Walk in to any Jewish home and ask yourself: what distinguishes it as a Jewish home? There is actually no ritual, biblical obligation concerning the Jewish home, save one: the mezuzah. One would expect to find this symbol, therefore, in the center of our homes, the living room or dining room. Yet we place our mezuzot in the doorway at the entrance to the home, a place we only pass through, never really stopping to focus on much of anything.
Why do we place our mezuzah in the doorway, rather than hanging it somewhere special inside our home?
In 1941, Rav Ephraim Oshri, the last Rabbi of Kovno, Lithuania, was asked a fascinating question.
One of the Jews in the ghetto believed the yellow star the Jews were all forced to wear was somehow a consequence of the laxity with which the Jews of Kovno had related to the mitzvah of mezuzah, the mark of a Jewish home, before the war. He wanted to know if there was a mitzvah to place a mezuzah in a home in the ghetto, given the horrible conditions the Jews were forced to live in. Would such a place constitute a home, requiring a mezuzah? His intent, in the event there was such an obligation, was to make it his mission to share with every Jew the beauty of the mitzvah, and to teach them the blessing.
Amazingly, given the danger inherent in such a practice, and the fact that public Jewish ritual in the ghetto was often punishable by death, there was no question as to whether they should try and hide the mitzvah somewhere inside the home, as opposed to the front door. It was a given that a mezuzah only makes sense on the front door.
To understand this strange mitzvah we need to take a closer look at the origins of the mitzvah of mezuzah, whose sources are to be found in the Exodus from Egypt:
After two hundred and ten years of slavery and nine plagues, G-d announces that the end is finally at hand; the Jewish people will finally be redeemed.
Hashem will bring one more plague upon Egypt, and this one He will do Himself.
But first the Jews must take a lamb, slaughter it and… paint their doorjambs with it.
And strangest of all is the explanation G-d gives (12:13) for this bizarre ritual. Apparently, the blood on the doorpost will serve as a sign for G-d when He passes through Egypt at midnight. Wherever G-d sees blood on the doorjamb, He will
pass over that house and spare the family from the plague of the first-born…
What is going on? Is G-d nervous he will be wandering through downtown Cairo and might get lost? I have this image of G-d, in a big red suit, with a long white beard, flying through Egypt with a sled and camels hitched up, singing “Ho, Ho, Ho,” at the top of His lungs! Is this the same G-d who will split the Sea? Who created the world? Why does G-d need a sign to implement the tenth plague?
Incredibly, this condition is somehow so crucial to the story of the Exodus from Egypt, that the very name of the festival we celebrate to commemorate these momentous events, Passover, takes its name from this part of the story. Why does this represent the essence of the Exodus?
And why is all this actually the basis for the mitzvah of mezuzah and really the only message the Torah tells us which must be physically represented in every Jewish home?
3,200 years ago, in what was then the darkest place on earth, the Jewish people were given the opportunity to take a stand. One of the gods of ancient Egypt was the lamb. So Hashem asked the Jewish people to take this lamb and tie it up outside their homes on the tenth day of Nissan, and leave it there for four whole days. Then, they had to slaughter this lamb, and paint their doors with the blood. While still in Egypt, they marked their front doors with the blood of the god of their masters.
Imagine how difficult this must have been.
Mordechai Anilewitcz, in the diary he kept during the Warsaw ghetto uprising, points out how incredible it was to these embattled Jews that their bullets could kill the Nazi ‘Ubermentschen.’ After nearly ten years of Nazi rule, the Jews could barely imagine their masters as men of flesh and blood, just like them.
Imagine how challenging it must have been for the Jews in Egypt to kill the god of their masters who had enslaved them for two hundred and ten years.
You see, before Hashem would take us out of Egypt, we had to be willing to take Egypt out of ourselves. The reason we celebrate Pesach on the night of the tenth plague when we were still in Egypt, is because it was on this night that we took a stand and set ourselves free. This tremendous act of faith was the first step in the long process of the Jewish path to freedom. It was easy for G-d to take the Jews out of Egypt. It was much harder to take Egypt out of the Jews. On that night every Jewish family was ready to place a sign on their doors, and to make the statement: through this doorway the gods of Egypt will not pass. The beginning of our emergence as a free nation was the birth of the Jewish home.
G-d did not spare the Jews by virtue of seeing the sign on their doors; the Jews saved themselves by declaring themselves, for the entire world to see, worthy of their redemption.
And this is the essence of the mitzvah of mezuzah. It is not an accident that the mezuzah is placed in the doorway; it is a sign that you are entering a Jewish home. And this is our challenge: what really makes each of our homes a Jewish home? What influences do we bring in to our homes from the world, and what message do we carry from it when we go out into that same world? Are we proud to be Jews? Are we ready to define ourselves as such for the entire world to see?
Three millennium ago, a people, written off as one more culture that was about to disappear, began an incredible journey. Against all the odds, defying every rule of history, the Jewish people began their odyssey to make a difference.
3,200 years later, the beginning of that journey, the Jewish home, is still the secret both to why we are still here, as well as to what we have to offer the world.
Wishing you all a happy and meaningful Pesach.
Rav Binny Freedman, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City is a Company Commander in the IDF reserves, and lives in Efrat with his wife Doreet and their four children. His weekly Internet ‘Parsha Bytes’ can be found at www.orayta.org