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fences to live by
middot separation daily living fences to live by

fences to live by

Written by  rebbetzin malkah

art-rockwallSomething there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
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.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
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'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
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 offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
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."                     

--Robert Frost, Mending Wall

While this poem has some length, I found it more than worthy for this article.  It is rich with lessons and symbolism that are perfect for the middah of separation. This particular poem dwells on three broad themes: necessary barrier-building, the seemingly doomed nature of this enterprise, and our persistence in this activity regardless.  This kind of perpetual wall-rebuilding is vital in a world where we are constantly challenged by a constant barrage of constant contact and relational quandaries.

things that do not love a boundary

The first words we encounter when we read this poem are these:

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,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

In the world we live in today, there is very little that responds to boundaries.  There seems to be this unnatural force that swells and loves entropy.  We get phone calls from people looking to sell us things, survey us and bombard us with special deals.  We are no less vulnerable in our emails.  Not only do we receive the same soliciting, but it goes further.  Spam is universal and sometimes we are aghast when we open our emails.  This is what we can call that "something there is that doesn't love a wall".  It is a force of this world which wishes to erode, knock down and disrupt the natural and safe boundaries we have set up.  This evil in the world can go on unchecked if we don't protect ourselves from its influence.  The gaps, or the passageway that it creates, can penetrate any spam filter, any do-not-call list.  The gaps are large and wide, allowing us to be assaulted easily.  But still, we must be vigilant and protect ourselves from such distractions.  We need to close the gaps.

mysterious gaps

Then there are those times in our lives that we are not as vigilant in our task.  Gaps and violations occur because we haven't been scrupulous in our fence tending.  We almost willingly let sin creep through the door, through our computers, through our televisions, through our interactions with others.

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

Here is the imagery of the hunter, doing whatever it takes, to out the rabbit and give it to the dogs.  This victory, this conquest, is what our yetzer hara would have as its ultimate goal.  We are somehow ambivalent as events are tearing through our own yard, busting up our fence and carrying on with great sport.  These are valiant conquests and feel exhilarating, whatever they may be, and their end result is rocks on the ground as a witness of the event.  With a barrier broken and an adrenaline surge, life carries on with a notable disruption in the fence line.  This springtime mending is a form of shuvah — a recognition of what must be fixed, for what must be repented. The rocks are a witness to the activity, that which cannot be hidden.

diligence in separation

As this seemingly annoying task is incumbent upon us, to examine our fences and make repairs, the poem shows the speaker's annoyance with such a hopeless task. I view the speaker as the one who is fighting with better sense, just as we wrestle with our yetzer tov and make excuses for why we don't need to do something.

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.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
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'.

The neighbor, to me, is the yetzer tov. He knows why there needs to be a fence: it is just good sense.  Yes, it is work to keep the fence maintained, but he knows it is for the greater good.  It is hard work maintaining that fence.  It supposedly "wears the fingers rough" handling the rocks, maintaining the boundary.  It might even seem petty, putting up a wall that takes so much effort to maintain.  But "good fences make good neighbors" can't be underestimated.  It is soul wellness-care.  It is vital.  Even if he is "all pine and I am apple orchard" — though it seems like there should be nothing to lure me to his side, or him to mine, it is a necessary distinction, a separation, that must be.

doubtful and foolish

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
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.

Sometimes we are as doubtful of a person's noble reasons for maintaining separation as the writer of this poem.  We scoff, think the person is ludicrous, and sometimes try and convince that being more "open" will help.  But do we know why these boundaries are necessary?  Do we care to ask why the wall needs to be?  Are we sensitive to what the wall is keeping out?  It isn't just about what will come on our side, but what might go onto the other side.  This selfish, foolish and doubtful way of thinking needs to be remedied.  Separation in this world isn't always about what might affect us, but what can cause damage to our neighbor as well. And yes, we can be that force that our fellow might be trying to keep out if we don't check ourselves.

As we ponder the words of this secular poem, I hope that you will take its words to heart.  While some may perceive this poem to be about a person who stubbornly and insistently wants to maintain boundaries for no apparent reason, I take the other side of the argument:  fences are necessary in our daily living, keep unwanted elements out, protect our neighbor from inadvertent elements from trampling in, and give a sense of what it means to be a good neighbor. 

I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; and lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down. Then I saw, and considered it well: I looked upon it and received instruction. —Proverbs 24:30-32

The power of worldly influence on our minds and desires is great. Let us not find ourselves as slothful and questioning the need for separation and spiritual diligence.  If we wish to draw closer to the Divine, we need to have barriers that allow us to move freely within our boundaries and remain safe from transgression.  We must diligently maintain boundaries of all types in our lives, keep them with purpose, and respect them ... for whatever reason they must stand.  In doing so, we will find that we will be a better neighbor.

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