Border Issues – Then and Now

Border Issues – Then and Now

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all of Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Menasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negeb and the Plain – the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees – as far as Zoar. And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will assign it to your offspring” (Deut. 34: 1-4).

Thousands of years before Robert Frost, winner of multiple Pulitzer prizes, wrote his celebrated poem “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” in 1914 on the cusp of World War One, the Hebrew leader, Moses, allotted promised land to the Israelites in accordance with specifications divinely articulated in the Torah (Deuteronomy 34). Within this larger boundary, the specific areas where each of the Hebrew tribes would make their home were specified even before the ancient Israelites crossed the Jordan to enter Canaan (Deut. 3: 12-17).

When the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Menasseh elected not to cross the Jordan river’s western bank, but rather stay where they were, east of the Jordan, because they thought this location would be ideal for raising their flocks of cattle (Numbers 32:33), Moses explained that these tribes could live anywhere they liked with two conditions: 1) they would assist the other Israelite tribes in the initial entry into Canaan, and 2) furthermore would come to the defense of their brethren across the Jordan whenever their help was needed urgently. It was a condition that would be loyally kept.

Much of the book of Joshua (1-13) is devoted to a detailed description of the division of the land of Canaan. Not all of the idolatrous Canaanite tribes were fled or were killed, however (and historians now say – by virtue of new methods of carbon-dating pottery shards) that the battles described in the Bible may have taken place a couple of centuries before the Israelites actually arrived there), and so the remaining Canaanite and incoming Israelite tribes eventually learned to co-exist.

Notably, for the Israelites, the issue of borders was balanced with the commandment to welcome the stranger. While obligated to follow Israelite law while within the boundaries of the Promised Land, the stranger was well treated and given the same privileges as the the Israelites. Also, in this long-ago agricultural society, the corners of the fields were always to be left unharvested so that poor people could glean them for themselves and thus gather their own fruit and grain. These rules to help the have-nots were well respected by those who had more.

The fields of plants needed respected borders too. In the Mishnah (commentary on the Torah that became the first part of the Talmud) section “Zeraim” (Seeds),” we learn that, in order to keep plants roots from intermingling (mixed seeds are prohibited) so that they will grow better, it’s good to plant row of onions as separators. Why? Because the onions’ roots grow straight down, and thus the plants won’t intermingle. The onions don’t mind at all. They grow well side by side too. Ancient Israel was — and Modern Israel even more — a very ecologically-minded place.

So maybe, amid the political turmoil we are experiencing today, Robert Frost’s enduring poem should read “Good Fences and Mutual Good Will (and a little bit of empathy and real world knowledge) Make Good Neighbors.”

© Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.