The commandment to love is nailed to my doorpost. Ritualistically written on a little piece of parchment, rolled up, tucked inside a beautifully painted ceramic case, and nailed aslant to the doorpost.
I almost never notice it. Not when I’m rushing out of the house in the morning, book bag and gym bag slung over my shoulder, head down, rushing to the car, desperate to get to campus before the last available parking spot is taken in the lot at my building. It’s not love, I’m thinking about at that moment. It’s convenience.
Not when I’ve been working at home—on a weekday or Saturday (I know, Saturday, Shabbat, I shouldn’t be working!)—and want to walk up the driveway to the mailbox to retrieve the mail. It’s not love I’m thinking about then. It’s hope. Hope for some surprise, though few surprises arrive in the mail anymore. Mostly junk mail and pleas to contribute to a cause, many of them causes that, in my heart.
Not when, with Laurie, I’m heading out for a Saturday night movie. I like love stories. Romantic comedies. Not that we limit ourselves to them. Most recent film: Paterson. Loved it. Definitely a love story: a love of poetry, a tender love story of a bus driver poet and his partner, a cupcake artist, a whimsical designer. Love stirs when I’m watching a good love story on the screen. Are movies my mezuzah?
I almost never notice the commandment to love nailed to the doorpost when I return home after a long, demanding day at work. My goal is to make it home in time for the nightly news at 6:30. Because, as readers of my pieces on “Good Letters” know, I obsessively read the New York Times throughout the day, I never learn anything new on ABC’s nightly news.
Making it home in time for that is, for me, more about choosing a time when I must stop working, no matter how much is left to do, no matter how productive I’m being at the moment, than it is about keeping up on national and world affairs. I guess you could say I live as if I’m commanded to rest at 6:30 p.m. every weeknight.
It’s not about love, I’m thinking then. It’s about limits, living within certain inviolable limits.
I almost never notice the mezuzah containing the commandment to love when I come home from Rite Aid or Ingle’s supermarket or Malaprop’s bookstore or Tops for Shoes or Origami Ink, my favorite stationery store where I can never leave without buying a new Lamy fountain pen. Sometimes I buy two pens, one meant as a gift to give dear friends, and doing so assuages my guilt at buying another one to add to my already extensive collection!
When it comes to buying a Lamy pen for a friend, it is about love, though I’m not thinking about the commandment to love nailed to my doorpost. When it comes to buying a new Lamy pen for myself, it’s about desire, it’s about indulgence, it’s about greed.
You shall love the Lord your God, the commandment says. Is God in the house in the form of my wife slicing vegetables for dinner when I come home exhausted? Is her back the back of God (she’s facing the sink) toward which I direct my sighing and my whining about my day, which is almost always where I begin when I first get home? Is whining one way of obeying the commandment to love?
I’m anxious. I’m afraid. I think that’s almost always the case. And I’m commanded to love. That’s what it says in the Torah. That’s what it says in the prayer book. That’s what it says on the little piece of parchment rolled up and housed in the mezuzah affixed to my doorpost. Can I love when I’m anxious and afraid? Can I receive love?
It’s nailed to the doorpost of my house, as it was nailed to the doorposts of the houses of my ancestors going way back—I know not how far. Is the commandment to love nailed to the doorpost a commandment to see the self as a vessel that receives love, and as a vehicle by means of which that love is passed onto others?
One answer: It’s a tradition! As to the particulars of tradition: some are inspiring, some, boring. But the tradition of placing love at the heart of the matter, of cultivating love, of acting out of love, of expressing love, even when you don’t feel like it, even if you are supposed to love God but you don’t know who or what God is, or you can’t feel God’s presence: that’s a tradition I can honor and by which I can live.
Love Nailed to the Doorpost: the commandment fixed in place. Love Nailed to the Doorpost also now a book, my new book, my fourth book. Poems and lyrical prose, including pieces which originally appeared on “Good Letters.” Work that is the result of love: love of language, love of the life of the spirit, love of family and friends, love of the written and spoken word, love of readers and listeners, love of you.
Here’s the title poem:
For each of
the moods of
marriage the small
lies that keep
our lives whole
as we cross
the threshold, passing
the commandment to
love nailed slant
to the doorpost
You can get Love Nailed to the Doorpost in hardback or paperback from the University of Tampa Press, or you can order it from your local independent bookstore or from other well-known places. If you do, I hope it will awaken a little love inside you.
Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Door-post (forthcoming in March 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the De-sert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poet-ry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spir-itual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville’s English Department. You can find more information at www.richardchess.com
Above image by Shoshanah, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.