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  • Writer's pictureRachel Shifra Tal

The power of fences

Fences and Judaism: Protecting that which is precious

I was watching a fence get put up recently.

It got me thinking,

What does the Torah say about fences?

"And you shall guard My observances." (Leviticus 18:30)

The Sages (Talmud - Yevamot 21a) derive from this verse the need to make fences around the Torah.

The Torah itself is one of our most guarded and precious treasures. The Torah is encased in a cover, placed in the Aron and covered by a door and a curtain. Not only that, but we treat our Torah with tremendous respect. We are respecting the timeless wisdom contained within.

One of the 613 commandments is to build a fence on one's roof in the off chance that someone is up there and that they be protected not to fall. There is even a blessing to be said after putting up the fence. The blessing is thanking GD for the commandment of putting up the fence! It seems an unlikely bracha, thank you GD for telling us to make a fence? The intrinsic meaning behind the blessing is astounding.

I love this commandment. A roof is not the most common place one goes, yet even here the Torah is bringing attention to the fact that for protecting that which is sacred and precious, no measure is too small. We also learn that there are things in life worth protecting.

Rebbetzin Tzeporah Heller wrote a book called “Battle plans,” In this book she approaches the battle with the evil inclination like a general in command of an army, using all the options available at one’s disposal and military strategy. One of her most beautiful questions is to ask yourself, when faced with a temptation that is not in alignment of your values, is to think about what things you would be willing to die for. Judaism is not a religion about martyrdom, but when one sits and contemplates what values, people or situations one would die for, life takes immediate perspective. One never wants to, but if they must, would you die for what you believe in? No? then perhaps you are not onto this belief or it is not really connected to your core values. Many of us who have children, would -- GD forbid -- die instead of them. If one puts this thought into their mind during a particularly difficult parenting moment, the urge to wipe the child off the planet... well, it passes.

Most anyone will agree that a car seat for an infant is an absolute must. I always have panicky emotions when installing a new car it secure? Are the straps in the right place? Is the anchor tight enough? Placing a tiny new-born in the seat and driving with them for the first time... I drive like I am 136 years old!

We have been given literally the guidebook, the key, the secrets of the world, and of relationships, of conduct and insights into literally every aspect of life!

Pirkei Avot (the Saying of the Fathers) said three things:

1. Make a fence for the Torah

2. Be deliberate in judgment

3. Establish for yourself many students

I wanted to focus on one such fence the Rabbi’s and the Torah has in place for us, called Yichud. This fence is a lifesaver in so many ways! Yichud forbids a man and a woman to be secluded alone together over a certain age. (Most commentators say age nine but let us say bar/bat mitzvah for the sake of this conversation). This fence, what does it protect? Interestingly -- like most fences the Torah provides – the fence gives us enough time and space for a second thought; for the logical mind to make the decision instead of our hormones, emotions or impulses. The hope is that, in at act of climbing over the fence, one’s rational mind will take over again.

How many times have we burst out in anger and wished to ourselves that we had held our temper and calmed down before responding!? I am the two-a.m. person. I know just what I SHOULD have said at two a.m.!

There are about three hundred and fifty-nine pleasures of this world. There is a list, and I am still reading it, so will get back to you. Each form of pleasure has a drawback to it, such as the tummy ache you can get from eating too much ice cream. Pleasure in itself is not bad, in fact; one can argue, there is nothing bad out there. Judaism says a person is not bad either, neither are there bad middot (character traits); only what we may do with a middah that can change its status to damaging to us and others. Anger is one such middah, being angry at the injustice of the world is a brilliant use of anger; dressing down someone who thinks differently than you…not so much. Attraction between a man and a woman is a wonderful pleasure and an extraordinarily strong force! Love is the reason the world was created and a driving experience that spans all relationships. My kids always ask me, when I play secular music, what is this or that song about. I tell them they are about love! My kids, perplexed, ask if there are songs about anything other than love! We had to think about that a while, and we now have a substantial playlist of them.

There is a brilliant story in the Talmud about a Rabbi who was strolling in the forest. He caught sight of a young man and woman walking together. The Rabbi decided that the pleasures of the flesh may distract this young couple before they were married to each other in such a secluded forest, he began to follow them at a distance. His plan, when they were about to be intimate, was that he would be their fence and stop them by reminding them of the values they held. The couple walked along, came to fork in the road, said good night to each other and went their separate ways! The Rabbi was floored. Yes, Rabbis can get floored! How did they not succumb? He was so puzzled, then it hit him. The test was not for the couple, it was for the Rabbi! He knew that he has just thought through what he would need to say to himself if put before a temptation that great.

I was conversing with someone who was debating with me about the merits of keeping Shomer Negia, guarding against improper touching, another brilliant fence! His point was that touch for him meant nothing. I slammed my fist on the table in true Jewish debate fashion, startling the poor man and exclaimed, “that is EXACTLY why I keep it!” You see, for me, touch is super electric and incredibly sensual and stimulating! That is what touch SHOULD be! When you refine yourself, the pleasure becomes greater and more intense! We all know this with the on-again, off-again life diets. When one can eat anything and everything whenever, not much is exciting. When one saves special treats for special occasions, not only does one select a much more decadent and sophisticated treat, but the pleasure is incredible! Sugar and I do not get along. When I do crave sugar, I will not settle for some blah cookie. I make an investment! I want the most incredible chocolate this earth may have to offer. Swiss chocolate!

Keeping Yichud is quite simple. Never seclude oneself in private with another male or female that are not immediate relatives. If one must have a meeting alone, leave the door unlocked and let your secretary know who is in there and invite them to come in unannounced. A glass office window, keeping the door ajar, there are many polite and creative ways to be in public at all times. In my opinion, this beautiful tradition adds a great benefit in protecting a woman. If a man is tempted to behave inappropriately, he would try for seclusion, a dark park bench, his flat. I am not talking here just about an assault or attack, though Yichud is also quite helpful for avoiding that as well, but never do we blame a victim, never!

Harvey Weinstein used to invite actresses up to his hotel room to meet with him. I sometimes wonder if Harvey had to keep the laws of Yichud, could he have slipped into such a low impulse control space? Could some of those women have been saved the horrific experience they were subjected to, were he made accountable for keeping Yichud?

Yichud protects the man as well. As the #metoo movement took hold, some truly incredible and amazing changes, conversations, and sadly terrible revelations came out. A man who keeps out of seclusion protects his reputation as well as not placing a stumbling block in his path.

“Not me, I would behave, I would remember my values, I would be able to self-regulate,” one may say. Perhaps yes, perhaps not. Let me ask you, is the risk of losing oneself in the passion and desire for that one second, worth the possible consequence? The Rabbi in the Talmud recognized in himself the depth and power of these beautiful desires. They say the more a person studies and the more sensitive one becomes, the stronger the desires. It is true.

When one stale countertop cookie would disappear in a heartbeat in my “eat-anything-that-is-sugar-that-I-can-find” mode….only the most decadent and delicious treat will do if I hold that impulse in check and think about it a moment. Without checks and balances……. I can get right back to that cookie! On bad days, it is best not to even place the stumbling block in the house. Skipping the sugar aisle when grocery shopping and checking out in the magazine-only checkout keeps that cookie from even appearing on my counter. Filling my body with healthy fruits and yummy snacks that nourish and sustain me helps as well.

We are all out in the world looking for meaningful and deep connections that sustain and nourish us, why settle for multiple meaningless ones? Applying a well-placed fence, providing a few checks and balances, can refine and help us have the relationships and connections that are truly worth writing home about!

That which is precious to us, we must guard. The fences around the Torah are just that, protection. The next time one learns about a restriction within the Torah, ask oneself with an open mind. “What beautiful thing is this halacha protecting?”

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