Walls, physical or imaginary, spotlight vulnerability

Rabbi Josef Davidson

Every semester, students were given the opportunity to sign up for required or elective classes. Before registering, students would inevitably ask others in the next grade or two ahead about the courses and, especially, about the teachers. It was the equivalent of reconnaissance as an armed force approaches for battle.

In fact, reconnaissance is the subject of the first third of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha. Moses is instructed to appoint 12 spies, one tribal head from each tribe, for a mission into the Promised Land of Canaan. The purpose of this mission is to gather as much intelligence as possible, and the spies are given a list of questions for which they must provide answers. 

Among the questions that Moses asked them were: “Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?” (Num. 13:18) “Are the towns in which they live open or fortified?” (Num. 13:19) 

These two questions are actually one, according to the Midrash, Numbers Rabbah 16:12.

The Midrash teaches that the spies will be able to judge the strength of their opponents based on the towns in which they live. A strong, confident population will make its home in the open, secure in their ability to fend off any aggressor and open to any stranger desirous of peace. A weak, scared population will make its home in a fortified town, surrounded by high walls, because they are fearful of all who might approach. The number of people residing in the open or in the confinement of walls is irrelevant. Strong, confident populations will be able to be open; weak, frightened populations will need to add fortifications.

So has it been throughout history to the present day. Walls keep out friend and foe alike. They indicate fear of “the other,” the stranger, and the view that outsiders are all invaders. People who are secure, who are strong, who are confident, do not build walls. 

Was the Great Wall of China built by a people who viewed themselves as strong and secure? Was the wall that divided East and West Berlin and East and West Germany built from a position of strength and confidence? The Chinese feared the effects that open borders would have on their civilization, on their culture, on their identity and on their security. The same was true of the Soviet Union, when it built the walls that divided east from west. 

Secure people can live out in the open; insecure people hide behind walls.

The genius of this Midrash is not only in its application to geopolitical realities. It applies equally to individuals. There is a saying that “strong fences make for good neighbors.” However, my experience has proved that this is not always true. Neighbors were the friendliest, the most generous, the most interested in us in neighborhoods without fences keeping them or us out. 

Today, society has moved in the direction of erecting more walls. People do not involve themselves in the lives of their neighbors and often do not even know their names. The divisiveness that characterizes so much of public and private discourse denotes walls that have been erected to keep “the other” out. The epithets that are being hurled, the lack of respect accorded to others, the myriad ways in which we have found to divide rather than unite, all indicate weakness rather than strength, fear rather than greatness.

I am reminded of the song “I Am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel: “I’ve built walls / A fortress, steep and mighty / That none may penetrate / I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain / It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.”

The lyrics continue later in the song: “I have my books / And my poetry to protect me / I am shielded in my armor / Hiding in my room, safe within my womb / I touch no one, and no one touches me / I am a rock / I am an island / And a rock feels no pain / And an island never cries.” 

Walls and fortresses keep out others, to be certain, but they constrain, they confine, they imprison, as well. 

Walled fortresses exist also in our minds. What we think protects us only emphasizes our vulnerability. What better time to open ourselves up than the present?

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Josef Davidson is affiliated with Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Light.