Sermon by Rabbi Jim Prosnit – January 11, 2019
An old story tells of a castle on the English coast owned by a landlord, but no one was currently living there. Vandals were coming and destroying the place, so he hired a contractor to build a nice rock wall around the castle. The fee was agreed upon and the contractor began his work. But after a short time the contractor began having trouble finding rocks for the wall. So he called the owner to explain the situation. The owner replied sharply, “I don’t care where you get the rocks, I want you to build that wall!” Sometime later the owner came to see the progress of the work and found a beautiful high wall. He was so impressed with the fine work the contractor had done. It was a perfect wall for his castle. But then he went through the wall and was stunned to find that there was no castle. The contractor explained, you told me to use any rocks I could find. The best ones were part of the castle.
The moral of the story, pretty clear – and sadly all too relevant: We may think we are protecting ourselves, that we are protecting something of our cherished values, but when the wall is built, we may find that we have torn down that which we value most.
Now we Jews know all about walls. From Jericho to the ghettos of Europe sometimes they protected and sometimes they degraded. Sometimes they kept us in and sometimes they kept us out. Archeologists depend on them to help us understand ancient civilizations – and no visitor to Israel ever leaves without spending some time talking or praying to a wall.
The size and dimensions of walls are fully debated within rabbinic tradition and are filled with both literal and figurative insights into how to prevent them from shutting us off from the outside world even as they protect us from its dangers.
Fences had to be erected around pits and rooftops. But the walls of a huppah are non-existent. Reminding the bride and groom that while tempting, it is impossible to steal away completely from family and friends. The influence of those outside the huppah will always impact on the life they have begun together.
The walls of a sukkah are not to be permanent nor are they to be strong. They remind us that life is transient and vulnerable and try as we might to protect ourselves from the world at large – ultimately we don’t have the power to do so completely. Even when we can build mighty sea walls, the ultimate strength of time and the force of nature can be quite humbling.
And the walls of the synagogue are always to be constructed with a window. Part of worshipping within, is to be conscious of those who are living without. Even amidst sacred prayer and festive gathering, the outside world beckons and requires that we be responsible for one another. It’s hard to get close to God when we’ve constructed walls that limit our views of others.
While the scope and complexities of the humanitarian crises around the globe, including the one’s on our southern border are well known — building a wall, turning a blind eye whatever the metaphor that enables us to not to see is not acceptable. As repeated witnesses to walls of prejudice we know better than most what it means to grasp the heart of the stranger, the immigrant – the refugee.
Walls protect and walls define. They give us security and a sense of place and identity. But as our tradition has long held, they separate us and they limit us. We need them, but we need to see over them. And we need to be certain that as they protect, they are not used by those in power to increase our fears.
So to stay with my central image for a moment longer, but to move in a slightly different direction – how good to live in Connecticut. Here, in the main if people build walls they build low stonewalls, or classic picket fences between their yard and their neighbor, mostly to define their property. Rarely do we see the gated communities and high walls that play to our fears and are designed to keep other people out. Our walls define, they are not built to separate and exclude.
So, may that image of a good old CT/New England wall, be the metaphor for us as we consider the current wall crises. Robert Frost wrote about our type of wall in one of those poems you had to memorize when we actually had to memorize poems. It begins with the familiar line “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” but it ends with a verse similarly etched into many a memory bank, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The poem is relevant because of its nuance. We don’t love the walls we build in our lives our land, our world, but sometimes they do help improve the neighborhood. Knowing the difference and knowing how high to build them is the key.
And finally, when Frost took his annual walk to assess the damage that occurred during the past winter, he looked at the stones that had fallen, and he wrote, “We have to use a spell to make them balance.” May those in power these days do a better job in balancing the barriers that divide us with the bridges and opportunities that have long provided the values we hold dear.