On Boundaries and Walls in Parashat Shoftim

Parashat Shoftim includes many laws that are meant to organize the Israelites’ life in the land of Israel. Among the many laws is the decree “Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark.” Rashi interprets this as a warning against cheating in surveying. Ramban warns that one shouldn’t suppose that the original division of lands was mistaken, and therefore removing a landmark is not a robbery. Other Sages expand the decree beyond land, to include a prohibition on harming your neighbor’s livelihood and infringing on copyrights.

Are landmarks and borders a necessity?

It is interesting to note that in the prophecy of the end of times the prophet Micah stresses ownership and borders: “…in the end of days it shall come to pass… they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid… For let all the peoples walk each one in the name of its god.”

The vision of peace is based on clear ownership: “his vine… his fig-tree,” and includes a measure of mutual respect between the different religions: “the peoples walk each on the name of [their] god.”

The poet Robert Frost questions the necessity of borders, but cannot ignore the human need in setting boundaries. In “Mending Wall” Frost questions the known proverb “good fences make good neighbors.” The speaker suggests “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” pointing out the natural need to merge without boundaries, a need as powerful as the human need in ownership and clear borders. The poem describes two neighbours who meet in order to mend the fence that separates their fields. The poem raises questions, but does not resolve the human drive to create boundaries.

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;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
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.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
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 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 offense.
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. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Photos by Kat Jayne, Markus Spiske

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