I Samuel 11:14–12:22
A Jewish man buys a fabulous home in Pacific Heights, and brings in a local designer to decorate the place. When the job is finished, the homeowner is delighted with the results, but realizes that he’s forgotten to put mezuzahs on the doors.
He goes out and buys 50 mezuzahs and asks the decorator to place them on the right-hand side of each door. He’s really worried that the decorator won’t put them up correctly. However, when he comes back a few hours later, he sees that the job has been carried out to his satisfaction. Pleased with the results, he rewards the decorator with a bonus. “Glad you’re happy with the job,” the decorator says. “By the way, I took out all the warranties from the little boxes and left them on the table for you.”
The 16th chapter of Numbers tells the story of the mutiny led by Korach, a cousin of Moses and Aaron who challenges their authority. “The entire community is holy, and God is within them,” Korach exclaims. “Why must you raise yourselves over the congregation of God?”
The Midrash specifies, in greater detail, the nature of Korach’s arguments against Moses.
As we know, a Jewish home requires a mezuzah, a piece of parchment hanging on its doorpost, with the writings of two short sections of the Bible that discuss our relationship with God and our obligation to follow the mitzvahs. Now Korach asked Moses the following question: If a home is filled with many complete Torah scrolls, does it still require a mezuzah on its doorpost?
Moses’ response was yes. Korach scoffed at the idea, ridiculing Moses. A Torah scroll contains hundreds of sections of God’s law, while a mezuzah contains merely two. If a mezuzah suffices for an entire home, would not many complete Torah scrolls in a home create a holy space? Do we really need another two portions on the doorpost?
Remember, Korach was no pushover. Besides being of noble lineage, he was clever and quite charismatic. He was attempting to demonstrate that just as a Torah scroll, our most sacred object, should not need an additional guidepost to watch over it, all Jews are intrinsically holy, “living Torahs.”
Why then the need for rabbis and teachers, Kohens and Levites, “outside instructors,” when all one has to do is look inside one’s soul for guidance? Why isn’t it sufficient to “feel” Jewish on the inside, and is it really necessary to “broadcast” one’s identity outside as well? The age-old Jewish dilemma: When is it too Jewish?
Moses responds, we must wear our Judaism proudly. While having Jewish books inside our living rooms may indicate that this is a Jewish home, what happens when we leave its comfortable confines? Do we cease to be as Jewish?
The mezuzah is at the threshold of our homes, at the juncture and crossover between our inner lives and outer lives. As we make the transition from private person to public citizen, we need to be reminded of who we are, and that we take our identity with us wherever we may go.
For centuries, a road-weary Jewish traveler looking for hospitality would need only to approach the door to know the mezuzah meant that there was mishpachah (family) on the other side.
Herman Wouk, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Jewish author, wrote the semiautobiographical novel called “Inside, Outside,” in which he portrays his inner struggles straddling these two worlds. His pious talmudist grandfather had a profound influence on him, but so did Hollywood and Broadway. It took him a long time to find his way and settle into an observant Jewish lifestyle while still writing bestsellers.
Being Jewish “inside” may come naturally. It’s when we hit the “outside” that we encounter temptation and turmoil. The challenge we face is to remain proudly Jewish even in the face of conflicting cultures, curious looks and, often, hostile attitudes.
Moses rejected Korach’s argument, with good reason. The mezuzah does not replace the need for JCCs, Jewish libraries, museums and culture, but it serves as a perennial reminder on our doorways. As we step out of our home to enter the outside world, it beckons us to take our God and our Torah, our values and our traditions, along with us.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.