My First Torah Lesson in Good Relations

            October/November 2012    
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Good Fences Make Good Jews!

By Walter D. Levy

"Golda," mayn zayde, Moshe Shapiro, blurted out. My mother, Gertrude Levy, had just opened the refrigerator door and was preparing to take out a bottle of milk. She had just fixed me a kosher bologna sandwich. It was then that mayn zayde said, "Nisht flayshig [meat] mit milchig [milk]!" Little did I realize, some sixty years ago, that I, then a 10-year-old ainikl [grandson], was about to receive my first Torah lesson. It could have been called: "Good Fences Make Good Jews!"

The idea that "Good Fences Make Good Jews" came to mind recently when I read Michael Wex's book on Yiddish language and culture entitled: "Born To Kvetch". In his book, Mr.Wex states: "Judaism is obsessed with separation, with boundaries." He goes on to say that,"The Mishna enjoins us to 'make a fence for the Torah.'" Mr.Wex continues by citing as an example the Torah's prohibition that "forbids us from cooking a kid in its mother's milk" (Exod. 23:19). As is usually the case, the actual prohibition is but the tip of the iceberg.

We Jews, in our fervent desire to protect, guard and maintain our beliefs, sometimes carry these matters to an extreme. Indeed, what frequently happens is that the primary "fence, i.e., the prohibition forbidding the consumption of milchig and flayshig at the same time, becomes secondary. An example of that is one that Mr. Wex cites in his book. He poses the question: "What happens when 'a dairy knife is accidentally used to cut roast beef?'" He then asks, "Can the beef be eaten; can the knife be used again?" Yes, the milchig-flayshig prohibition, with its accompanying ancillary "drill down" serves as but one example of the hundreds and hundreds "fences" that make up our Jewish traditions and law.

As I think about it, there are countless examples of Jewish "fences". As Jews, we learn in the Torah that there are things we can do, and things we can't; things we mustn't do, and things we must. That. there are foods we can eat, and foods we can't. And, come to think of it, there are even times when we can't eat at all. There are, in the Hebrew calendar, numerous fast days, e.g., Yom Kippur, Tishah B'Av, Ta'anit Bechorim, just to name a few. They are a constant reminder of the numerous "fences" that set us apart as Jews.

In fact, even at one of the most wondrous and exhilarating times of our lives, our wedding day, it's a tradition that the kallah [bride] and chossen [groom] fast. That fast is only broken when, after the marriage ceremony has been completed, the couple is secluded in cheder yichud, and then. and only then, are they permitted a nosh. This serves as just one more example of the many times we Jews are reminded, even in the most joyous of times, that we must live an orderly life; one that is filled with both responsibility and restraint.

Further, these "fences" are the rules that govern our daily lives. They are what make us distinct. They teach us to be a people with a conscience. These are our obligations, our prohibitions, our admonitions, our Commandments, and our mitzvot. Our laws are the material, the fabric and the fiber, that enable us to build our "fences". Oh, we don't make up these rules as we go along simply to serve our own whims or interests. Our "fences" are part of our Judaic tradition that have been handed down to us through countless generations of time. They are irrevocable. Yes, anomie and anarchy are alien to the Jewish way of life; lawlessness is an abomination to a people who value structure.

Well, since the Diaspora, we Jews have made our way to the "four corners of the earth." Here, in America (I'm sure its also true in many other places), there are intense pressures to become assimilated; to shed our beliefs and our identity in order to blend in. To tear down our "fences". That is, to sacrifice what we Jews hold most dear - our Jewish values and identity - for the sake of seeking acceptance. Our environs can often make it ever more difficult for us Jews to be frum. Yet, it still holds true, as in a slight alteration of the words of Robert Frost in the last line of his poem, "Mending Wall," that: "Good Fences Make Good Jews!"

In addition, it should be stated that we Jews have not erected our own "fences"; they be been erected for us by G-d Himself in His Sacred Torah. These rules - unlike man-made fences - will not crumble unless we, the Jewish people, allow to them to do so. I firmly believe that Jews do not build "fences" to keep other people out. We build them to preserve and to maintain both our own identity and our heritage. Indeed, we Jews are the living "fences" that can serve as a guide for the rest of the world.

As an example of the above, just the other day I was entranced by a program I saw on TV that dealt with Israeli penal institutions. I must say I was both most proud and impressed by the way the Israeli government treats prisoners in their penitentiaries. Yes, the inmates are housed in prisons with strict rules, but the prisoners are treated with the utmost dignity. They are, in some cases, even allowed to keep animals. In the Israeli penal system, the major emphasis is on rehabilitation, not retribution. The program also indicated that the recidivism rate among Israeli prisoners is among the lowest in the world. Israel's actions serve as a beacon to the rest of the world.

Well, as I think back to my childhood of early 1950s, I still recall that mid-summer day at my grandparent's home in Syracuse, NY when I asked my mother to serve me a glass a milk with my bologna sandwich. In reality, instead of a glass of milk, I got much more. More than I could ever imagined. I got a lesson in Jewish law. I learned that I can't have everything I want when I want it, I also came to realize that there were rules and laws that I, and every good Jew, must obey and abide by.

Even at that young age, I began to understand that it was in my best interest that I follow these laws. Oh, as for my zayde, he apologized to my mother for being so "short" with her, but he did say that, at least in his house, there would be no milchig and flayshig served together at the same meal. Yes, Zayde Moshe, thank you. Thank you so much for providing me with my very first Torah lesson: "Good Fences Make Good Jews!"


from the October/November 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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