Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat - Behar/Bekhukotai 5764

The Price of Walls
Fences Make Lousy Neighbors

(An expansion upon my musing for Behar/Bekhukotai 5759)

It wasn't perfect. There were trials, tribulations, problems, imperfections, dangers, horrors, etc. Yet something about those ancient times was idyllic. Something about is has been lost in our modern times. And that potential was recognized even in the times of our ancestors.

It was a primarily agrarian society, as parashat Behar shows us, with such great concern for the land. It was also commanded to be a just and compassionate society.

Even in those days (and, as far as we can tell, much earlier times historically) people gathered themselves in walled cities for protection and other benefits. But there was a price to pay-Gd does seemed to have placed a value on the open country more so than the city (at least in this parasha.)

Lev 25:29 - If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, it may be redeemed until a year has elapsed since its sale; the redemption period shall be a year. 30)If it is not redeemed before a full year has elapsed, the house in the walled city shall pass to the purchaser beyond reclaim throughout the ages; it shall not be released in the jubilee. 31) But houses in villages that have no encircling walls shall be classed as open country: they may be redeemed, and they shall be released through the jubilee. (JPS)

It seems that ancient tribal lands needed to remain, ultimately, in the hands of the original tribal owners (the effect of the jubilee) but this same standard was not applied to city lands. So, even then, Gd and our ancestors recognized that city life was going to be different, and take on a different character. Things that are important in an agrarian, tribal society, like land holdings lose their importance in the city. Things are transient in a city-property may pass from one person to another, one tribe to another. And the transfer could be permanent.

Let's examine what was at work here. It would appear one primary purpose of land transfers was neighbors (or relatives) helping each other in times of financial trouble. One could sell one's land (or one's servants) to another to get the financing needed to survive, but comforted in the knowledge that the jubilee would return the land to them (or their family) through redemption. Gd makes it clear that we are not the true owners of the land in any case:

25:23 - But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine, you are but strangers resident with Me. 24) Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

But why the difference in walled cities? Why was that land not subject to redemption? Cities without walls were considered as "open country." What did the wall do to change things so significantly that it was as if those who resided within were no longer resident aliens on Gd's land?

Perhaps Gd was affronted that humans felt they needed protection other than that Gd provided? As the Israelites were to learn, walls were not as much protection as they thought. Gd was the protection in whom they should trust.

Walls give us a false sense of security. Throughout the millennia, we have become more and more assured that walls, that our cities will protect us. That metaphoric walls or shields (like the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka "Star Wars") will protect us. Some come to cities for fame, some to be lost in anonymity among the crowds, some to make their fortune, some for shelter when they have lost their fortunes.

It wasn't that long ago that half of Berlin was surrounded by a wall. And now Israel is surrounding itself with a wall as well. Will they really offer the protection their builders think they will?

But can a walled city (real or metaphoric) provide for us? Can it feed us, give us the fruits our planting? Can it really protect us?

After Gd brought us into the land, our people decided to urbanize. Oh, we had some brief success, but what was the ultimate result of urbanization? We grew too haughty and proud, we forgot that Gd is truly our only protector. We forsook Gd's ways, and the land was taken away from us (as was foretold in parashat Bechukotai!) Since we were scattered among the nations, Jews have tended to group in cities-as if we hadn't learned the lesson. Yes-keeping in community was (and is) important to Judaism - for many reasons. But is ghetto/city life the only way to do this?

Even in Israel urbanization is the trend. Tel Aviv and its suburbs continue to grow and expand, while fewer and fewer seem to want to live on the kibbutzim, in the Negev, the mountains, the other wide open spaces. Around Jerusalem's old walled city we have built a modern metropolis. And we make our dutiful pilgrimage to Jerusalem, perhaps hoping to find Gd resident there. But I think Gd is to be found in Gd's first Jewish home: a portable tent, and not in a Temple in a city. Gd is found in the Negev, in the Galil, in the wadis. the hills.

We keep trying. Israel, and indeed, the whole middle east is full of tels-sites where cities were built upon cities. The walls did not protect people, yet people continued to rebuild walled cities on these sites over and over again. Perhaps if they had trusted in Gd more and walls and cities less things might have been different.

And now Israel surrounds herself with a wall. I won't discuss the political issues involved, for they are complicated and deserve more than a cursory discussion. Still, one has to ask if this wall again shows Israel's lack of trust in Gd. (For many, given recent and past history for the Jewish people, it's not entirely odd for them to trust a wall more than Gd.)

I truly pray that, centuries from now, Israel's current great cities aren't yet another layer in a tel.

But I have digressed a bit. Gd told us right in parashat Behar that there would be a price to pay for living in a city with walls. It's a lesson we have yet to take to heart. What does this mean for modern times? Our cities do not have walls. But there are barriers that seem to separate the city from the open country, and even barriers that separate those who dwell in the former from those who dwell in the latter. We need to tear down these walls, these barriers, the things that keep us apart, that make us disconnected from the land and from our "tribes." We need the efficacy of a system of social justice as brilliant as the one created by the sabbatical and jubilee. Living as just, compassionate people, according to Gd's ways and instructions, and, most of all, recognizing the only Gd is true protection, these will become our great horns, and with them we shall bring the walls tumbling down.

Shabbat shalom,

©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester (parts ©1997)

Some previous musings on this parasha

Behar-Bekhukotai 5762 - Tough Love
Behar-Bekhukotai 5761-The Big Book (Bottoming Out Gd's Way)

Behar 5763-Ownership
Behar 5760-Slaves to Gd

Bechukotai 5763-Keri Is So Very...
Bekhukotai 5760-Repugnant Realities

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