At Every Boundary, ONE

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

At Every Boundary, ONE.

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Twice in the Torah, we are taught to place upon our doorways (for which the Hebrew is "mezuzot") some words that "I [God] command you this day." These words are also to appear between our eyes, upon our hands, and upon our gates.

What are the words? After centuries of experiment and difference, we have settled on the two passages that are themselves the sources of the commandment: Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 and 11: 13-21, itself.

These passages begin with the Sh'ma. At first hearing, the Sh'ma itself, the six bare words, may seem to be simply an assertion of the unity of YHWH. But the Word "sh'ma" itself is an imperative, a command, to listen, to hearken.

Then come a command to love God; a command to write out these very words in the everyday places of our doors, our eyes, our hands, our gates; and a warning to act in accord with God's Teachings so that the earth's fertility is assured. For, we are told, if we prostitute ourselves to "other gods," the heavens will close and the rain will halt and the earth will not feed us.

To these two paragraphs, rabbinic tradition has added a third - about wearing bud-like fringes, tzitziot, upon the corners of our clothing — for us to read three times a day as part of the recitation of the Sh'ma. If the 19 blessings of the standing prayer, the Amidah, are the vertebrae of the service, the Sh'ma and its three paragraphs are perhaps the head, resting on the spine.

In the nineteenth century, many rationalist Jews cited ancient texts, including the Talmud, to show that mezuzot were merely magical amulets to lessen the magical danger that the superstitious may feel hovering at doorways, and so were inconsistent with the nobility and spirituality of monotheism, the very Unity that the Shema proclaims. So these "amulets" were abandoned by many of the people, only to return to the doorways of almost all Jews — even the marginally connected — by the end of the twentieth century.

But the questions of meaning remain: Is there any way to reunite these "magical amulets" with the sense of Unity and the hope of earth's fertility? Why were these words to be placed where the Torah commands?

The doorway, the gate, the eyes and hands, the corners of our clothing — all are marginal. Spaces in between. So are the special times the Torah also mentions when these words are to be spoken — between sleep and wakefulness, between the generations ("Teach them to your children ..."). These are times and places when and where we might easily feel ourselves falling from one world into an utterly different one.

Inside my house — family, familiar; outside, scary. Or inside, boring; outside, adventurous. Beyond the gates of my city, a strange barbarian people: Those folks don't speak my language. Dreams or reality: two utterly different worlds. Those beings beyond all human settlements-- rivers, clouds, the ozone layer — that do not even speak at all: utterly different from humanity.

The danger of these thresholds is not magical. What is dangerous is the temptation not only to distinguish but to separate, to denigrate — as if these others, the Outsiders, were not also part of the One.

And so precisely at these boundaries we remember to remind ourselves: Ehad. The Unity.

What if we carried this sense of the meaning of these texts back into the liturgical chanting of the Sh'ma? Is there a way to get "Israel" — the Jewish people — actually to hear, to hearken, to listen to this assertion of the Unity?

Imagine pausing after reciting the Sh'ma to ask a congregation: See yourselves caught in the doorway between home and unfamiliar turf — and then softly chant the Sh'ma again; between our own culture and a foreign one — pause; and then softly chant the Sh'ma again.

See yourself —
between the horrified eye that sees the broken bodies of the terror victims, and the doer's hand that aims the bomb to blast an enemy neighborhood, and pause;

between the sleeper's hopeful dream, and the wakeful sense of constricted possibility, and pause;

between the wordless global-scorching hurricane and the wordy politician tuned to the purr of Big Oil's automobile commercials, and pause;

— and at each perilous threshold, pause to softly chant the Sh'ma again.

For the Sh'ma is saying — :

"Listen!" Listen, you Israelites, "our" God is not a tribal figure; "our" God is the very Breath of Life, the One who brings being into being, the One who transcends past and future, the One Who breathes into tree and ozone layer the breath that we breathe out, and breathes the wisdom of the other cultures into us; "our" God is not our property, "our" God is One!

Can we dare to hear the Sh'ma as somewhere between a rebuke and a reminder?


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