Abraham Glazer: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, Thoughts on Pesach 5779

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You and I are neighbors.  Between our properties is a fence.  There is an invisible surveyed boundary between our properties, but that is not why we have a fence.  There are nearby neighbors who do not have fences.  Neither of us has cattle or sheep but we choose to mark our properties with a fence.  It may be a sturdy 6-foot cedar fence or a decorative split rail fence.  However strong, it will never prevent a child’s ball from sailing over it, never prevent a dog from digging under it or muffle a loud party.  So what is the purpose of the fence?  I suggest that our fence and many others are symbols of liberty that rests on our mutual acknowledgments of our individual rights.

This does not apply to fences and walls intended to protect or prevent escape.  Erecting a high fence around a prison protects the lives of people living near a prison and keeps the prisoners confined. Nor does it apply to walls and fences intended to keep a people enslaved, as in North Korea.  I am talking about fences and walls that we erect around property.  It might be one we build together as neighbors or a 12-foot-high concrete wall around a celebrity’s estate.  The 12′ wall is imposing, but it can never ensure privacy or security.  Given sufficient malicious intent, the wall is a minor obstacle.

Walls and fences are symbols that mark what is mine, which requires me to acknowledge what is yours.  I strengthen and protect my ownership by that acknowledgment.  All this takes place in history before the law of trespass was invented.  You as my neighbor recognize my property and I recognize yours simultaneously.  We do not do this because there is a law of trespass. We do it primarily because it is the virtuous thing to do.  My liberty requires that I honor yours.

This is not to say that we will never violate the sanctity of our neighbor’s property.  As a group, we acquiesce to taxes with an element of choice and the sanctioning of force.  What I suggest here is that law is not the significant mover of ethical behavior.  Law is the statues created by federal, state and local governments and the legal system (police, prosecutors, judges, and juries) that enforce the law.  They are our agents.  Laws exist because enough people agree that specific behaviors are anathema to the public interest.  The laws are enacted to provide disincentives to that behavior with punishment.  It is safe to say that while many of us have said “I’ll kill you” when angry, most of us will never commit murder.  Why?  Because killing another person is wrong. The wrongness exists before the law.

We are becoming unmoored from historical transformations that elevated the individual from generations where a man’s life was no different than his grandfather’s.  It is almost absolute throughout history that the nodding of a king’s head determined whether a man died or became wealthy.  The last century saw millions of people killed by communists, Nazis, and authoritarian regimes in pursuit of a better world.  Their rationale and their vehicle was the same as the Egyptian Pharaoh with the Jews. Laws will never prevent the killing of an individual nor the killing of millions.  Negating the sacredness of the individual permits death camps and drive-by shootings.

About 3,000 years ago, Jewish men, women, and children stepped from slavery into a personal relationship with G-d.  The individual was sanctified and had the choice to live by transcendental rules.  In America, we are heirs to that legacy.  So I enjoy the appeal of the fence that is the symbol the liberty each of us has by the grace of virtue we choose to exhibit and the grace of G-d.

 



  • JLM2019

    This strikes me as an odd interpretation of both Robert Frost’s classic poem “Mending Wall” and the timeless Pesach story, even though I largely agree with the author’s main points.

    Frost’s famous line the “Good fences make good neighbors” has been similarly misinterpreted more times than I can count, so I do not fault the author of this post, but it’s worth noting the actual intent of the poet. “Mending Wall” tells the story of two neighbors who work together to repair the broken wall between their properties. However, in doing so, the narrator learns to see that the wall is unnecessary and only serves to separate and alienate the neighbors. The narrator laments that his neighbor believes that “Good fences make good neighbors” because he has learned this is not true, and is saddened to see his neighbor walking in the metaphorical shade and darkness of ignorance and alienation. The wall has not brought about a respect or honor for each other’s property, but has only further divided the men.

    As for the Pesach story, most rabbinical interpretations focus on the exodus as the forging of the Jewish people or the creation of the Jewish nation, rather than as a celebration of individual rights. Throughout Moses’ moral arc, he is faced with choices of doing what is best for himself individually or standing up for the rights and well-being of his people. When he chooses to sacrifice his individual well-being for the betterment of others (striking down the slavemaster beating a Jew) he is portrayed as virtuous. When he acts for his own benefit (fleeing Egypt, leaving his family and people as slaves, and starting a new life in Midian), he is portrayed as having made a mistake and G-d appears to Moses in the burning bush to command him to go back. Many rabbis interpret the line from the story of Moses’ death stating that he was the only person to look upon the face of G-d as meaning that he was the only person who truly dedicated his life to helping others.

    Moreover, Pesach is a holiday that encourages us not to build fences, but rather to open doors. Jews ceremonially open the doors of their homes to Elijah the Prophet, and literally open their doors by inviting friends, neighbors, non-Jews, and even strangers into the home to share in the holiday meal.

    • Abraham Glazer

      Jlm2019,

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my post.

      The beauty of Frost’s poetry is that he brings both a sharp and subtle voice. I agree that he sharply points out the pointlessness of repairing the wall and the emptiness of “good fences make good neighbors” that his neighbor carries by rote from his father. The subtlety of the poem is its title of Mending Wall as an instructional and descriptive phrase. The poem is about a practice carried on for generations where neighbors walk the fence together. While it is true that Frost acknowledges the pointlessness of a wall to prevent “My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines.” I hope you can see that the practice of walking the fence continues a tradition that they will do again and again.

      You are correct that Pesach is the celebration of the freeing of the Jews from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaoh. But this freedom is bonded to the individual (Exodus 13:8 the Lord did [this] for me when I went out of Egypt). Judaism is an historical transformation as it defines an individual’s relationship with the divine. All of human history was filled with a man’s life being no different than his ancestors. Idols or a Pharaoh were worshiped and had the power of life or death. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph all had relationships with G-d. All of the freed slaves stood at Mt. Sinai for their own conversation with G-d and each one stated: “we will do and we will hear.” This was the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. Torah that includes all of the commentaries fleshes out the nature of that relationship in sharp, strident and clear writing and that is often subtle and nuanced. Kind of like Frost. My point was that Judiasm elevates the individual as a divine creation with good and bad inclinations, and guidelines on where to place the next step. The Jewish people have thousands of years of commentary, much of it parsing rules for behaving. But the overwhelming lesson is the existence and quality of the relationship between each man and G-d. Without the virtue derived from that relationship, law (and a fence) have no value.

      My read on Moishe’s greatness is that like the other great people in Torah, he was an imperfect man.

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