Drash on Parashat Vayishlach
Rabbi Fred Morgan
Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria
Good Fences Make Good Neighbours
“Are borders necessary or regressive? Are humans naturally driven toward greater connection and cooperation, or does some old, mistrustful instinct always hold us back?” A critic, Austin Allen, asks these questions at the start of an insightful essay on the American poet Robert Frost’s immensely influential poem, “Mending Wall”:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun….
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each….
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’….
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Austin Allen highlights the irony in the poem. The proverbial defence for building the wall, “good fences make good neighbors,” is subverted both by the neighbourly way that the two neighbours set about to repair it, and by the fact that the wall is unnecessary, since there are no cows to transgress the boundary between their two properties, just pine and apple trees.
On the other hand, since there is a proverb about good fences making good neighbours, there must be some value in this wall, too. By clearly marking the border, the poet seems to suggest, the wall contributes to the peaceful relations between the two neighbours.
This poem, with all its ambiguities, came into my mind this week when I sat down with the parashah Vayishlach and read once again the story of Jacob and Esau. From the start, Jacob’s story is bound up with boundaries and borders: noting them, marking them and transgressing them. His very birth transgresses the boundary between brothers; Jacob emerges clinging onto Esua’s heal (hence the name Ya’akov, from ekev “heal”). He cons Esau out of his birthright as first-born, and then out of his blessing from Isaac, the latter by covering himself with a hairy pelt and presenting himself as his brother – more boundary transgressions.
When Jacob flees Esau’s wrath, he dreams of a staircase climbing from the earth to the heavens. Not only does the staircase break through a boundary separating earth from heavens, but the place where Jacob dreams itself marks the boundary between the land of Canaan, his homeland, and the land of his exile.
After many years serving his uncle Laban for his wives and his flocks, Jacob steals away; Laban overtakes him and they set up another, physical boundary, one that is named in both Aramaic, Laban’s language, and Hebrew, Jacob’s native tongue. There’s a striking aspect to this act. By together setting up the pile of stones as a boundary marker, Laban and Jacob actively make peace between themselves, even as the two characters in “Mending Wall” create a social ambience with each other in the process of rebuilding the wall together.
This week we read of Jacob’s return to Canaan and his reunion with Esau. Again he crosses a boundary, this time the river Jabbok, where he wrestles with the “strange man” – neither fully human nor fully divine. It is just at this border, the ford in the river, that he readies himself to meet Esau once again after 20 years’ separation.
It is clear that boundaries, transgressing them, marking them and learning how to work with them, are a major motif in the Jacob narrative. Understanding this can help us to make sense of a troubling event that happens at the reunion between Jacob and Esau. After Esau accepts Jacob’s gifts (called “berakhah,” or blessing), Esau says, Let’s set out on our homeward journey, and I’ll go at your pace. But Jacob demurs. First he urges Esau to go on ahead. Then he refuses an escort. Finally, as Esau journeys southward to Seir, Jacob goes north and settles in a totally different place called Sukkot. Why does Jacob not accompany Esau home? Why does he remain apart from his brother? (They meet again only to bury their father Isaac.)
Many commentators see this as a wariness on Jacob’s part and a reversion to his notorious character as conman. According to these readings, he again deceives Esau by saying he would follow when he doesn’t. But there is another interpretation, based on the motif of boundaries. Perhaps Jacob has finally realised that, under appropriate circumstances, good fences do indeed make good neighbours. He knows he cannot live in proximity with Esau, so he deliberately puts up a border between them, a physical distance. He does this without fanfare or aggression, simply by deed. In this way, he creates an environment of peace (shalom) between them. So, in the very next verse, we read, “Jacob came safely (that is, “in peace,” shalem) to the city of Shechem.” Through his adventures and misadventures with boundaries and borders, Jacob learns to use boundaries to make peace.
But this interpretation is ambiguous, just as Robert Frost’s poem is ambiguous. Jacob may think that the boundary protects him and creates peace with his brother, but it also prevents them from forging a wholesome (another meaning of “shalem”) relationship built on trust and understanding. The peace of “good fences” is a temporary, fragile and uncertain peace. Like the border-walls constructed in our own days to ensure peace by separating adversaries – the Berlin Wall, the “Fence” running through the hills of Jerusalem, Donald Trump’s wall separating the Mexican hinterland from the United States, and many others – the boundary between Seir and Sukkot represents unresolved conflict as much as, if not more than, “good neighbourliness.” Indeed, as we learn later in the portion, one of Esau’s direct descendants is Amalek, who will be an arch-enemy of Jacob-Israel.
So, to repeat Austin Allen’s questions, “Are borders necessary or regressive? Are humans naturally driven toward greater connection and cooperation, or does some old, mistrustful instinct always hold us back?” That’s the dilemma that Jacob’s story leaves us to ponder.