Congregation Beth Shalom

Parasha Ekev: It’s What’s Inside that Counts

In 2008, researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan published a study to try to understand why putting an animal on the label of a bottle of wine – a kangaroo or a duck for example — more than doubled the wine’s sales in the United States!  This strategy goes against the conventional wisdom that holds that, in order to be successful, a design should be highly relevant to the product that it seeks to represent. The researchers concluded that consumers were buying these wines because they identified with the animal on the label, that they associated these animals with themselves.

It is not only wine labels that sell wine. It turns out that you CAN sell a book by its cover. In fact, attractive packaging and labeling of any product is important to its ultimate commercial success. Now imagine going to a wine store and choosing a bottle of wine with the cutest frog on the label. When you check out, the clerk asks you, “Would you like wine in that bottle?” It turns out that you have bought the bottle, without the wine. The bottle you picked up only has water in it. Or you go to a book store and the cover of a book catches your eye. You go to purchase the book and the clerk asks you, “Would you like the words to this book?” You open the book, and stare at the blank pages. You have purchased the book, but nothing is inside.

Farfetched, you say? Yet, this is exactly what happens when we go to purchase one of the most familiar religious articles in all of Jewish life, a religious object that is so common we hardly even notice it.

In this week’s Torah reading we find the second paragraph of the Shema. In it, we are commanded to affix the mezuzah to the doorposts of our homes.  If we want to buy a mezuzah, we can either to a Judaica store, or to Amazon.com.  Amazon has many objects that are described as a mezuzah. There is the “married mezuzah” depicting a bride and a groom. There is a “winding scroll mezuzah” in the form of a Torah. There is a “seashell mezuzah” and a “granite crystal mezuzah” and even a mezuzah with pomegranates winding up its face –all graceful, beautifully designed and rather pricey. But although they are advertised as “mezuzahs” they are not mezuzahs. They are mezuzah cases. The case could be made of any material, in any design. It could be inexpensive or costly. But it is not a “mezuzah” unless it has a kosher scroll inside. If it does not have a kosher scroll inside, or if the kosher scroll has a defect in it, it is not considered an authentic mezuzah.

Many people don’t know this. Amazon certainly doesn’t tell you, and most Judaica stores will not tell you either. The mezuzah you buy at a store or on-line most often comes with a printed scroll, on paper. Unless you realize that the scroll has to be hand written on parchment by a scribe, you will put up your mezuzah with the paper scroll. You have the equivalent of a book cover with no words inside.

What matters about a mezuzah, just as in a bottle of wine or a book, is not what the cover looks like, it is what is inside. This is especially true of human beings.   You have probably never heard of Ed Feinhandler.  Mr. Feinhandler has appeared on a number of national television and radio talk shows, and was a contestant on television’s “Wheel of Fortune” a few year back. Ed can possibly lay claim to being America’s ugliest man. He has won 15 “Ugly Man” contests in a row, competing with men from across the country in this unusual annual contest. Yet he displays a heart of gold, so to speak.  Over the years Mr. Feinhandler has donated over $50,000 in his winnings to various charities. He has coached middle school and high school boys’ and girls’ basketball and tennis. He uses his mini-van with a license plate that reads “Mr. Ugly” to pick up underprivileged children during the summer to give them free tennis lessons.

Ed writes on his Facebook page that he is recovering from surgery. He writes, “As I was recovering slowly, I helped a lady with her loaded shopping cart at Walmart. She looked pretty tired and I took the bags to her at the back of her truck to make it easier on her. She thanked me three times. I held the door for twenty people at the movie theater and eight thanked me. One actually got even by holding the door for me when I left. I gave a homeless fellow five dollars to get some food at Wendy’s”………He goes on in detail about the many things he has bought recently — acne medicine, eyebrow cream, hair dye, two bottles of pink lemonade, art supplies, dental floss, pajamas, towels, and so forth – “all for the under-privileged children of northern Nevada.”

We all probably know people like Ed ourselves — People whose beauty resides, not in their outer appearance, but in their hearts. Clearly beauty has little to do with what you see on the outside; and all to do with what is inside. You can purchase the fanciest mezuzah cover for thousands of dollars, but if the twenty five dollar parchment inside is defective, what is it, really? And you can have all the wealth in the world, but without values to guide your life, what are you, really? Ultimately, it is what is inside that really counts.

Shabbat Shalom