of us are intimidated by rituals, texts or artifacts. We give up because we don’t know how to perform the ritual or use an artifact; we don’t understand or agree with the assumed meaning of a text; We lack the immediate, strong or the assumed connection that we are “supposed to” feel, when we bring these three worship experiences together. So often we give up or turn away and tune out, and then, we miss something important. I will be the first to tell you, the more I do stuff, the more I see, feel and connect. Yes, I am a Rabbi, and some of this may be training and personality. I am also just another fellow human traveler too. This insight happens because I work at it and am open to it. I assure you, that I too, struggle with language, rituals and theology.
I challenge you and offer my support. Join me in this endeavor. Open your eyes, play, expand and strengthen your connection to words and rituals items and actions of Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz