Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 14, 2016
The great American poet, Robert Frost, has etched many of his verses in our collective literary memory. One of the most quoted is the verse, “Good fences make good neighbors” in the poem “Mending Wall”. This line is used repeatedly to justify the importance of boundaries in creating relationships. The irony in the fame of this verse is that Frost is critiquing such a sentiment, not supporting it.
The poet describes the annual spring ritual of mending the stone wall between his and his neighbor’s property. As they are working hard to fix it, Frost writes:
It comes to little more:
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'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.'
Something there is that does not love a wall. And yet boundaries are essential, are they not? Even Frost acknowledges that if they were animal herders, a wall would be necessary. And our earliest rabbinic commentary on this morning’s Torah portion emphasizes that boundaries are essential – to paraphrase, “Good fences make for holiness”.
God said to Moses, “Speak to all the community of Israel and say to them, ‘Be Holy’!
What does it mean “Be Holy”? The passage that follows, one of the more inspiring passages in the entire Torah, outlines a number of laws, some ritual but many ethical and moral statutes. Yet the Sifrei, the early rabbinic commentary, summarizes the meaning of “Be Holy” with two words: ‘Be separate’. In the context of chapter 19, followed by a specific exhortation not to be like the Egyptians or Canaanites in regards to sexual behavior, it is reasonable to assume that the sages of the midrash intended their words to mean, “Be separate from all those around you. Don’t be like them.” In fact, at the end of chapter 20, this is made explicit when God states, “I, the Lord, am your God who has set you apart from other peoples.”
That understanding of what it means to be a Jew – to be different, unlike those around you, to stand out - ways heavily on us. We see it in our history – and it continues today: Jews have been the scapegoat for the world. Today it is the State of Israel that substitutes for the Jewish people. We also see it in our ethos – Hillel taught us, “In a place where there is no mensch, be a mensch”. Thus it is not surprising to see Jews take the lead in so many human rights and social justice causes.
And of course ritually we Jews distinguish ourselves – no idols or physical manifestations of the deity, unlike the Gentile nations; we had strict rules about appearance, appropriate sexuality and diet. “So you shall set apart the pure beast from the impure, the impure bird from the pure. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you as impure. You shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.”
The general rule of thumb in the Torah is ‘no mixtures’. Clean boundary lines lend themselves to this notion of holiness. “You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.” Mary Douglas, in the anthropologist’s famous essay on kashrut, suggested that the limitations had to do with taxonomic boundaries: that is, what constitutes a fish? Only that which has fins and scales, thus sea dwelling creatures outside that definition were not to be eaten. They did not fit the category. Animals had to chew their cud and have split hooves, thus pigs and camels had to be identified because they were confusing – they had one but not both characteristics. And remaining fast to these boundary lines Jews could uphold the demand voiced in chapter 20 “I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.”
However, Dr. David Freidenreich (in an article on TheTorah.com website) questions the idea that food restrictions were intended to keep Jewish people apart from others. “Far from endorsing separation when it comes to food, the Hebrew Bible contains numerous instances in which its heroes nonchalantly share meals with foreigners or eat the food that foreigners prepare: in the Torah alone, these include Abram (Gen 14:18), Isaac (Gen 26:30), and Jacob (Gen 31:46, 54), as well as Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Exod 18:12). Genesis, describing the seating arrangements when Joseph and his brothers dined in Egypt, explains that “the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians” (Gen 43:32); the Hebrews themselves, however, apparently raised no objection to eating with foreigners.”
It is only in the book of Daniel, the latest of the Biblical books, where eating the food of foreigners is likened to defilement. In the book of Esther, she arranges a meal for Haman, the King and herself-- no problem. However in the Greek translation of Esther, written a couple hundred years later, the heroine pointedly asserts that “she has neither dined at Haman’s table nor drunk the wine of libations”. What happened? Freidenreich asserts “This desire emerged during the Hellenistic era precisely because it was now possible for Jews to effectively become Greek through the adoption of Hellenistic cultural norms, including food practices.” According to historian Seth Schwartz, “Entire nations could ‘be willed out of existence by their upper classes’ desire to be Greek”. Thus fear of assimilation pushed Jews to demand that “to be holy” meant “to be separate” from the cultures around them. Freidenreich’s conclusion is that to be holy had more to do with following God’s instructions and behaving in a God-like manner. Rashi in the 11th century seems to pick up on this when he amends the Sifrei’s interpretation of “Be holy means Be separate” to “be separate in matters of sexuality and sinfulness.”
But is holiness only to be found within clear boundary markers? Is it possible to find holiness outside the lines? Nancy Wiener and Jo Hirshman in their book on Leviticus, Maps and Meaning, suggest this. They find it in the connection between the Levitical priest and the metzora, the person afflicted with the terrible skin disease that makes them impure and forces them outside the camp boundaries. They write, “typically, most people seek the holy in their places of worship, at sites of natural beauty, or as they eat around a table with their loved ones. Curiously, places that at first sight seem the most removed from such settings sometimes evoke a similar sense of the holy. In the Levitical construct, these places are where the impurity of illness and/or death is strongly present. These sites foster a heightened sense of consciousness, focus, and attunement; they are situations in which we often feel open to something beyond ourselves, to being in the presence of something apart and transformative. In the language of the Bible the places of greatest tumah (impurity) actually have a lot in common with those places designated as having the greatest kedushah.”
Wiener and Hirshman are pastoral counselors and their focus is finding moments of holiness in the hospital room or deathbed, potentially, places of ritual impurity, according to the Torah. Holiness can be found inside the camp in the intimacy of the Tent of Meeting’s curtained recesses but also in the wide-open expanse of the uninhabited areas outside the camp.
Likewise, in the final movie of our Michiana Jewish Film Festival, East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem, the Israeli Arab singer Mira Awad noted that she does not fit easily into the boundaries imposed on her by Middle Eastern society. “Israelis are not comfortable with me because I am an Arab; but Palestinians don’t appreciate me either because I do not hate Israelis. I don’t fit easily into either boundary”. And yet she works for mutual understanding between Jews and Muslims. She and the others in the film come together out of love for music and each other to create a beautiful album about the city both Israelis and Palestinians love. It is the ability to go beyond the limits of one’s boundaries, literally beyond one’s walls, in the case of Jerusalem, that will eventually bring tranquility and peace to this Holy Space.
There are times when boundaries lend themselves to holiness. Boundaries are essential to creating a sense of self-definition. But crossing boundaries is also a path towards holiness. Holiness can be achieved in that precinct in which dissimilarities meet and interconnect and become oriented to each other and their concerns.
In a sense this is the meaning of the full verse “You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.” Nothing is more dissimilar in our experience than the created world and God and yet God demands of us, “Be Holy like Me”. If we can extend ourselves, go beyond our limitations to meet the Divine, surely we can find holiness when we strive to meet those who are unlike us.