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Shoftim 5781 ~ August 13, 2021

Recently, Lisa and I drove by one of the homes we had thought to purchase when we moved here to the New London area.  One of my initial concerns with the home was the fact that the neighbors seemed to encroach on the property in an unsightly fashion. For example, they placed their kayaks and bicycles on the grass at the edge of the property boundaries without concern for their next-door neighbor. With room behind their home, they chose instead to make an ugly statement.  In our recent drive by we noticed that the new homeowners must have also had the same uneasiness. We noticed that a brand-new wooden fence now separated the two properties, with no kayaks or bicycles in sight.

The concept of has-agat ha-gevul, encroaching on the border of another, is one of the concepts found in our Torah reading for this week. The Torah reminds us of a need to be protective not only of our own property, but that of others as well. That responsibility goes far beyond land. It includes being protective of another’s intellectual property, customers, and clients, and defaming a person’s character, especially for self-gain or simply to destroy another’s reputation.

One might wonder if the “Pepsi challenge” might have been construed as has-agat ha-gevul.  I am certain that Coca Cola might have initially thought so, but then realized they were receiving free advertising. Many companies require individuals to sign non-compete clauses forbidding individuals from poaching clients or from even working within a designated mileage for a certain period of time, to ensure that infringement as described in the Torah would not take place.

Our society has set up certain rules to protect others. For example, copyright laws have been setup to protect inventions, products, creative writing, etc. In Jewish tradition, if one hears or learns from someone else, one is required to state whom they learned it from. The discussions in the Talmud always state: “rabbi x learned this from rabbi y” or “rabbi y stated in the name of rabbi x.”

In one of the communities in which we lived, one of my congregants lived next to the shul driveway. I lived across the road in the synagogue parsonage. One day, he told me that his fence that bordered that driveway went a few feet beyond his property line on to the shul property. He was proud of the fact that it was now his land. Since he was also the current president of the shul, I was somewhat dumbfounded by his desire to cheat the shul out of its property. Needless to say, thirty-five years later, the fence is still in the same place. His rational was the since no one would say anything or dispute it, it was his for the taking.

This week, Instagram took this concept to an even greater degree when it suspended Marjorie Taylor Greene’s account for blatant misinformation. Her defamation of others and outright lies regarding so many different areas including the scientific realities of our current pandemic, crossed boundaries the level that the Torah was attempting to protect the rights of others with many more legalisms beyond that of has-agat hagevul.  However, her comments and actions can truly be considered beyond simple encroachment.  Our democratic society has similar laws for precisely the same reason.

The opening words of our Torah reading for this Shabbat remind us that every society will set up judges and justices in the land, and they must be impartial in judgement. The rabbis of the Talmud were quite clear in reminding us that every human being was created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. In that regard, it is our responsibility to protect who they are, always trying to understand the other, by standing in their shoes. The rabbis remind us to judge “b’chaf zechut,” favorably and when needed with the benefit of the doubt.

In Pirkei Avot, we are instructed:

  • We should judge all people favorably.
  • Never judge your friend until you put yourself in his position.
  • One who judges his or her fellow human being favorably, will in turn be judged favorably.

The Torah’s admonition regarding has-agut hagevul, guides us to understanding that we should not only protect our own property and reputation, but that of others as well. It is easy to find fault with another and speak of our own negative views in that regard. Our rabbis teach us that a more difficult, yet more appropriate way is to respectfully discuss the matter with the other. 

In business, competition is healthy. Imagine if we could only have the choice of one computer brand or one cellphone brand, for example? It is how we or they approach that competition that defines who we or they are.

As we begin our new joint venture of sharing a sanctuary as a tenant with Temple Emanu-El, in what we hope will, in the near future, be a joint venture in a community campus, may we work together to create a mutuality that will sustain each other in a most healthy and productive way.

In a similar manner, as we have now entered the penitential season, let us be mindful of how we can respect the image of God, not only our own, but that of our neighbor, our competitor and yes, even our enemy.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782