Praying from the Walls of the Heart and from the Heart of the Walls

Building a wall or tearing one down. The question has taken on new urgency.

On one side are the promises and the orders – a high wall to protect the southern border, a wall of tariffs to hold back the ills of globalization, a wall to ward off those who come from nations and religions perceived as threats. On the the other a push to break down the barriers, to open global borders, to refuse to close the Golden Door proclaimed on the Statue of Liberty. But no one lives in a world without walls and no one lives completely behind them.

There are physical walls that define our space and separate our property from others. Legal walls that determine the limits of our rights. Emotional walls that can hold back growth but also can protect our well-being.

A teaching in the Chapters of the Fathers deals in its own way with the question of how open or closed to keep our boundaries. The Sages claim that there are four different character traits regarding how to treat one’s property and that of others. Unusually pious people say “what’s mine is yours” without wanting anything in return. The wicked say “what’s yours is mine” with no expectation of compensation. A third approach, described as that of a fool, is “what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours”. And that leaves “the regular person” (beinoni) who says “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” So far so good. However, the same source tells us that that last approach is called by some “the way of Sodom and Gomorrah.” The main crime of Sodom was a pathological refusal to help those in need and a society devoid of hospitality. Their callousness was so complete that G*d decided to rain fire and brimstone upon them. So not so good.

How can someone who just minds their own property lines and respects other’s property be both a regular person an also be seen as so terrible that they should be compared with a city doomed to destruction? One way to understand the source is by differentiating between the reality of our everyday life and the values of a society. Almost no person can live without caring about what they have and letting others worry about their own things. Only the rarest souls can do otherwise and the world could not function if everyone tried. However, when this necessity becomes a central ideology of society, when “what’s mine is mine” becomes enshrined as a virtue there is no responsibility felt at all for the well-being of others. No thought as to what is the fate of someone on the other side of the wall. No wrestling with the balance of “what I have” and “what you have.” And it is then, the Sages say, that the silhouette of Sodom begins to emerge.

So what should we do with walls? Pray from them.

The Talmud talks about a prayer that comes mkirot halev, from the walls of the heart. At first glance this phrase seems like a way of saying “from within the heart”. But to pray from the walls of the heart means more than praying from within the chambers of the heart. To pray from the walls of the heart is a commitment to will one’s heart open precisely at the place that could block the flow of compassion. To recognize that in a world with hard edges, walls may be necessary, but they are the inspiration for new efforts not the answer to a prayer.

We will always live in a world with walls and some may need to be hardened. Our Sages teach us to never allow that hardening to extend to the walls of our heart.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Georgia.
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