A mezuzah contains the first two paragraphs of the Shema. The first paragraph deals in main with the fundamentals of Jewish conviction. We accept, ideally as a result of rigorous investigation, that there is a God who created the world and that our goal in life is to act in a way that exhibits Godly traits. The second paragraph deals with consequences. Life matters. Our decisions matter. This is not an empty world. We have the opportunity to build it or to destroy it. God has placed those choices squarely on our shoulders.
The parchment is wrapped, often placed in a case, and then affixed to every single door in the house excluding bathrooms and toilets. It is placed on the right hand side of the door as one enters (usually defined by the fact that a door opens inwards) within about two thirds of the way up the door. It is tilted at a slight angle pointing inwards.
The ideas that there is a God, that our aim in life is to live in a Godly fashion and that we are responsible for our world, are deeply fundamental ideas in Jewish thinking. They are not ideas that we want to forget and so we are given various means of remembering. Amongst them, we remind ourselves of these ideas verbally at least twice a day in the Shema. We teach them regularly to our children and we attach them to our doorposts.
Walking through a door represents a change of focus. One is moving from one room to another, leaving or entering a house almost invariably to do something new. The Torah wants to ensure that these ideas are in our minds every time we begin a new activity. Two thirds up the doorway is usually eye-level. When we begin something new, the mezuzah serves as a reminder of why we are doing what we are doing and what our priorities are. It’s so easy for us human beings to forget what we are living for in the hecticness of life. We need constant reminders as to what is important and a mezuzah is one of them.
Of course, there is no foolproof way of remaining focused in life. The mezuzah is a wonderful idea, but only works if one helps it to work. If it becomes simply part of the furniture, the mezuzah will fail to serve its purpose. It needs to be noticed if it is to remind us. For someone who is walking through life sleepwalking, the mezuzah will not wake them up.
Some people have a custom to touch the mezuzah when they walk past it. This is there to serve as a reminder to focus on its message. Of course, as with all meaningful action, we are able to make it into an empty rote if we do not concentrate on what we are doing.
The mezuzah is our reminder that life is about spiritual goals and not merely the amassing of material wealth. People will sometimes spend enormous amounts on a home and its contents, but be unwilling to go the extra little bit to make sure the home has a spiritual element also.
A home in Los Angeles consisted of a Jewish woman, Sara, and non Jewish man, Jack. They were given a mezuzah to put up and Jack asked Sara’s father to come and help him as he had no idea what to do. Sara’s father came around and asked for the mezuzah. Jack opened the mezuzah, threw the parchment in the bin and handed Sara’s father the cover. Sara’s father asked why he had done that and Jack responded that being that Sara’s father was here to help, he no longer needed the instructions!
As discussed, the mezuzah is indeed instructions. It is instructions for living a meaningful and focused life. To throw that away is to throw away the essence of Judaism. Our Judaism can be the empty shell of the mezuzah case, or it can be the meaningful way of life that it has always been. The choice is very much ours to make.
At a very minimal level, a mezuzah is the sign of a Jewish home. The person putting a mezuzah on their home is making a proud statement to their family, friends and community that this is a Jewish home that is committed to Jewish values. It is an obvious and apparent sign of connection to a three thousand year old heritage that is as vibrant today as it has ever been. A house with a mezuzah is a link in the chain of Jewish history, Jewish continuity and Jewish destiny.