Parashat Shoftim

A Home Of Our Own: From Soweto To The Suburbs

The prohibition against encroaching on your neighbor's land teaches us that our own expansion and success must not compromise the success of others.

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I bought a new home recently. A major acquisition such as this has caused me to reflect on the meaning of having a home.

Two summers ago, visiting South Africa, I spent time in Soweto, the sprawling black city outside of Johannesburg. I visited with families in makeshift tin shacks with dirt floors and no electricity or running water. The South African government has been building new homes at a great pace, but it lags far behind the need. Families will wait years to receive a new home.

What struck me more than anything was the size of these new homes being built. They are row after row of dark, tightly packed one- or two-bedroom homes, which often house several families. The South African dream of homeownership was a shadow of the most humble home in which I've ever lived.

How can someone possess so nice a home when so many in the world settle for so much less? And how can the citizens of Soweto feel any satisfaction from the tiny homes they will acquire one day?

This week's Torah portion, Shoftim teaches the prohibition of hasagat gevul, encroaching on a neighbor's land.

"You shall not move your countrymen's landmarks set up by previous generations in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess."

Rashi, the 11th-century French master commentator, says regarding this:

"This prohibition occurs when a person moves his boundary marker into his neighbor's property in order to broaden his own territory."

Rashi goes on to explain that such behavior is also a violation of the basic prohibition against theft. Other commentators explain that even moving the marker a finger's breadth violates this prohibition.

Ramban (a 13th-century Spanish commentator) explains the psychology behind this prohibition.

"A person should not think, 'My property which I have been given is less than that of my neighbor's.'"

Ramban implies that by itself, the mental attitude of feeling that your property is inferior to your neighbors violates this prohibition, even before a person has actually moved their boundary markers.

The Talmud records a discussion that takes a similar perspective on the "boundaries" between businesses (Baba Bathra 21B).

Rabbi Huna: If a resident of an alley sets up a hand mill and another resident of the alley wants to set up one next to him, the first has the right to stop him, because he can say to him, "You are interfering with my livelihood."

Rabbi Huna ben Joshua said: It is quite clear to me that the resident of one town can [only] prevent the resident of another town from establishing a competing outlet in his town . . . only if [the latter person does not] pay taxes to that town, and that the resident of an alley can not prevent another resident of the same alley from establishing a competing outlet in his alley."

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Rabbi Phil Miller

Rabbi Phil Miller is the vice president of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore. He attended Yeshiva University in New York City and previously was the director of the 92nd Street Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.