What I am about to say should not surprise you. I have always loved a teacher with a good sense of humor. I’ve shared before in Torah Study how my American Literature Teacher in High School, Mr. Bill Boley used to offer an automatic A to anyone who could successfully incorporate the words “Mexican Bean dip” into a term paper. I was never bold enough to try. I had to get an A the old fashioned way. Cheating. No just kidding. I worked hard. There was something else Mr. Boley did that took me a long time to appreciate. Looking back on it now, I simply admire his brilliance. On the wall of his classroom was a crude looking homemade poster. On a very plain piece of white pasteboard, he had written in large letters, with a Sharpie, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” I used to sit there and ponder what on Earth that meant. It was kind of an eyesore, so I figured it made us not love the wall. So were the something that doesn’t love a wall. Or was it the person who intentionally hung the thing there, interfering with our appreciation of the wall, who didn’t love a wall? Or was the “something” the thing itself and its clash with the wall? What did it mean? What was the “something?” It drove me crazy, until we finally reached the unit on Robert Frost.
The words were the opening line of his famous poem, “The Mending Wall.” It begins:
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;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Two neighbors have converged at their property line to discover that the elements of winter have ravaged the wall that separated their property. The ground has swelled, and hunters have passed through, knocking stones to the ground. It is not secret, that time and nature have taken down the wall.
And so the neighbors take to repairing it. But they are not of like mind.
One on a side. 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 neighbours.”
Good fences make good neighbors. Despite the lack of threat, the sheer innocence of the trees who cannot rival each other, the neighbor wants a fence. And this is where I feel a kinship with the speaker of this poem.
Spring is the mischief (I love mischief) in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? 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.
And the speaker wants to goad his neighbor, but stops short of ridiculing him.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.
He could point out that the wall actually serves no purpose. The imaginary elves and the perceived and exaggerated threats. It might as well be the bogeyman. He cannot fathom why the neighbor wants the wall. He is just set in his ways.
Despite the facts at hand, all the neighbor can say are the words he has been taught since childhood.
“Good fences make good neighbors.”
On the one hand, the annual act of repairing the fence does make good neighbors because it is likely the only time these men interact. For one day a year, they are actually neighbors, the rest, they act as little more than strangers, as one clearly does not trust the other.
Thus what I think Frost was saying, was not “Good fences make good neighbors,” but rather “Good fences make us into strangers.”
What does hold firm are the words that Mr. Boley scotch taped to the wall of his classroom, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And that something, I suggest should be us. We do not love a wall.
In Jewish tradition and history, we know an awful lot about living behind walls. Sometimes they have been good for us. In the Torah portion this week, Parashat Va’eira, we read about the Israelites living together in the city of Goshen. And as God brings the plagues, God sets apart Goshen from suffering the swarms of insects and the terrible deluge of hail. So, being brought together had its upside. However, when Jacob and and his sons were first permitted to settle in Goshen, it was an act of welcome and benevolence. When an evil Pharaoh arose later, having the Israelites in the same place was a matter of convenience, as it was easier to enslave them, oppress them, and demand the killing of each firstborn son. This proto-ghetto was a mark of subservience, suffering and slavery. And as we study the early story of Exodus, we can paraphrase Robert Frost’s question, “What were they walling in and what were they walling out?” In the Torah, it only took a few short generations, before the walls around Goshen went from keeping people out to keeping people in against their will.
As Jews, we have experienced the same cycle again and again. During the Middle Ages, Jews often demanded to be protected by walls before settling anywhere. They knew the threats that were beyond their walls. But at the same time, they left themselves vulnerable to being trapped. In the city of Venice, the Jews were placed in a ghetto. In fact this is where the word ghetto originated. The Italian geto means foundry, and the Jewish community was moved inside the walls of Ghetto Nuovo, an old cannon foundry. At first, the ghetto was a compromise. Rank and file Venetians had wanted to expel the Jews like Spain and England had done. So they decided instead to have the Jews live behind walls where their interactions with the wider community could be controlled. The Jews accepted this arrangement because it was better than expulsion and it came with stability in knowing what the laws were. According to historian Paul Johnson, this certainty was what the Jewish community wanted most. But, the privilege of living in this ghetto came with hefty taxes, and the Jewish community was forced to pay for the guards who kept attackers while keeping the Jews in.
The ghetto walls from Goshen to Venice, were ultimately a means of keeping a people subjugated as second class citizens and making them easy prey for oppression. And as we know, from Warsaw and other ghetto walls during the Holocaust, they managed to contain Jews as sitting targets. This means we should wonder, do the benefits of a protective wall outweighs the dangers of that same well becoming containment? A wall is a divider that prevents true interaction. Lack of true interaction leads to distrust. Distrust, well distrust can lead to terrible things.
And yes, I do want to talk about the proposed wall along the 2000 mile border between the United States and Mexico. It would serve as a divider between two allies and significant trading partners. It would further sow the seeds of distrust between the two nations. The threats of the border in its current condition are grossly exaggerated. The numbers of immigrants crossing illegally are lower than ever. Net migration shows the numbers crossing back into Mexico. Violent crimes committed by people here illegally occur at a lower rate than the national average. And the presence of those who manage to cross the border and stay actually provides an economic boon to the places they settle. The perceived dangers are inflated, and so many people are not afraid of fact, but rather are afraid of fear itself.
Furthermore, the cost of building the wall, 14-15 billion dollars, far outweighs the magnitude of the perceived dangers. We are looking at a net loss at a time when our nation has large deficits. And the wall is generally amoral, separating families and being used as an instrument to bully and “other”-ize an entire nation as it would stand as a visual symbol of our fear of encounters with the people of Mexico. Then there is a question of general honesty. Who is going to pay for it really? At their best, Robert Frost showed us, fences make good neighbors when both agree to work on it together. In such a case, there are moments of true partnership. But that is not the case now. One neighbor cannot force the other to construct or pay for something they neither want nor need. This fence would not make good neighbors. It threatens to sow resentment and to make bad enemies.
This is why Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism issued an important statement this week:
“Today’s executive order announcing plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is a deeply misguided means of addressing the very real challenges facing our immigration system. Instead of myopically prioritizing border security alone, we need immigration policies that holistically fulfill our national security imperatives, meet the needs of employers and workers, and unite and strengthen families.
Our historical experience as Jews who dwelled as guests in others’ lands sensitizes us to the imperative to ensure a just and compassionate immigration policy. We urge President Trump to endorse the principles of comprehensive immigration reform, including border security, as well as streamlined processing for visas and entry to the United States, a commitment to obey the rule of law, family reunification and a much-needed pathway to citizenship.”
As he said, there are indeed gaps in our immigration policy. We can fix them, but the proposed wall is a distraction. A very large and expensive, unethical distraction. We can do better. Jewish history shows us we need to do better than trust walls alone.
The Book of Joshua in the battle of Jericho demonstrates the best way to take down a wall is to lift up our voices and shout. That is what we need to do. Lift up our voices and shout. Call our senators. Call our representatives. Call our friends, relatives, and neighbors. Get them to call Senators and representative. And if we are looking for something to shout, we can turn to the words of Robert Frost: “Something there is that does not love a wall,” and that something is us.