‘Chaingate’ Parashat Shofetim 5778

Do you remember the “Deflategate” controversy, when the New England Patriots legendary quarterback Tom Brady was accused of deliberately deflating footballs to help his performance in a playoff game played in the freezing cold? Now imagine a new controversy, “Chaingate,” in which the Patriots are caught substituting a nine-yard chain for the standard 10-yard chain, giving them a shorter first down.

What does this have to do with our parasha? One of the many laws introduced in Parashat Shofetim is so obvious that it almost does not need to be written [Devarim 19:14]: “You shall not pull back (lo tasig) your neighbour’s border, which the earlier ones have set as borders in your inheritance, which you will inherit in the land that Hashem gives you, to possess.” Consider two people with property that share a common border. When the Torah was given, Google Maps was not yet fully operational and people relied on more primitive ways of delineating property borders. Some agreed-upon landmark – a boulder or a hill – was typically chosen to determine the borders, but in lieu of such a landmark, sometimes a chain-link fence or other similar man-made border would suffice. The Torah is telling us that it is forbidden to move the chains.

Why in the world would a person think this was not forbidden? Perhaps one might posit that as land cannot be moved, the mechanics of stealing land are sufficiently convoluted that moving the chains might be permitted. Indeed, the Talmud in Tractate  Sukkah [30b] teaches that “Land cannot be stolen”. However, the Talmud limits this law by explaining it to mean that a person who steals land does not acquire possession of the land[1]. The Talmud is telling us that while a person is able steal the Crown Jewels, he is not able steal land. The Talmud does not give a person permission to shift the border fence by ten metres.

The Midrash Sifre gives us a way ahead: “Haven’t we already been told, ‘Do not steal’? Rather, the Torah is teaching us that when we move the boundary marker, we are culpable for two offences. And lest one think that this law is applicable in the Diaspora, the Torah tells us ‘in your inheritance, which you will inherit in the land’. In the Land of Israel [a person who moves the boundary marker] has committed two crimes while in the Diaspora he has only committed one crime”. It is never permissible to move the chains – that would be theft – but in Israel, it is doubly forbidden to move them.

Now we have a new question to answer: Why do we warrant an extra sin by moving the chains only in Israel? The Ramban turns our attention to the end of the verse, “which the earlier ones have set as borders in your inheritance”. Who were these “earlier ones”? The Ramban suggests that these were Joshua and Elazar the son of Aharon, the two people who were responsible for divvying up the Land of Israel between the 600,000 immigrants who first entered the land. The Ramban asserts that when we move the chains, we are, in a way, besmirching – “pulling back” – the people who set up the borders in the first place. By moving the borders, we are insinuating that the borders could have been located in a better, perhaps more egalitarian, way. As Joshua and Elazar were not responsible for allocating land in Australia, moving the chains in Melbourne results in only one sin.

Rabbeinu Bachyeh Ibn Pekuda takes the Ramban’s explanation a step further. When trying to identify the “earlier ones”, why stop at Joshua and Elazar? What about Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov? Weren’t they the ones who settled the Land of Israel in the first place? Had they settled Hawaii, everyone would have beachfront property and we wouldn’t be moving the chains all the time. And why stop there? What about Hashem? Wasn’t He the one Who gave the forefathers the Land of Israel as an inheritance? Rabbeinu Bachyeh is telling us that by moving the chains, we are, at the end of the day, “pulling back” the supremacy of Hashem.

The explanations of the Ramban and of Rabbeinu Bachyeh can help explain why the Torah seems so very sensitive to moving the chains. On the day before Moshe dies, he tells Am Yisrael of a future event in which they will climb Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival in order to bless and to curse the entire nation. Moshe describes twelve curses covering a gamut of major infractions, including idolatry, adultery, and bestiality There, in the middle of the list of the most serious crimes that a person can commit, we read [Devarim 27:17] “Cursed be he who moves back his neighbour’s landmark.” Is the Torah really trying to equate between Chaingate and idolatry? According to the Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachyeh, the answer is “yes”. A person does not become an idolater in one afternoon. He does not suddenly pick up a clay doll and say, “Hey, I think that bowing down to this would be a terrific idea”. The road to idolatry is long and tortuous. In the words of the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [105b], “This is the craft of the evil inclination. Today it tells him do this and tomorrow it tells him do that, until eventually, when he no longer controls himself, it tells him to worship idols and he goes and worships idols.” The first step in idolatry is “pulling back” Hashem’s absolute mastery. After that, everything eventually falls like a house of cards.

The Midrash Sifre gives another example of moving the chains: “A person who misquotes the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer and attributes it to Rabbi Joshua and by doing so arrives at the incorrect halachic decision is guilty of pulling back”. In order to make sense of the amalgam of halachic opinions[2], our Sages have developed rules that determine the outcome of halachic arguments. One of the more famous rules is that whenever the House of Hillel disagree with the House of Shamai, the ruling is according to the House of Hillel[3]. Another rule is that whenever Rabbi Joshua disagrees with Rabbi Eliezer, the ruling is according to Rabbi Joshua. When a person misquotes a disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, he is by virtue of his misquote, changing the halachic ruling. The Midrash is asserting that this person is not simply a sloppy student. While he is not actively trying to reform halacha, his sloppiness has far-reaching halachic ramifications, “pulling back” the normative halacha.

Chaingate is so serious because whenever a society changes its long held mores, the changes begin as a result of “pulling back”. A recent example is Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Until the early 1990’s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was seen by nearly all Israelis as a terrorist organization whose only goal was the obliteration of the State of Israel. To the average Israeli, the word “PLO” brought up images of massacres at Munich and Maalot.  Yasser Arafat was the incarnate of evil. No sane person would ever consider talking with the PLO, not about peace, not about anything. Moreover, talking with the PLO was illegal. But sometime in the 1980’s, small groups of peace activists began meeting secretly with PLO representatives. When news of these meetings broke, the initial public response was anger and derision. But the mere possibility of meeting with the PLO, of considering them a potential partner, had entered the public discourse. Our sense of right and wrong had been pulled back. The chains had been moved. Eventually the people who met with the PLO were pardoned. Soon after, the law that forbid meeting with the PLO was rescinded. Then things began to move, at first slowly but then at an ever-quickening pace: Madrid, Oslo, the White House lawn, Gush Katif and Iron Dome. The pernicious PLO may have morphed into the palatable PA, but more than 1700 Israelis have been murdered since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993.

And all I can think of is “Cursed be he who moves back his neighbour’s landmark”…

ere’s

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Shoshana, and Dov ben Chana.

[1] When a person steals chattel, the object legally enters the thief’s possession. Subsequently, if the object is damaged while in the thief’s possession, he must pay damages to the owner. In all cases, the thief must eventually return the stolen object to the original owner.

[2] According to the popular adage: Three Rabbis = Four opinions.

[3] Other than a few exceptions noted in the Mishna [Eduyot 1:12-14].

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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