“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” So says Robert Frost in his famous poem, Mending Wall. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know – what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.”
There are those who imagine walling in all of the wealth of the Northern Hemisphere. Maybe sharing it out in trickles, charitable donations from the pockets of kind donors to the less fortunate, but keeping the dam high and making sure that most of the water stays on our side.
There are those who like to imagine walling out the bad guys, their drugs and weapons and crimes, their poverty … As if, on our side, we have no home-grown terror. As if we weren’t the ones making the guns and buying the drugs. As if, caravans of women and children seeking asylum are a military threat…
Stadiums of rally-goers these past few years have learned to chant, “build that wall!” as they are told tales of Illegal Alien Beings from Elsewhere Invading to take their share of the crumbs. Somehow, these same people seem not to mind golden toilets and tax cuts to the rich and other grotesqueries – only the thought of poor foreign-born children sucking stolen shares of food, education and healthcare from their scant provisions…
In case you can’t tell, there’s definitely something in me that doesn’t love a wall. And I find myself unconvinced about the need to spend billions more walling in and walling out at our Southern Border.
As I’ve witnessed the national debate, the government shut down, I keep thinking – there must be something symbolic going on here. Something archetypal. We can’t just be debating about concrete and security. Why is there such passion? What is it in my political opponents that loves that wall even as I side with Robert Frost?
This week’s Parashah, Terumah, is devoted to detailing a different ambitious building project, the mishkan or Tabernacle. Not a wall, but a traveling sanctuary, whose boundaries are curtains, whose guardians are priests. A mobile sacred space which will accompany the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings and even into the Promised Land.
You could say that the tabernacle is made in some sense to contain the very Presence of God, and yet, its edges are not made of rock or metal, but fine embroidered linen. It’s flexible, movable, beautiful, some might even say flimsy.
And I wonder… if it was strong enough to contain the Holy One Blessed be She … what could we learn here that we might apply to the boundary between Mexico and the Southern United States?
Lest I be accused of advocating “open borders” I want for a moment to explain that I do very much see the need for boundaries. Even my kindergartner can tell you about respecting personal boundaries. It’s one of those kindergarten rules, you know. And a good one. And if it weren’t for cell walls, and skin, and the walls of our houses, and the firewalls protecting our computers we’d all be freezing from exposure, plagued with viruses, and leaking life blood and data. We do need to wall in our blood and our bones and to wall out parasites and harmful bacteria. It’s a matter of survival…
I can see why a person might want to build a wall. If she was feeling under threat. If he was feeling so insecure that it seemed he might lose the means to thrive…
Trump was right when he named the class issue that drives the people to love the wall. In one of the most striking lines of his State of the Union, he pointed out that the people who love the wall are the ones who can’t afford their own private protections and privileges. Yes.
What he didn’t say was that his political power has been built on their backs — setting up the White American Working Class in a battle against immigrants. What he didn’t say is that as long as the poor people in this country are busy fighting Outsider Boogymen at the Southern Border, they will fail to unite with their working class immigrant counterparts and demand an end to the income inequality which actually drives their misery. And as long as all eyes are focused on that wall, we are not looking hard enough at the exploitation and neglect that leave poor people of all backgrounds without the education, healthcare, jobs and safety that government could provide if it wasn’t so busy building walls and the weapons we use to defend them.
In the end, it’s not what you’re walling in and walling out. It’s how you behave wherever you are. Even the highest, strongest wall can’t keep out crime or poverty or mortality – the root of all fear. And you can’t wall in health and happiness any more than you can wall in God.
You see it’s actually a mistake to think that the mishkan was all about getting God to come down and set up shop in the Holy of Holies. When the Israelites made the tabernacle, and even when they later built the Temple, they weren’t making a house for the Holy One Blessed Be He.
When we talk about making a place for God in our world, we aren’t talking about the physical relocation of God from UP THERE to DOWN HERE. Rabbi Ishmael in the Talmud, Baba Batra 25a explains that “the Shekhina, God’s Presence, is everywhere.” Or in the words of Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta in the midrash, “The Holy One is the place of the universe, but the universe is not God’s place,” (Gen. Rabbah 68:9). Or as the Kotzker Rebbe put it, God is where you let God in. Making a place for God in the world is more about opening our own hearts than about building something Out There in the physical world.
So then why the Tabernacle? If God is actually everywhere and the Israelites are not trying to entice God to physically move down to Earth, then what is going on?
I think it’s more accurate to say: it’s not about moving God, it’s about moving US. Us limited humans. Who need physical boundaries to remind us about holiness. Who come together with a whole community to designate certain times and places for the sacred dimension of life.
In truth, all of life and every moment is infused with God and holiness. But it’s hard for us to see it. We need the conventions of the ritual calendar and beautiful sanctuaries to remind us. To change, not where God is in the physical universe, but HOW we behave. What we DO in order that WE may Perceive God’s Presence.
We set up boundaries in time and space with the explicit intention of lifting up the holy dimension of life. Those lines are in some ultimate sense arbitrary. Shabbat could just as well be Tuesday as Saturday, but it helps for us all to align our practice and do it together. The Holy of Holies in the middle of the tabernacle traveled around in the desert for 40 years in many different locations. What made it holy was not inherent in a particular plot of land, but what the Israelites did in that place.
And I ask again — what would it be to consider our national boundaries more like that?
To remember that what makes our nation good and desirable and prosperous is not which military power is in control of which plot of land. It’s not about keeping the right people in and the wrong people out.
What makes our nation good and desirable and prosperous, and maybe even holy, is about how we behave, and the degree to which we embody the vision of our founding: that all human beings were created equal, endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The boundaries we need to defend right now are the boundaries defined by the human rights and freedoms at the heart of the American project. And if, in our attempt to defend the physical boundaries of America, we violate the best of what America stands for, then what have we become? Surely not the Sacred Society that we aspire to be, and that we can create, if only we remember the potential for Holiness in every place, and the spark of Divinity in every human being.