I let my neighbour 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.


from Robert Frost’s Mending Wall


Rashi commenting on parshat bamidbar derives a lesson from the relative positions of the tribes in the desert. Moshe and Aaron’s families encamped to the east of the mishkan (Sanctuary). To their encampment’s immediate east dwelled the tribes of Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun. Rashi explains, “‘Good for the righteous and good for their neighbour:’ because these three tribes dwelled near Moshe, they merited to become great in Torah.”

Examining the verse upon which Rashi derives this lesson provokes a startling question: “Those who were to camp before the Tabernacle, in front—before the Tent of Meeting, on the east—were Moses and Aaron and his sons, attending to the duties of the sanctuary, as a duty on behalf of the Israelites; and any outsider who encroached was to be put to death (Bamidbar 3:38).” The verse depicts the role of Moshe and Aaron’s family in guarding the sanctuary. They were to keep outsiders like the tribes of Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun away from the Sanctuary. The neighbourliness of Moshe and Aaron was built upon the implicit threat that “any outsider who encroached was to be put to death.” What type of relationship or mentorship can be formed upon such impediments?

Reflecting upon the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, we can gain a new appreciation for both walls and neighbourliness. Before the Torah could be given at Mount Sinai, God commands Moshe, “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death” (Exodus 19:12). These instructions do not merely inform us that revelation requires boundaries. The revelation itself teaches the necessity of boundaries to live a good life. Jews experience the Divine through laws that guide our conduct and set limits. In hearing the call, “This yes, but that no,” we generate awareness for God’s presence in our day to day life. Contained within Moshe and Aaron’s protection of the Sanctuary itself was Torah. The tribes of Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun learned this Torah in watching their neighbours guard these walls.

Yet, good walls must lead to good neighbourliness and not squelch it. Torah must make us more attuned to the needs of others, and not (chas v’shalom) less so. In pirkei avot (2:9), Rabbi Yose teaches that the right path for a person to follow is “to be a good neighbour.” The Mishna commentary attributed to Rashi explains the reason that being a good neighbour is better than being a good friend, “A neighbour sees him all the time, day and night – and learns from his actions.” We carefully choose our friends; we have less discretion when it comes to our neighbours. This makes the task of being a good neighbour that much more difficult. As we celebrate zman matan torateinu, may we merit to not just be good friends, but also good neighbours.