The Message Of The Mezuzzah


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


My friends, I invite you to behold the humble mezuzah. You may think of it is a mere trinket, a bit of Jewish decorative art, but it is much more than that. Its essence and how we use it represents a model to solve the world’s problems. Therefore, in addition to it being hung on the doorposts of your house and my house, I propose that one be affixed on the White House and the doors of every congressman and senator. While we are at it, Mahmoud Abbas and the leadership of Fatah, along will the leaders of Hammas need them. Though Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow leaders undoubtedly already have one, we might buy them new ones in order to grab their attention.

So what is the chochma, the wisdom, embodied in our little mezuzah? It is really quite simple. Have you ever wondered why a mezuzah is always at an angle on the right side of the doorpost? This custom for Ashkenazic Jews goes back to the Middle Ages. Rashi, the great French commentator taught that a mezuzah should be hung vertically, with the top pointing towards the heavens. But his grandson, Rabbenu Tam, also a great scholar, argued that it should be placed horizontally, just as the tablets of the law had rested in the Holy Ark in the Temple. After much discussion, the great decision evolved to hang it on the diagonal with its top inclined toward the inside, allowing peace to rein in a Jewish home in 12th century France. Our humble mezuzah teaches us the importance of compromise.

Social scientists study the art of compromise, the act of people cooperating to make society and organizations possible. Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann discuss five possible orientations to conflict: competition, collaboration, compromise, accommodation, and avoidance. They believe that each of the five orientations are appropriate under certain circumstances and that one should choose an approach to conflict resolution based on the nature of the conflict, not the style that you find most comfortable. Thomas and Kilmann noted that compromise is the appropriate conflict resolution mode when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill, and when there is a deadline looming.

Like many of you, I find myself frustrated and angry by the political process and tone of our nation at this time. The debt ceiling debate was only the most recent debacle, where partisan political positioning seems to have taken priority over the national good. Personal attacks from the right and the left only serve to demean the individuals involved and diminish the effectiveness and confidence in elected officials. When our elected officials announce in advance that they do not plan to attend a joint session of congress where the President speaks, this reflects close mindedness and disrespect for the basic institutions of our nation. The whole subject of civility in our society is one that I have addressed with you before and I urge you to let our elected officials hear of your disgust.

More than that let them know that gridlock on the major issues of our nation is not acceptable. We certainly can respect advocacy for positions of conscience, for pursuing the best paths to reach goals, but there is a higher standard that must be paramount, the economic, political and social health of our nation. Whether we are talking about the debt ceiling, immigration reform, taxation, health care or any number of contentious topics, responsible leaders must realize that in a democratic system compromise is the only way there can be progress. During times of war, that consensus is more readily reached. Perhaps our national leaders need to grasp the urgency of our present moment in history. Compromise is the key tool to the effective functioning of our government in service to the people.

Avishai Margolit, a professor at both Princeton and Hebrew University, in his book “On Compromise and Rotten Compromises,” refers to compromise as an “ambivalent concept.” One is often praised for reaching an accord to preserve friendship and peace or reviled for acceding. With historical examples, he points out that compromise can be pragmatic and strategic, consider the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis; or compromise can be cowardly and weak, consider the appeasement policies during the rise of Nazi Germany. The book deals with political compromises, those deemed morally acceptable and others, which he defines as “rotten.” A rotten compromise is taken to be a compromise with a regime that exercises inhuman policies, namely systematic behavior that mixes cruelty with humiliation and/or treats humans as inhuman. He will argue that sometimes even justice must be compromised for the sake of peace, but never when it is a “rotten compromise.”

Our rabbinical social scientists of the Talmud approached the issue somewhat similarly: We have been taught: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20) The first mention of justice refers to justice based on law, the second, to justice based on compromise. (Sanhedrin 32b)

Like many rabbis across America, knowing that the Palestinians were bringing their request for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, I have been waiting until the last minute to fashion my comments for today. As I have said to you before, I do not pretend to be either an expert or a prophet and I am open to interpretations of the situation that differ with my own. I have been monitoring the news, reading and listening to people who have unique access to events, trying to assess developments as best I can. So far, it has been much ado about nothing. Mahmoud Abbas brought his request. It will not pass in the Security Council, either for lack of votes or the promised veto by the United States. Unfortunately that does not make the issue disappear.

The Middle East has changed dramatically during the past year. Egypt is even less of a source of peace and security for Israel than it was before. Diplomatically, Israel is more isolated than in the past with the break of relations with Turkey. Violent and non-violent uprisings in the Arab world have been successful in overthrowing regimes. The one large scale non-violent Arab demonstration that Israel faced resulted in the deaths of demonstrators. This may serve as an omen for the future. Domestically, Israel has had its own massive protests over lack of housing, food prices, jobs, the disparity between rich and poor, inclusive of the disproportionate government funds spent on settlements. Israel and lovers of Israel face a great challenge.

Sad to say, many of the same problems that plague national issues can be found within the American Jewish community. There are those who passionately love Israel, but are totally intolerant of those whose approach to what is best for Israel differs from their own. When Rabbi Rick Jacobs was announced as the next President of our Union for Reform Judaism, his selection was denounced by some who questioned his Israel credentials, not his creativity, scholarship, commitment and insight to lead the Reform movement, but his Israel credentials. I met Rick for the first time in 1998, as we studied together in Israel, something that he does annually, based in a home which he owns and maintains in Israel, as he actively raises funds for a variety of Israel initiatives. So, what is the complaint? That he does not toe the right wing party line that is often espoused by other Jewish organizations. Just as we cannot tolerate this kind of ideological intolerance nationally, neither should we do so within our Jewish community.

This is a pivotal time in Israel’s history. Though there is not an imminent threat to Israel’s survival and well being, the lingering danger remains. Israel analyst, Rabbi Donniel Hartman explains that Israelis face two threats of pikuach nefesh- challenges to Israel’s ultimate physical and spiritual well-being. For some external enemies- Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas are Israel’s primary challenge. However there is a counter narrative, which maintains that with the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements, the central challenge is “us,” creating a country that is contrary to who we are and what we believe- an Israel that is not democratic, nor pluralistic. Both threaten Israel’s survival.

The difference between lovers of Israel in North America and Israelis themselves is that here the debate tends to be one or the other. In Israel they know that the West Bank is occupied and contrary to principles, but that pulling out is also an external threat. Unilateral declarations will not change facts on the ground. Willingness by Israel AND the Palestinians to sit down and negotiate with one another is the only way ultimately. This is the message that the Secretary of Defense, along with the quartet of world leaders, is delivering this week. All else is politics and window dressing. There will have to be land for peace; settlements dismantled. However, in exchange there must be the kind of security and economic viability arrangements that will be guaranteed. Israel cannot have the West Bank be like Gaza. And hostility from Gaza must cease. Only then will Israel be able to function as the kind of democratic, pluralistic State that it aspires to be and Palestine achieve independence.

I know that many have concerns with positions taken by the Obama Administration. Overall, I do not. Earlier this year I had an opportunity to be on a phone call with Dennis Ross, a senior advisor on Middle Eastern matters in multiple administrations, including this one. He stressed that for those worried that President Obama’s proposals might weaken Israel, keep in mind that all plans are within a context of an unshakable and iron-clad commitment for Israel. This includes providing Israel with the military edge, such as the new Iron Dome missile system, capable of destroying Hamas rockets. The President’s comments from the Spring included security arrangements, no terrorism, no arms, border security and what would be a mutually agreed upon adjustment period. The bottom line U.S. position is that it will not leave Israel vulnerable and must ensure that Israel can defend itself by itself. I can embrace this approach.

And where do we fit into all of this discussion. First we have a responsibility as Jews to be knowledgeable of the complexities of the Middle East. Let us express our support for Israel through our donations, our political advocacy and our physical presence. Once again I would like to see a group from Gates of Prayer go to Israel and I am proposing the Fall of 2012, after the holidays. Let me know if you are interested. Perhaps most importantly, we need to respectfully be ready to embrace diversity of opinions within our community and be prepared to accept reasonable compromises that will assure the physical and spiritual health of Israel.

If compromise is essential for the United States, our national home, and for Israel, our spiritual home, how much the more so is it needed within our actual homes and in our everyday relationships? As we recite our al chet prayer, we might want to include:

For the sin of stubbornness in dealing with others

For the sin of always having to be right

For the sin of diminishing people in the eyes of others

For the sin of thinking less of others because they disagree with us

For the sin of taking and never giving in problem solving

For the sin of failing to compromise


Yes, my friends, there is a great deal to learn from the little mezuzah. In addition to its subtle message for compromise, there is something else as well. Inside each mezuzah is the parchment, which contains the words of the Sh’ma prayer. We are instructed to role the parchment in such a way that the first word, Sh’ma, is visible, a reminder that in all that we do, we must listen for the voice of God and the voices of others.



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