Walking the London Wall - Matot-Masei (Rosh Ḥodesh)
A few weeks ago, I spent the day with my sister walking along the route of the London Wall. There’s not a lot left of the London Wall, as it turns out - but it’s a kind of scavenger hunt to find the points at which the wall is standing and exposed. From when this wall was built, around the year 200 of the common era, it defined the shape of London - or Londinium, as it was then known. Jasmine and I are both Londoners, but neither of us have ever lived within the tiny area that the wall once surrounded. I commented to her along the way that it felt like London just burst forth from its walls, that it got too big to be contained and spilled forth across the land. At the time I was being facetious, but as we continued our adventure around the perimeter of Londinium, I learned that I wasn’t entirely wrong: large areas of the wall were demolished specifically to allow for traffic and building. Maybe it wasn’t quite the dramatic bursting forth that I imagined, but London really did just get too big for its walls.
The Prophet Zechariah comments similarly on the existence of a city wall. I came across Zechariah’s wall a few days after seeing Jasmine, after wondering about what it means for a city to get too big for its barriers. And I realised that I had entirely misunderstood Zechariah’s point. See, pencilled into the margins of my Tanakh, I had entitled this dream of Zechariah’s as: Jerusalem is measured. But I was wrong. The story goes something like this: the Prophet Zechariah dreams a dream in which a man approaches him with a measuring line. When Zechariah asks what the man is doing, he responds: “I am measuring Jerusalem.” The future Jerusalem of the perfected world will surely require walls, according to the man with the measuring line. But then an angel responds that Jerusalem is to sit as an unwalled city - due to the great number of people and animals, and God will be a wall of fire surrounding the city. Jerusalem never gets measured in that story, because Jerusalem is not to be outfitted with walls.
The walls of London and Jerusalem were built for protection. A walled city is a more difficult city to take in battle. At first glance, Zechariah’s dream might seem to be saying: the Jerusalem of the future will not need the protection of walls. Jerusalem will be protected instead by God.
But if that’s the case - if it’s about how a city understands its safety, where it sources its protection, in God or in walls - why does Zechariah specify that Jerusalem must be unwalled due to the number of people and animals? It seems to me that Zechariah is telling us two different things about walls:
1. Walls have protective value. This is why cities build walls. This is why our houses have walls, why doors have locks. Protection.
2. Walls establish boundaries. This might be why we build a wall between our field and our neighbour’s field - to establish the boundary between our properties. But - and this is important both to Jerusalem and to London - by establishing those boundaries, we lock ourselves behind them, and we stop ourselves from being able to grow beyond them.
That latter reason is why the perfect Jerusalem of the future must be unwalled. Because an unwalled city is a city free to grow, free to respond to the needs of the people who dwell there. In order for a walled city to grow, the firm walls of protection need to be dismantled. Instead, they are replaced with the wall of fire, which can protect while also being malleable and responsive.
We have spent a lot of time recently behind walls. It’s for good reason. There is a shelter and protection afforded by staying at home, a shelter and protection from an intermingling society spreading a contagion. But there is a downside to dwelling behind walls. What we trade for that protection is a setting of a boundary we might not want set. They keep us quite literally from one another. And what we trade for that protection might be an inability to grow beyond the walls without needing to leave destruction in our wake. It is important, I think, to turn our eyes to those places we might have stopped growing. Adventures we have missed out on. Love that we haven’t expressed. Seeing the faces of those who are beyond the walls. Seeing the people we live with as holy and important and not as part of the furniture we trip over every day.
Lotte just read for us a Haftarah from the Prophet Isaiah. And she did it so very beautifully, giving voice to the Divine as God declares that God does not really need the Temple that the people are so desperate for. “The heavens are My throne,” says the Holy One, “and the earth is My footstool. Where could you possibly build a house for Me?”
It is, I think, a great call to remember the purpose of walls. If the idea of God’s Temple goes wrong, then it becomes us imagining ourselves folding God down into a contained and containable space. It becomes about boundaries we don’t really want enforced, boundaries that don’t really make any sense when it comes to the Divine. But that doesn’t mean that there is no use for a Temple. What it means is that the Temple only has value when we understand its purpose. Done well, the Temple allows us to have a connection to holiness that we can understand. It allows us to protect a ritual experience that cannot exist anywhere else.
Well, in this case, we’re not so different to God. The walls of Jerusalem and London, the walls of our houses and our synagogues, should be there to serve us. When they fold us down into a containable space that we cannot grow in, that’s when we are serving our walls instead. My blessing for you, Lotte, as you become Bat Mitzvah - and for all of us as we negotiate our spaces and our comfort in moving out of this pandemic - my blessing is this: let’s grow beyond the walls. May we always understand the difference between protection and confinement. And may we be blessed with the courage to tear down walls that are no longer serving us.