Whenever I walk the streets of a new neighbourhood, it’s always a small pleasure to see a house or business with a mezuzah on the doorpost. It’s a marker that there are lantsman here, fellow Jews who are willing to stand with their Jewish identity.
What always fascinates me is that this is one of the Jewish practises that is observed by such a broad cross-section of the Jewish people, from the most observant to the most secular. Jews of all backgrounds are willing to take a stand and say “I live here, and I am Jewish!”
It’s a bold statement, and it begs the question: where did this deep connection to the mitzvah of mezuzah come from? Why is this mitzvah observed more prevalently than so many others? The answer, I believe, lies in the origins of the mezuzah in our history, during the story of Passover.
The night the Jewish people left Egypt came at the culmination of a series of difficult preparations. The children of Israel were commanded to take sheep (which were venerated as gods in Egyptian culture), keep the animals in their homes for four days (in plain view of the astonished Egyptians), and use their blood to paint their doorposts.
The formal reason for this commandment of blood on the doorpost was to serve as a marker as a home that should be “passed over” during the plague of the death of the firstborn. However, this explanation seems dubious.
By this point in the story God had performed powerful miracles, like the first nine plagues. Surely, God did not need any signs to be able to distinguish between Egyptians and Jews?
After all, the Torah had already spoken at length about how Egyptians suffered from certain plagues, such as darkness and hail, while the Jews were completely spared from their effects.
Perhaps, therefore, the blood on the doorpost commandment was intended to convey a message to us as well.
The Jewish people were a nation of slaves whose parents and grandparents had been slaves, and many were probably convinced that they would never taste freedom.
Many probably feared the Egyptians’ reaction to their actions.
However, at this point, perhaps God, after having sent nine plagues, was telling the Jewish people “I’ve done my part. Now it’s time for you to do yours.”
No one can be redeemed against his or her will. People can be helped in many ways, and it is our responsibility to help those around us in any way we can. However, no one can make a decision regarding someone else’s freedom. That person alone must make the decision to be free.
The commandment to paint the doorposts with blood was God’s way of telling the people: “You need to take this last step yourselves. You must do your part in proclaiming your identity. It is not much to ask, but it is the minimum requirement if you want to experience true freedom.”
It is for good reason that the mezuzah, so closely connected to the blood on the doorposts, has become one of the hallmarks of the Jewish people for generations. This commandment is no more or less important than any other. It is unique, however, in that it is a human declaration of our identity.
Like in the original story of the Exodus, the mezuzah is what transforms us from being passive about our Jewish identity and practice to proudly proclaiming our essence. It was the first time that we took the step of declaring publicly “I am Jewish!” That powerful moment left an imprint on the psyche of all of us, and continues to motivate Jews of all backgrounds to boldly place a mezuzah on our doorposts for all to see.
Both a nation and an individual’s redemption starts with actively expressing who we really are. Those who understand that they have a part to play in their own redemption, specifically through the active declaration of who they are, are those who can truly tap into the message of freedom that Passover offers us.