Friday, June 10, 2016

Jerusalem: A City Surrounded by Walls (Yom Yerushalayim 5776)

I presented this derashah last Shabbos, and it seems to have been fairly well-received. Since I haven't had time to post, I'll offer it here for (hopefully) your reading pleasure.

Mending Wall
Something there is that doesn't love a wall / That sends the frozen ground-swell under it, 
And spills the upper boulders in the sun… 
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;  / And on a day we meet to walk the line 
And set the wall between us once again… 
There where it is, we do not need the wall: / He is all pine and I am apple orchard. 
My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.

In 1914, Robert Frost published this classic poem, “Mending Wall”, about two neighbours whose properties are divided by a stone wall. The first neighbour describes the wall as an unecessary barrier; the other neighbour preaches an unquestioning devotion to received wisdom, that “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Torah: Walls create unhelpful division
At first glance, the Torah seems to take the side of the first neighbour, and to argue even more strongly, that walls are worse than superfluous; they create destructive divisions, and they should be eliminated:
  • With the mitzvah of shemitah, the Torah warns that walls separate haves from have-nots, preventing chesed. Yes, our property needs protection, but every seven years we must acknowledge the downside, drop our guard, and allow the world into our fields and vineyards. The Torah states, “You shall release your field and abandon it,[1]” and the Mechilta[2] comments מגיד שפורץ בה פרצות, that the Torah wishes us to actually smash holes in our fences,[3] and remove that barrier.
  • Second, with the mitzvah of batei arei chomah, the Torah warns that walls separate urban life from agriculture. The Torah bans family estates in walled-in cities. If a family sells an open field, they receive the field back in the Yovel year. But if a family sells a building in a walled city, that building never comes back.[4] Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that farming is the natural focus of human creativity, and the Torah wishes us to remain close to the land. Yes, we need to shield civilization from the wild, but because of this downside to urbanization, we must eliminate the wall.[5]
  • Third: The Torah’s tochachah threats of Divine punishment warn that there is even danger in the walls that separate us from our enemies, because they lead to faith in our manmade defenses. Walls of defense may be entirely necessary. But the Torah[6] warns that if these fortresses breed misplaced trust in our own strength, then a day will come when Gd will demolish our walls.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, in the Torah. There are negative, unhelpful walls – walls that insulate the wealthy from the needy, walls that enable urban stagnation, walls that lead to arrogance.

But there are good walls, too
On the other hand: The second neighbour, with his devotion to maintaining the wall, can also claim endorsement from the Torah!
  • Halachah identifies the manmade walls of Yerushalayim as sacred, imbuing the city with sanctity, just as the concentric walls of the Beis haMikdash enable a heirarchy of holiness within their precincts!
  • Further, Zecharyah promises regarding Yerushalayim, ואני אהיה לה נאם ד' חומת אש סביב, that Hashem will surround Yerushalayim with a wall of fire!
  • Further, we use walls for beautiful mitzvos – the succah in which we dwell with Hashem, the chuppah in which we initiate a Jewish home!

How, then, are we to understand the Jewish view of a wall? Are they bad, or good? Is there a single answer? What would Rabbi Robert Frost say?

In the 1940s, a team of MIT psychologists conducted the “Westgate Studies”, trying to figure out which interactions lead to friendships. They developed what is now known as the propinquity effect. To state it simply: Even though people say that “familiarity breeds contempt,” the truth of human nature is that the more you encounter someone, the more likely you are to like them, and to create a friendship with them.[7]

Those studies have influenced the way companies design their workspaces. For example: the successful animation company Pixar initially housed its computer scientists in one building, its animators in another building, and its executives and editors in a third building. Steve Jobs, as CEO, redesigned the offices to bring all of the groups together, into one space. Why? Because inhabiting a shared, collaborative space encourages relationships.[8] And this can be enhanced by a surrounding wall that accentuates the collaboration.

Two Kinds of Walls
So perhaps there are two kinds of walls: Exclusive and Inclusive.
  • The Exclusive wall is the wall around the field, meant to exclude and obstruct: the wall that locks out the needy; the wall that separates the city from nature; the wall that provides overconfident defense. This is the wall the Torah would demolish.
  • But there is also the Inclusive wall, that creates collaborative closeness, even intimacy, by enhancing propinquity for those within.

We, as Jews, identify ourselves as part of a nation, a community, a team. To promote that shared identity and cohesion, we build walls encircling and identifying our team. This wall, designed to include, to embrace, to envelop in private community – this wall is not merely appropriate, but glorious![9]
  • The walls of the Succah seclude us with HaShem![10]
  • The walls of the Chuppah isolate a couple exclusively for each other![11]
  • And the walls of Yerushalayim demarcate מחנה ישראל, a camp which the Rambam[12] said is invested with eternal holiness by those very walls.

The Walls of Yerushalayim
The walls of Yerushalayim are positive walls, meant not to exclude Beit Lechem and Chevron and other surrounding cities, but rather to encircle the people within, Jews of all ages and all ethnicities and all types of observance, to create a unified community. Those walls of Yerushalayim are large enough to embrace us all - and as the fifth perek of Pirkei Avos promises, no Jew will ever say, “I cannot find my place in Yerushalayim.”[13]

Our sages acted to encourage this sense of community in Yerushalayim.
  • Three times each year, Jews from far and wide would gather there for Yom Tov, fulfilling the mitzvah of aliyah laregel. Some of these were very observant Jews, and others were less so. This meeting of populations could have been a disaster – there could have been an insistence on separate shopping spaces for the ritually pure, separate eating areas for those who tithe more carefully, and so on.
  • But the Chachamim understood that the only wall Yerushalayim will tolerate is the wall surrounding it, the wall which identifies all of us as part of the same team! As the gemara records, they decreed that when we gather in Yerushalayim for Yom Tov, every Jew should be viewed as a חבר, credible to declare his own purity, credible to have tithed his produce. We could travel together, eat together, meet together, within those walls of Yerushalayim.[14]

This is what we want. There are legitimate differences between Jews, but what we want is not a nation divided by the questions of Who is a Jew, of Who goes to the army and who learns in kollel, of Who davens at the Kotel and in what way, but a nation that sees itself as one nation, indivisible, surrounded by walls which confirm our shared heritage and our shared destiny.

Beyond Yerushalayim
And this imperative for propinquity extends beyond Yerushalayim, mandating us to build physical and metaphorical inclusive walls surrounding us, marking us as one nation wherever we are, despite our legitimate differences.
  • No matter where they daven, and even if they don’t daven anywhere.
  • No matter what standard of kashrus they keep, and even if they don’t keep any.
  • No matter which approach they have to Israel, whether they believe it’s ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו or whether they believe it’s a secular catastrophe.
  • Inviting these people into our homes for a meal – not only because it’s kiruv, but because we are ערבין זה בזה.
  • Offering to daven on behalf of their relatives and friends who are ill – not only because davening for others a mitzvah, but because we care about each other.
  • Even just smiling and welcoming people who aren’t within the circle of friends and cousins with whom we grew up, and whom we’ve known for decades – not because it’s chesed, but because it’s the right way to build a wall.
These, like the walls of Yerushalayim, are the glorious, encircling walls beloved to the Torah.

In 1987, with Soviet Communism teetering, US President Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin, and he delivered a speech which became an instant classic. Standing before the wall dividing East and West Berlin, he proclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

That historic line almost didn’t happen. The speechwriter, Peter Robinson, wanted it in, but nervous diplomats insisted that Germans had grown used to the wall. So Robinson went to dinner with some local residents, and he asked them if they had “gotten used to” the Wall – to which the residents responded harshly that they certainly had not. The rest is oratorical history.[15] And two years later, the wall did finally come down.

With the laws of shemitah and walled cities, with the warning of the Tochachah, the Torah teaches us to “tear down this wall” which divides. But with the succah and the chuppah and the holiness of Yerushalayim, the Torah teaches us to “build up this wall” of propinquity which encircles and envelops, creating shared identity and community. Such is the beauty of the walls of Yerushalayim.

May we see Hashem rebuild these walls with fire; may we see Hashem rebuild these walls now; and may we view them not by live stream on our phones in Toronto, but as part of that sacred community, from the inside.

[1] Shemos 23:11
[2] Mechilta d’R’ Yishmael, Mishpatim, Masechta d’Kaspa 20
[3] Although the law does not require it due to its impracticality. And see Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Sheviis 4:24.
[4] Vayikra 25:29-31
[5] Rav Hirsch to Bereishit 4:1 and Vayikra 25:34
[6] Devarim 28:52
[9] Similar walls: The communal eruv, and the walls for קביעות מקום for a shared berachah
[10] One might also include Michah 6:8
[11] Bereishit 2:24
[12] Beis haBechirah 1:5
[13] The Tashbetz (3:201) claims that this miracle continues even now
[14] See Maharitz Chiyes to Niddah 34a


  1. Something there is in Pirkei Avot, however, that does love a fence. Is there a difference between a wall and a fence? Is the "fence around the Torah" in a different category, possibly because it assigns us all to the category of those who must be kept from getting too close, as opposed to a wall which might be seen more as creating division between people, "us" who are okay and "them" who are not?

  2. Bratschegirl - Interesting, but to me that's a different entity altogether. In Hebrew we would call this usage of "fence" a שם מושאל - a word which is borrowed for multiple purposes. The fences I am describing either separate two entities (negative), or define a group (positive). I don't think the halakhic fence does either.