My household is facing a lot of upheaval. The 100-year-old house next door was recently demolished, as the new owners wanted to live in an “old house neighbourhood” but in a new house. Their choice has been hard for us. It doesn’t preserve history and it’s not environmentally sustainable. The demolition and excavation are loud, and the shaking and vibrating has damaged our house and the neighbours’ homes, too. It’s a hard situation and we’ve got nowhere else to go, especially during a pandemic.
Years ago, when our twins were toddlers, we built a sturdy wooden fence around our front yard, to match the taller fence in the backyard. This fence has been a blessing. It’s kept kids and dogs safe, not to mention balls, badminton shuttlecocks, and more. Anything that strayed over the fence in any way – like, say, squash and cucumber vines – were completely trashed during this construction, which left a bare, muddy cavern on the other side. It’s been unsettling.
This physical boundary reminds me of other ones with which we’re all reckoning. As the pandemic continues, mask wearing and physically distancing from others has to be absolutely ingrained in us. Yet, articles online mention parents who hate having to enforce mask wearing with their kids, or how friends must make difficult decisions about whether to hang out with others who won’t wear masks. Our public health officials warn against mask shaming but these boundaries, these masks, are part of what keeps us safer.
This goes further, when considering how people manage remote school, work and public interactions where, frankly, all the rules have changed. Every family home, workplace and even transportation has changed. We set up boundaries – we build both physical and imaginary fences, through Plexiglass partitions and dots on the ground, to keep ourselves safe.
As Jews, none of this should be new to us, because the rabbis loved a good boundary! Whether it’s deciding what can or can’t be done on Shabbat, or how to manage keeping kosher, there are rules everywhere in Torah and rabbinic teachings. The rules, however, aren’t always clear or easy to follow. It requires both study and thought to decide what will work – and it isn’t always obvious how a Jewish person should interpret those rules or what’s important to follow.
Lately, I’ve been reading about how an eruv can work, because I’m studying Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud a day) and have been working through tractate Eruvin. What’s an eruv? Well, a simple definition (straight from the internet) is: “An urban area enclosed by a wire boundary which symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath.”
If you’ve wondered why it’s OK, in some traditional Jewish neighbourhoods, for people to push strollers or carry food over to a friend’s house on Shabbat, well, it’s because they’ve created this special ritual space. This creates a single “private space” that connects a whole community of homes. The eruv is so important in some places that it causes housing prices to go up within its borders.
Many times, I’ve heard complaints from people about how “there are too many rules” in some context or other. Whether it’s “fences cut up the landscape in our neighbourhood,” “Why can’t we eat in this room in the community centre?” or, from parents, “It’s so hard to make kids wear masks or stick to this rigid schedule.” However, for many, creating routine, structure and boundaries, physical or psychological, helps us in so many ways.
The example of the Shabbat and festival eruv is a way to see rules in a positive light. If the “rules” state that we cannot do something in the public sphere on Shabbat, look at how we can get around this by using an eruv, the rabbis say – we create a huge private “home” out of all of our homes. What a rich way to build community, belonging and togetherness!
Even if we’re not Shabbat observant or using an eruv, this is a reminder of why fences and boundaries can be used for good. Without our sturdy wooden fence, I suspect our kids and dog might fall into the enormous excavation hole and construction site next door. Without those masks or social distancing rules, we’d have to stay home completely during the pandemic.
It takes all of us to make boundaries work effectively. As Robert Frost writes in “Mending Walls,” there is a lot of resistance to walls. From hunters to animals to elves – “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
However, Frost’s neighbour reminds us, “Good fences make good neighbours.” A boundary can keep us inside a rich and loving community. It can also keep us physically safe from harm or psychologically safe, by creating structure and limits to our days.
For now, we all need to embrace these boundaries. We must use these fences and walls to bolster us onwards, as we shelter through the winter and pandemic, even beyond the temporary walls of Sukkot.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.