In Parashat Shoftim, we encounter a wide assortment of laws that govern both civil and religious matters. As the name of the portion—Shoftim— suggests, there are laws about judges, the judiciary and public officials. There are laws about kings and how many horses he can have. There are laws about priests and prophets, cities of refuge, war and unsolved murders. It all makes for scintillating reading.
The law that I find among the most interesting is presented in chapter 19 and has to do with ensuring good relations among neighbors: Lo tasig gevul rei’echa asher gavlu rishonim…You shall not move your neighbor’s landmarks in the land that God is giving you. The law has to do with the way the boundary between two adjacent properties was marked, usually with a line of heavy stones or pegs in the ground. Hasagat Gevul, or encroaching on someone’s property, happened when a landowner would move the stones or pegs a distance outward to enlarge his own territory, usually in the middle of the night so as not to be seen doing it. Later codifications of Jewish law expanded the law against Hasagat Gevul to include other types of encroachment such as copyright infringement.
The law against encroachment was meant to achieve the most basic of all legal objectives, namely civility and respect for one another. In this case, the law was intended to control people’s impulses to act solely in their own self-interest and prevent neighbors from engaging in a form of stealing. In short, the law prohibiting hasagat gevul was meant to ensure that people would get along and live peacefully side by side.
We might say that the purpose of Torah is to inspire faith, to unite us as a people, to deepen our relationship to God, and all those assertions would be true. But a basic purpose of Torah is to create a society whose foundation is decency, fairness and consideration of others. In the end, we shouldn’t judge the quality of a community by the fervency of its prayers or by the faith of our most pious members, by how learned its members are or by how scrupulously the commandments are observed. Rather, we must judge our community by how we treat each other. Do we respect one another? Do we treat one another with decency and civility? Even more crucial, do we care for one another? Are we invested in each other’s welfare?
I ask these questions not because we have any soul-searching to conduct about how we treat each other. This is a good and caring congregation, made up of people who are responsive to each other’s need. But sometimes we all must be reminded that there are people in our midst who need a small gesture of help, an expression of companionship, a tangible and personal sign that they are noticed and that they matter.
Oheb Shalom is renewing efforts to take care of one another in ways that are coordinated as well as informal and the result of the normal and natural bonds of friendship. We’re excited to launch Connections, an initiative designed to connect us to one another and demonstrate in tangible ways that we care about one another. Overseen by Marilyn Kohan and Roberta Zweifler, this initiative will make connections between those who want to lend a hand and those who need support.
An email address firstname.lastname@example.org has been set up that will enable Marilyn and Roberta to make connections between those who need support and friendship and those who want to give support and friendship to a fellow Oheb Shalom member.
What type of connections are we hoping to make? We want to connect those who would appreciate a periodic phone call saying hello with those who are willing to make the call. We want to connect those who need a ride to a service, a program with those who can pick someone up. We want to connect those who are in the hospital or a rehab center for an extende stay with those who can visit. We want to connect those who would appreciate going to a movie or out to dinner but don’t have someone in their life to share that experience with someone who can deliver a treat or have lunch or dinner with someone. There are so many other ways we can all reach out to each other and become more connected as a community.
Lo tasig gevul rei’echa…You shall not encroach on your neighbor’s property. That seems like a minimal standard to me. Perhaps the law should say, “You shall not only not encroach on each other’s land, but you shall treat one another with respect, with love and with caring.” That’s a law that applies to us. And like all laws, its purpose is to remind us of what we already know, that the quality and depth of our community is measured by how we treat each other, by the connections we make to one another. This year, let’s resolve to connect to one another and ensure that no one is left alone in need of friendship and caring.