Consider and Converse: A Guide to Reminders/Mezuzot

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Introduction

Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of mezuzot as reminders. Judaism is filled with reminders. Our daily ritual practice — from the moment we awaken until we return to sleep in the evening — provides reminders about eating, blessing and loving God, feeling gratitude, teaching and caring for one’s children, thinking about the people around us who are ill and require assistance. The mezuzah is affixed not only to the outer doorpost of one’s home, but to each doorway within one’s home as well. Every step we take from one room to another can be a reminder to be our best selves, to carry our Jewish values with us on our trek through the day. Inside the mezuzah sits a parchment inscribed with the Sh’ma prayer — a few verses from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) — that instructs Jews about the core principles of Judaism. This issue of Sh’ma Now focuses on the importance reminders play in our lives. The issue also raises questions about how to respond to questionable reminders — such as monuments to Confederate soldiers or other individuals who are no longer held in public esteem — that remind us of a sordid part of our history. How do we transform those monuments into learning experiences?

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or more structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal might be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Mychal Copeland introduces readers to the way the mezuzah serves as a ritual marker of reminders. She writes: “A reminder contains the power to lift us out of one temporal plane and transport us to another. But how do we know when we need a reminder to bring us to the present moment, immerse us in the past, or ensure that we think ahead?” When are reminders helpful to you and when not? What is your favorite text that teaches you about remembering to be good? What is your favorite story that evokes the use of reminders? How are reminders built into your day—as blessings?
  • Jeffrey Shandler adds his astute voice to the conversation about the use of monuments as reminders of a shared history. He writes: “Established to remind the public of a notable person or event of the past, monuments not only become sites of forgetting, as has often been noted. They can also become touchstones for new, contested understandings of the past, which call for new approaches to remembrance. If leaving Confederate monuments in place is untenable, what else is possible?” What can Americans and Jews learn from post-Shoah Germany and how that country handled “monuments as reminders”? Rather than erase our distressing collective American history by dismantling certain monuments, might we create ways of addressing an ugly history? What purpose do monuments serve? As reminders of our past, are they still necessary, and how do we maintain their evolving pertinence?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Rabbi Aryeh Ben David writes about how pain sometimes serves as a reminder or wake-up to be in touch with one’s soul. He writes: “When we feel pain, we need to stop, deeply experience the pain, and delve into and embrace its emptiness; listen to and learn from it.”Is pain necessary as a reminder? What role does it play? What is the difference between intentional remembering and unintentional remembering? What role do “toxic stones” play in your life?
  • Rabbi Dan Goldblatt writes about the Jewish framework and rituals of avelut, mourning. His candid reflections about having lost his wife of several decades offers a personal perspective on reminders and remembering. “The truth is that I did
not and do not need reminders of my loss. I am in close contact with the loss every day. However, the rituals of shiva, shloshim, and yahrzeit remind me that the way I hold and integrate the loss shifts with the passage of time. During shiva, I was not sure how I was going to survive. By shloshim, the surreal numbness began to dissipate. By the first yahrzeit, I knew that I could still live a life of meaning albeit without Yael.” What are the most significant reminders for an experience of loss? How do ritual and mitzvot function as reminders—and are they helpful? What reminders are not helpful?

  • In NiSh’ma,, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore a midrash about compassion and cruelty: “Whoever is compassionate to those who are cruel ends up being cruel to those who are compassionate.” (Midrash Tanhuma Metzora) Our commentators explore how memories are imprinted, and then interpreted and invested with meaning. Elana Stein Hain writes that King Saul “privileged the advantages of the present over his obligation to the past.” She asks: How often do we forsake past commitments in favor of practical gain in the present? How quickly do yesterday’s memories fade when they compromise the opportunities of today? And what reminders can help orient us in more thoughtful ways toward these questions? Rabbi Herzl Hefter suggests reframing Stein Hain’s last question: “How can we know that we are interpreting ourselves and the circumstances around us honestly?” Gila Lyons hopes that “the Jewish people could evolve beyond this dichotomous way of thinking — of compassion and cruelty, good and evil — to an understanding that we, individually and collectively, flip-flop constantly between being oppressors and victims, between acting with compassion and cruelty.” She asks her own questions: “How can we be compassionate toward those who act with cruelty? How can we use compassion, rather than cruelty, as our means to effective change?” As you read through this page of contemporary Talmud, how do you understand the relationship between compassion and cruelty? How do you imagine responding to a contemporary Amalek?

Your Comments

Sh’ma Now welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, Sh’ma Now requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

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Consider and Converse: A Guide to Reminders/Mezuzot

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