“If you turn away your feet.”
Today’s reading opens with a familiar parable from Rabbi Meir: if one negates an eruv in one city that he originally established without identifying a new one in a city that he may be traveling to, he is like the person who moves a donkey forward by walking behind it and pulls a camel ahead by leading from the front. In other words, he is pulled in both directions and is left without a spiritual residence on Shabbat. We are told that as a result his movement is restricted to two thousand cubits from the city he has left and a location along the way to another city.
We return to the construct of a “convenient pauper” that was introduced the previous day. We are told that if a person is fortunate enough to have two residences, he is permitted to leave one city where he has a home and travel to the other, unlike the less privileged that must remain within the city limits of their only homes. We are told that the person with two homes gains an additional two thousand cubits of allowable space on Shabbat and can travel four thousand cubits.
The person with two homes can travel between towns because he has gained the legal status of a pauper and is supposedly temporarily homeless when he travels from town to town, while those who only have one home are “wealthy people, as they are in their houses and have food.” This appears to be some type of twisting of the code for the truly privileged who have a special dispensation because they can travel between their multiple homes, while those who are left behind in their single abode are restricted in movement. This feels a bit like the wealthiest and most powerful among us who are able to declare no income and circumvent the tax laws while the hard-working middle class keep paying their due.
If someone straddles his allowable space with one foot within his boundary and one foot outside it, there is some debate on whether he can reenter his Shabbat limits. Aherim attempts to settle the debate with the practical solution that one is “attributed to the place where the majority of his body lies, and therefore, it is permitted for him to enter, as he stepped out with only one foot.” We are told that if a person is one or fifteen cubits beyond the limits of a town, he may reenter because the surveyors at the time were prone to error and “do not precisely demarcate the measures.”
Today’s passage reverberates with a consideration of what constitutes a city. Is it the landmarks, actual city limits, the people who contribute to its energy and industry, its cultural and educational institutions, or its sweeping skyline? Cities have personalities just like people, with some bold and brash, and others quiet and subdued. I fell in love completely and deeply with disorderly New York City when I was growing up in New Jersey through the movies. Films that shaped my consciousness of New York included (dare I say it) everything by Woody Allen, Working Girl, Tootsie, Moscow on the Hudson, Crossing Delancey, and Next Stop Greenwich Village. I promised myself as a child that if I could find my way to New York City, I would never leave.
I arrived in New York City in 1980 for graduate school at New York University and I am still here and committed to staying as those with second homes have left for what must feel like more normal lives. I have lived through the AIDs crisis, the crack epidemic, September 11th, the black-out, hurricane sandy and now the pandemic. Many consider these to be the worst of times and editorials have been written suggesting that this period is different and unlike in the past, New York will not come back. These are certainly difficult times, and I understand how it might not make sense to live in the densest city in America during a pandemic when all the benefits, like attending the Opera and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a restaurant with a bustling crowd are not possible.
I am told for better or worse I am a glass half full person and do not always grasp the warning signs of danger ahead, but still, I cannot fathom that New York is not one of the greatest places to live on earth. Call me optimistic or foolish for staying behind, but I remain committed to riding this period out so that I can witness this city’s revival. And unlike the purveyors from the time of the Talmud, I am very certain of the city limits – they are the boundaries of what I can contain within my heart of for a city I love as much as life itself.