By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Some arguments are petty affairs between small people who aren’t big enough, so they need to stand up for their perceived honor or imaginary status. Other arguments are classic differences of opinion between people of stature, where each has an opinion worthy of consideration. We need to be able to discern the subtleties beneath the surface of any debate before formulating our own view.
This week’s parashah tells the story of the mutiny of Korach, a cousin of Moshe, who challenged Moshe’s authority. In the end, Korach and his henchmen were swallowed by the earth in a Divine display of rather unearthly justice.
The Midrash reveals some of the behind-the-scenes dialogue and debate between these men. Remember, Korach was no pushover. Besides being of noble lineage, he was clever, wealthy, and charismatic. One of the questions Korach put to Moshe was this: Does a house full of holy books still require a mezuzah? Moshe answered that it did. Korach scoffed at the idea, ridiculing Moshe. The little mezuzah contains but two chapters of Torah, the Shema Yisrael. A whole houseful of books with the entire Torah won’t do the trick and a little mezuzah will? It doesn’t make any sense, argued Korach.
Why was Moshe’s answer correct? What indeed is the significance of a small parchment on the doorpost in relation to a library inside? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that it all depends on location. The books are inside; the mezuzah is outside. When there are Jewish texts inside our study and living rooms, this indicates that the home is a Jewish home. This is good and as it should be. But what happens when we leave the comfortable confines of our home? Do we cease to be 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 desperately need to be reminded of who we are and that we take our identity with us wherever we may go. There is only One G-d, says the little scroll, whether in our private domain or in the big, wide world outside.
One of the many works by well-known author Herman Wouk is an autobiographical novel called “Inside, Outside,” in which he portrays his own inner struggles straddling two conflicting worlds. His pious Talmudist zayde (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” is relatively easy. It’s when we hit the “Outside” that we encounter temptation and turmoil. The challenge every Jew must face is to remain proudly Jewish even in the face of conflicting cultures, curious looks, and often hostile attitudes.
In the German-Jewish community of old, there was a slogan that has long been discredited. “Yehudi b’veitecha v’ish b’tzeitecha,” “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside.” The Nazis did not distinguish between Jews who looked Jewish and those who had removed any visible identifying marks. Today, traditional dress reflecting a national character is common, accepted, and respected – from Scottish kilts to Arab kaffiyehs. The outlandish hairstyles of sportsmen and celebrities are not only accepted, but mimicked by millions of mindless wannabes.
Is it too much to expect a Jew to assert his Jewishness in unfamiliar corporate territory or to keep the yarmulke on his head even when he walks out of shul? Moshe rejected Korach’s argument with good reason. The mezuzah does not replace the need for Jewish libraries, 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 G-d and our Torah, our values, and our traditions along with us.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.