So intensely was I listening to my iPod that I bumped straight into Haim Abutbul as I galloped into the stairwell leading up to my apartment. Haim is my downstairs neighbor, and other than sharing a name, we don’t have much in common. He’s Moroccan, retired, round, short, and has a moustache. I’m the opposite.
After I apologized and he mumbled an acceptance, he strode right past me, smeared silicone on the door jamb, and affixed a clear plastic mezuzah. Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he bumped into me again. This time he apologized and I mumbled.
“I bought a new one,” he explained. “New housing, new and expert parchment. The works.”
I nodded, in rush to get upstairs to a long-delayed lunch. “Tizkeh lemitzvot,” may you perform many other good deeds, I said. I put a foot on the bottom step but Haim would not let me go.
“Haim, you must have noticed that a lot of people in our entrance have been getting sick lately,” Haim said ominously.
“I hadn’t,” I apologized. “I feel fine myself.”
“I don’t know what the situation is on the fourth floor,” Haim said. “But on the third floor in the last month there’s been flu and a slipped disk, on my floor an emphysema attack and blood clot, and you know about Malka’s aneurism?” He pointed to the door to the apartment in front of us.
“No I didn’t,” I said. “Wow.”
“I figured there was something wrong with the mezuzah. When you have that many medical events all of a sudden, it means something.”
I almost said “statistical distributions” but didn’t.
“And with Elul here and the Day of Atonement approaching,” he said, “it’s important to check.”
I nodded and he looked at me suspiciously. “Haim, tell me something. Do Ashkenazim believe in mezuzot?”
“Of course, we do, Haim,” I said. “Want to come up and see mine?”
“Anyway, I checked, and guess what?”
“Someone switched the parchment. Just a couple years ago I put in a brand new, top-quality parchment, and what I found was an old, faded, cracked one. Totally unkosher.”
“So I went straight out and bought this.” He admired the new mezuzah. Then he turned to me with a frown. “But you don’t really believe in it, do you?”
“Hey, Haim, I do,” I insisted.
“That people got sick because it wasn’t kosher.”
I opened my mouth but didn’t answer.
“I knew it,” he said, shaking his head.
“Look,” I said. “I think it’s an important mitzvah. I’m really glad you bothered to check and that you fixed the problem. It’s really important for people to try to keep the mitzvot in the best possible way. Especially in Elul, when we need to think about how we can serve God and humankind better. But you’re right that I find it hard to believe that God would punish Malka with a stroke just because the parchment in our mezuzah got stolen. It doesn’t seem just. And God is supposed to be just, right?”
Haim shrugged. “That’s how he warns us, Haim. Makes us sit up and take notice.”
“I just think the most important part of the process of teshuvah, of repentance, is what happens inside. It’s the process of making yourself into a new person that counts. I mean a person who lives according to the values of justice and charity. Too many Jews think that it’s all about being stricter about what you eat or how many psalms you recite. That totally misses the point.”
Haim pointed to my iPod. “You’re listening to selihot, right? To inspire you?” There was more than a trace of cynicism in his voice.
I blushed. “Hey, Haim, I know that my tastes seem weird to you.”
“If you were seriously religious,” he chided me, “you’d be listening to religious songs.”
I held up my iPod. “But that’s exactly what I’m doing. In a sense, I mean.”
“In a sense,” Haim said dismissively. “La yastakim at-til, itha al-‘aj al-‘oud.”
“It’s a Moroccan saying. The shadow can’t be straight if the stick is bent.”
“Music doesn’t have to be explicitly religious to inspire,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be set to religious words. Abstract music can change you from within. It can move you.”
Haim clicked his tongue and sliced an arm through the air dismissively. “Our fathers didn’t have iPods. They sang selihot.”
“And they played music themselves instead of just listening,” I said. “You know, I heard a good story about that.”
“About playing music for yourself. It’s about Schiller.” Haim looked confused. “Not the kibbutz, the German philosopher.”
“You and your German music and German philosophers. Jews aren’t good enough for you? What kind of philosopher was he?”
“He was one of the great figures of the Enlightenment,” I said. “He believed that reason is humankind’s highest faculty. When a person lives by reason, he argued, duty and inclination are not in conflict. A man of reason feels an inner desire to do what he is morally obligated to do.”
“Doesn’t sound so reasonable to me, Haim,” Haim said.
“Anyway, here’s the story. Schiller loved the operas of Rossini,” I said. Seeing that the name of the famous opera composer did not make an impression on Haim, I tried to be helpful by la-la-ing the William Tell Overture, which is exactly what I’d been listening to when I bumped into Haim.
Haim rolled his eyes.
“Which, by the way, Rossini based on a play by Schiller. It’s about a man fighting for his people’s redemption.”
Haim was not impressed. “What people?”
Haim clicked his tongue to imply that there was little that interested him less than the travails of the Swiss.
“Anyway, about Schiller,” I said. “There was no radio then, no cds. And he couldn’t go to the opera every night. But he played the flute.”
Haim was busy wiping excess silicone off the tube and his fingers.
“Haim, listen! So he had every one of Rossini’s operas transcribed for solo flute, so that he could play them himself whenever he wanted to hear them.”
“We were talking about replacing the mezuzah,” he reminded me. “ Ma ‘inyan shemita etzel Har Sinai?” Meaning : What does this (here he tried to hum the overture, ornamenting it with a few chromatic oriental flourishes) have to do with that?
“The enlightenment view is that our connection to God is within us, not outside us. That the fundamental work of religion is to change us from within, to make us a different kind of person, not simply to govern our visible actions. They charged that traditional religion’s focus on outward observances led to hypocrisy.”
“They weren’t Jewish, Haim,” Haim said knowingly.
“Hey, our philosophers said similar things. Maimonides, for example …”
Haim interrupted me. “Maimonides would have done exactly what I did. He would have made sure the mezuzah was kosher.”
“Sometimes the external can lie,” I said. “It happened that Schiller was once in Paris, where Rossini lived in his later years. They say that, while walking down a boulevard, Schiller’s companion pointed out Rossini. Schiller scoffed. ‘That fat old Frenchman can’t possibly be the divine Rossini,’ he declared.”
“So you wouldn’t have changed the mezuzah?”
“Of course I would have!” I protested. “It’s really important to have a kosher mezuzah in the entrance to our building!”
“But you wouldn’t have bothered to check.”
“I would have,” I said defensively, “if I’d had some reason to think there might be something wrong with it.”
“But the fact that all your neighbors are getting sick doesn’t count as a good reason.”
I hesitated. “Let me think about that.”
“Your problem, Haim,” Haim said, “is that you think too much.”
That pissed me. “Your problem, Haim, is that you don’t think enough. Is that the kind of God you want to believe in? One who thinks the best way to get people to notice that their mezuzah is no good is to make them sick, maybe even put their lives at risk? Is that all repentance is to you, replacing a piece of parchment on the door? What about all the injustices we see around us in our society? The poor, the refugees, the inequality, the oppression, the violence? Is pasting a little tube with some words from the Torah inside it up on the door jamb going to change that? When you go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you’ll mumble all the prayers and chant all the piyyutim, but the day after Yom Kippur you’ll be the same Haim Abutbul. Is that what it’s all about?”
Haim took a step back. “You shouldn’t talk to me like that,” he said. “We live in the same entrance. And anyway, you don’t seem much different from the Haim I knew last year.”
Haim reached up and touched the mezuzah with the fingertips of his right hand, and then brought the fingers to his mouth and kissed them reverently.
“It guards the people of Israel’s doorways,” he said. “Just like the blood of the Pesach sacrifice on the doorways of the slaves in Egypt protected their homes from the Angel of Death.”
I reached out my right hand and did the same. “It reminds us to remember the mitzvot and that the Land of Israel is given to us as a trust, not as a gift. If we do not promote justice and charity, it will be taken away from us, Haim.”
We both looked at the parchment in its clear plastic case. Suddenly Haim began humming the overture, first softly, then with a crescendo. I laughed and joined in. “LeShanah tovah Tikatev veTikatev,” he chortled, “May you be written and sealed for a good year” “LeHayyim tovim ve’arukim veshalom,” I replied, “for good and long life and peace.” He reached up and put an arm around my shoulder and I reached down and put an arm around his and together we galloped up the stairs.
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