Re’eh: Gates and fences

fenceWhen the other person left, I was the only one left.

To get rid of dust, I dust.

That car could really go, until it started to go.

You know how much I love language and words, and I’ve learned a new one: contranym. It means a word that is its own opposite.  Like oversight – are you watching over something, or letting something slip by?  When you screen something  are you showing it or hiding it?

There is the Hebrew root “a-s-f”, which means to gather or add. Out of context, it doesn’t seem like a contranym, but  I think it’s its own opposite in this week’s parasha, Re’eh.

Tishm’ru la’asot lo tosef alav v’lo tirga m’menu”  Observe the things I commanded with care, neither add to or take away from it.  (Deut 13:1)  So, how is the word tosef, from the root “a-s-f” (add to) both itself and its opposite?

There is a concept in Jewish thought called “making a fence around the Torah”; it comes from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, a compendium of collected wisdom, thoughts about how the world works, advice on ethical and moral behavior, and more.  Chapter 1:1 states, “…And make a safety fence around the Torah.”  We take that to mean that, to avoid even getting near to violating a Torah law, build a fence around that action to keep an accident from happening.  For example, many Torah-observant Jews won’t pick up a pencil on Shabbat, just to lower the chance of writing on Shabbat.  The writing is prohibited, the pencil is the fence.  Or to avoid mixing meat and milk by accident (“you should not cook a lamb in its mother’s milk”, seen as the Torah basis for the law), have separate dishes and silverware in your kitchen.  The separate dishes are the fence.

There is a tendency in more strictly-traditional observance communities that stringent is better, the more fences is better, doing the bare minimum of a particular halacha (law) is somehow not as valued as exceeding that law. The danger here, however, is  more and more fences around something take you further and further away from the essence of the practice.  In the name of “observance”, you can’t even see the original law from that fenced-off distance.  The experience becomes too far-removed, literally.   I would suggest that requiring men and women-only buses, measuring women’s hemlines and inspecting the thickness of a woman’s stockings, or a frenzied, exhausting, panicky “preparation” for Shabbat are fences gone awry.

And here’s where the “adding to a commandment” actually takes away from it.  The tosef has become the tirga.  The adding has become the detracting.

Now for some people, strict observance is a pathway to a deeper spirituality.   I am a fan of meaningful ritual and observance, because I do think that ritual presents us with an opportunity.  Ritual is a vessel into which we can continually pour fresh water.  But the pressure to become more and more strict, more and more “kosher”, build more and more fences to be a “real, authentic  Jew” does the opposite, driving people away or worse yet, isolating people so much from others that learning, understanding, exploration, even experimentation, are locked up behind a fence.   Where is the room for choice?  Where is the room for deciding to do (or not do) something, if the fences have become jails?

Build meaning, not just fences.  And make sure to put in a gate.

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