At the entrance to things
A curious thing occurred in our intensive Hebrew class this August (see previous blog “August Language”). The first day of the course was the first day of the solar month (August, 2011), which coincided interestingly with the first day of the lunar month, called Av by ancient and modern Jews. While not unheard of, this concurrence is quite rare in calendrical cycles. I could recall no other occurrence of the phenomenon in my nearly forty years of teaching Hebrew.
Now I tend to be sensitive to these threads of coincidence and so announced to our class on that morning that beginning a course at the beginning of both a solar and lunar month was not something to be casually ignored. You see, the first day of the lunar month, or “New Moon” (cf. Amos 8:5), was held sacred by the ancients and so was free of human work. It was set aside specially for God as a reminder that all time was granted by the Eternal One. Beginning a month with this recognition was supposed to awaken worshipers to the reality that the entire month ahead and everything in it was a precious gift, not ultimately fragile and frustrating, but something for which to be grateful for its potential and opportunity.
And so to consecrate our class and set it apart, as time had already done so, we wanted to observe a very ancient Jewish tradition. We would post a mezuzah on the door of our classroom. Mezuzah means “doorjamb.” Tradition holds that every Jewish home must be marked on its primary doorjamb with a small container holding a rolled parchment inscribed by a professional Sopher (scribe) with the text of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 (note especially 6:6,9). The tradition recalls the slavery of the people of God in Egypt when they painted the entrance of their tents with lamb’s blood to protect them from the plagues. The blood distinguished the residents as God’s people under His protection throughout the chaos. Today, the mezuzah is used to designate a faithful home, a place where God dwells and where the human residents live as members of His family. It is placed on the right frame angled inward toward the opening. Those passing through touch the container and kiss their fingers as an expression of devotion to the One who dwells therein.
For our Hebrew class, we wanted to show that as the entrance of our experience had been timed sacred by the calendar, so the entrance to our classroom (the doorjamb) would sanctify our gathering. We would depend on God throughout our course to help us. We would honor each other not just as classmates and teacher, but as partners on the journey and as those called by God to this place at this time. Our God is a God of Firsts. He calls us to be faithful first, at the beginning of times and seasons and at the entrance to places. We are not to wait to commit until we are convinced. We commit first as an act of devotion, ready to believe, ready to trust, and ready to experience the Divine Presence whatever circumstances may arise along the way.
On our mezuzah was the Hebrew letter Shin. Looks much like the capital “W” in our script. This letter has tremendous significance in several ways. First, Shin is the initial letter in one of God’s earliest names, Shaddai. God says that He revealed Himself to the fathers and mothers of Israel by this Name (Exodus 6:1-2). Second, Shin is the first letter of the first word of the scroll contained inside: Shma, “Hear.” This word in Hebrew connotes obedience. Remember that obedience is required as a first step before the experience can be enjoyed. And finally, the orthodox today see three uprights in the appearance of the Shin, like our “W.” The outer uprights represent the members of the family inside the door. The center upright, joining the outer uprights, represents God. He is the Center of family life. It is He who makes an assortment of individuals into a community. It is He who makes our gathering sacred. He turns it from a house of boards and beams into a home where human life is valued and where people treat each other with love and concern. Jewish people never leave their mezuzot behind when they move. They take them along to every new place for every new season of life. Think about that when you begin something new. Beginnings can be stressful. But we have the assuring company of a loving Savior and the fellowship of one another–especially at the entrance to things.