Parashat Devarim 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parashat Devarim 5776

Shabbat Shalom

It’s not uncommon – in fact it is quite common – for homes to have lots of open spaces. More often than not, the kitchen and the family room flow one into the next. Sometimes entire family spaces are just one large open area.

It wasn’t always that way, was it? I remember that in the first house I lived there was no door from the kitchen into the dining room. And when we moved to the next residence there was a door between the two. My mother was happy. Guests could now be protected from the goings on, and perhaps the mess, in the kitchen.

Doors and walls provide privacy and protection. Our walls are very important. And yet, we know that open space also allows for more interaction.

Styles of architecture have changed. Today we love the openness of space.

But earlier in social history, we yearned for the protection of a wall. Divisions in families between generations were also more significant. Young people had their activities. The older folks had theirs.

And without a doubt, there were activities that the women did that the men weren’t interested in. Playing cards at the dining room table simply didn’t mesh well with baking in the kitchen.

Roles have changed. Generational differences have also changed. And so we have fewer walls in our homes…Adults and children often engage in the same activities.

I was at a home this week in a lovely neighborhood, looking out at the pool and the small yard. And beyond the yard was a big wall. On the other side of the wall was another small yard, a pool and a home. And I wondered why the wall was there. Wouldn’t the aesthetics have been nicer without the wall? There could have been another way to demarcate territory and property. Perhaps garden beds, trees or shrubs. But the wall defined the space. I don’t think security was the issue. It was a tightly secured, gated and walled neighborhood…

We have an interesting relationship with walls.

Did you know that the word ghetto is actually from the Italian language? And the first ghetto was not in Brooklyn, New York, but in Venice. We were the first people to be walled in that way. After all, we were different than our neighbors. Walls can separate tribes.

Sometimes our walls are self-imposed. The eruv allows observant Jews to carry on Shabbat. The eruv is a wire, rope, fence or wall demarcating private property from public property. The unintended (maybe?) consequence is that it creates a Jewish neighborhood, a boundary, a self-defined ghetto. It allows for the growth of a Shabbos community and, in fact, has the consequence of keeping others out.

Walls are also psychological barriers. When speaking about a troubled person who doesn’t communicate we say he is “walled up.” And we know that there is a lot inside that isn’t being said…and perhaps that should be said.

I’ve never been to the Great Wall of China. I am told it is a phenomenal site. It’s interesting to note that today it has historical meaning, but no practical strategic importance.

We need walls to define boundaries. I wouldn’t want to sleep in a bedroom without walls, and certainly wouldn’t use a bathroom without walls.
I was at a few Medieval fortresses this summer. The walled complex on top of the mountains was a stronghold used to defend property from conquerors. But at the end of the day, none of those conquerors still exist. With newer battle technologies the walls became irrelevant. Walls are only good for a while. Ideas last forever.

In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis tell us to build a wall around the Torah…siyag latorah. Do you know what they meant? They meant that we should create more stringent laws in order to protect us from violating a substantive basic law. I’ll give you an example:

Do you know what muktza is? An example of muktza is money on Shabbat. You are not allowed to do business. You’re not allowed to spend money on Shabbat. In fact, you’re not supposed to touch money on Shabbat. Why? Because it is muktza. If you touch it, you’re liable to pick it up and that might tempt you to spend it. So a wall is built. It protects the system.

When President Ronald Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachav, tear down this wall!” he said it with a great sense of security. He believed that the wall that divided the former Soviet Union from the west was symbolically a wall that prevented interaction of not just people and business, but ideas. And if the wall came down, freedom would spread through the hearts and minds of those living in the east…and it did! Perhaps mostly because of the former Soviet Union’s financial state, but it led to the expansion of democracy and the independence of the provinces of the former Soviet Union.

How interesting it is to note that now, when it seems that Putin and Russia have their eyes on expansion, we might wish someone would say at the Ukrainian border, “Mr. Putin, build the wall!”
The idea of walls is not so simple. They can be absolutely needed or they can be destructive. And sometimes, that depends on which side you live on.

There are two walls of great note in Israel. One was built during the second intifada and it had an effective impact in stopping terrorist activity. It is referred to, on one side of the wall, as a security defense wall. On the other side, it is a wall of separation. Families and villages have been separated by the wall. And people live much farther apart because of the wall. There are people who sleep better because of the wall, and there are people who feel more penned in and oppressed because of the wall.

Walls are complex; much more complex than what we simply perceive.

Tonight is Tisha B’Av. It is a time when I think about a wall. The wall. HaKotel. Some call it the HaKotel HaMa’aravi, the Western Wall. It was the outside western wall of the holy Temple.

Others think of it as The Wailing Wall – a place where Jews cried because of the destruction some two thousand years ago. You know, there is no popular Hebrew name for this.

I have a complex relationship with this wall, with this place of great sanctity, which is once again being defiled by conflict. It is a conflict that I, sadly, had the opportunity to witness this summer.

The first time most of us go to the wall, it is an emotional, even breath-taking experience. We have seen that wall our whole lives. Pictures in our grandparents’ apartments; works of art evoking deep passion…We turn to that wall to pray.
The wall came to be synonymous with the Temple and the holy of holies. And the holy of holies with the presence of God. And so, we see thousands of people praying at the wall. There they sense the presence of God. But that place can also become a place of a distorted reality. A type of idolatry. The stone can become like God, as opposed to God being in the stone.

I have a recollection of being at the wall in the middle of the night and hearing an old chassid crying – wailing – and I felt the pain. Why was he crying? Perhaps he was feeling the destruction of our people, the suffering and the death of so many. Or was it there that his heart was pouring out to God because of some personal loss or yearning or need for healing? I don’t know. I’ll never know, but I sensed his connection to the holiness of the place.

One time I was at the wall with a very observant young rabbi and a bunch of kids. He encouraged the kids to do kriah…tear the clothing as if they were mourners at the wall. And there were a lot of different responses to this. One responded, “Why? It’s ours today! It is ours to celebrate. Jerusalem is ours. We cannot mourn Jerusalem. Now we sing with the psalmist sisu et yerushalayim gilu va.”

I could give a sermon that would touch so deeply about the emotional bonds to that place…the holiness, the history going back to legends of creation, and the ark, and the binding of Isaac. Generations removed and yearning for return.

I could also tell you of the joy, jubilation after 1967 and then the imposition of rabbinic authority and the separation of women and the struggles that have taken place there.

I could tell you about the glory of God that is experienced there. We would speak of the glory of God as we walk through the Kotel tunnels. I could tell you about the worst type of religious desecration that the wall and the people around it have witnessed.

But instead, I want to consider the metaphor of the wall…that which separates. Today, it separates men and women, charedim and orthodox and conservative and reform and liberal Jews. It is a wall that separates ideals from realities. It separates the Jewish people from each other – a nation from its democratic roots, and a religion from God. Hundreds, if not thousands of insulting and base activities have taken place there. It could be held up as a symbol of fate. But today it is not…

Last summer, we went to the wall on Shabbat afternoon. It is my favorite time there. Why? Because it is almost empty. You can hear the doves and you see a few people (mostly non-religious tourists).

And I sat across from the wall and I looked up at the top. The seam between the Temple Mount and the Kotel. And I felt this line of division between the Muslim place of holiness and the Jewish place of holiness. The wall separated faiths and peoples. It’s a very thin line.

In tractate Yoma, we learn that the first temple was destroyed because of immorality, violence and faithlessness. But the rabbis taught that the second temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam – baseless hatred.

We will talk more about that tonight…

I was thinking, as I wrote this, that the difference can be found when people know their boundaries and when they have no respect for them at all.

When there are no boundaries, lawlessness ensues. But when there are boundaries, and the walls are so high and fortified and strong, and they keep people away from each other and prevent people from seeing each other, then there is baseless hatred.

To be human is to make distinctions. We are living in a world desperately needing proper boundaries, BUT perhaps even more desperately, needing walls to come down and proper bridges to be built.

Jerusalem, known for its walls, has a new bridge, designed by the world’s leading architect bridge builder, Calatravo. It’s very, very contemporary and is designed in the shape of David’s Harp. Why a harp in the city with so many walls?

Because that bridge is aspirational. David played the harp to soothe Saul. The harp is an instrument of beauty that one might say connects heaven and earth!

When walls are breached, we understand it’s because of attack and impending doom…but walls can be broken and lead to something better. That is our hope.

So as we move into Tisha B’av, we will remember destruction. We envision and experience the pain of our past. But we don’t allow ourselves to be prisoners of that past. Rather, we will always learn from it. We will look forward to a future where we know when and where to build walls, and when and where to tear them down and perhaps, even to build more beautiful bridges. That is our hope. We need wise leaders, kind hearts and discerning minds.

Shabbat Shalom