Thursday, November 02, 2006

A fence around the Torah (Avot 1:1)

יום חמישי י''א בחשון תשס''ז

Yesterday, I posted about the first Misnah of Pirkei Avot, and the plan was to move on to the second Mishna, today. But I had some more thoughts that I wanted to share on that first Misnah (Avot 1:1):
Moses accepted the Torah from Sinai and passed it down to Joshua. Joshua passed it to the Elders. The Elders to the Prophets. The Prophets to the men of the Great Kenneset.
They said three things: be deliberate in judgment, raise up many students and make a fence around the Torah.
The common understanding of fence around the Torah is that it refers to things that are forbidden by the Torah, like eating pork or mixing milk and meat in the same dish. Building a fence means adding an extra level of things forbidden beyond what the Torah explicitly forbids. The reason for this extra level is to prevent you from accidentally slipping into doing something that is forbidden.

A commonly cited rabbinic fence then would be the ban on mixing chicken and dairy (think, chicken parmiagian). The Rabbis understood the Torah (that is, the first five books of the Bible) to explicitly ban eating beef and meat together; dairy and fowl were not so banned. And so the Rabbis added the fence of banning fowl and dairy together to prevent confusion about the law. They feared that someone might see a rabbi eating chicken parmiagian and think that it would be ok to eat beef and dairy together, too. The fence would prevent that.

We can apply this principle of a fence around the Torah -- that is, around things that are forbidden -- into parts of our lives that have nothing to do with eating. Certainly, no decent person, for example, would make a joke about dead babies (believe it or not, dead baby jokes were quite popular when I was a youth) if they knew a person in earshot had recently suffered the tragedy of losing an infant to sudden infant death syndrome. Any person with kindness in their heart would consider this forbidden.

But we can never know for sure what the experience and background are of the people we are in a room with. And, so, we should build a fence around this forbidden thing and refrain from dead baby jokes altogether. So, too, we should refrain about joking about people going up in ovens for fear of a relative of a Holocaust survivor being in the room. So, too, we should refrain from joking about lynching for fear that someone who is the descendent of someone who was murdered this way is in the room. Building a fence around the forbidden things helps us avoid causing unnecessary pain and hurt. We should always be asking ourselves where we need these fences in our lives. That is the practical lesson of the fence around the Torah.

May your day be free of pain -- and free of inflicting pain on others.

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