Love Thy (Next-Door) Neighbor as Thyself

I am a fan of The Twilight Zone, the TV series from the 1960s created by Rod Serling (Jewish!). Each episode is a story of science fiction, or psychodrama, or mystery, or horror, often with a twist ending.

One of my favorite episodes is “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” On a quiet suburban street the power goes out, affecting cars, appliances, telephones, and lights. The neighbors get together to figure out what is going on, and one goes off in search of answers. A boy speaks of reading stories about alien invasions, but he is not taken seriously. But slowly and randomly lights return, cars start, and people begin to suspect each other of keeping secrets. Accusations fly, tensions mount, and the neighbor who went off in search of help is shot upon his return. The neighbors then turn on each other, throwing stones and breaking windows until a full scale riot erupts.

At the end of the episode (spoiler alert) it’s revealed that aliens were actually controlling the lights with the aim of turning the neighbors against each other. As one alien explains to the other, if you just turn off people’s lights and control their machines, they will eventually become paranoid. “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find,” one alien says to another, “and it’s themselves.”

When it was produced, the episode could be a seen as a comment on McCarthyism, on the Red Scare and how community members turn on themselves. It still carries those overtones. But it can also serve as a commentary on simply how hard it is to live with each other as neighbors.

The episode is an extreme example, but living with our neighbors is a unique relationship we have in our lives which can be difficult at times to navigate. Unlike our family relationships that we are born into, which may be strained at times but nevertheless bind us, and unlike our marriages and partnerships, which we choose and enter into wholeheartedly, our relationships with our neighbors are more often than not due to happenstance and chance. We chose a place to live, and then meet and develop relationships with our neighbors.

It is because they are not chosen that these relationships can be challenging. Individuals and families wish to live as they choose. But this may run into how others choose to live their lives.

I’ve recently run afoul of my neighbors. The issue was mostly our cats, which we had let out, and our chickens, which had a habit of escaping and wandering off. We have subsequently made the decision to keep our cats indoors, and we reinforced the chicken fence and patched up the holes. Our animals are now contained.

Not, however, before we got an anonymous note in our mailbox, complaining about our chickens. “Please consider this a polite request from your neighbors…” began the letter. And after listing a series of chicken offenses, the letter threatened legal action and harm to our birds: “Please consider this a polite warning. The next one will be formal, legal and served by officers of the law….Don’t be surprised if they return home soaking wet. Be thankful they are returning home at all.”

This week’s Torah portion, Lekh L’kha in the book of Genesis, is about our ancestor Abraham’s call from God and his subsequent journey of covenant and discovery. But a good amount of the portion is Abraham navigating his relationships with his new neighbors, having made the journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan. (See Genesis 14, which is all about engaging his neighbors.) There is conflict and resolution, negotiation and acceptance. Sometimes the relationships are strained, sometimes they are cordial. But they all have at the heart of the matter the need to live with one another.

And this is our challenge — how we live together in community with people we don’t necessarily choose to be in community with it. I recognize the upset and anger expressed in the note I found in my mailbox, and I freely admit I overstepped (or rather, the chickens did), but the anonymity of the note bothered me. How can we heal and build relationships if we can’t talk to one another?

[This is one of the reasons I love the upcoming holiday of Halloween. The main observance, aside from dressing up, is going out in the street and going door to door, meeting our neighbors.]

These neighbor relationships are not easy. We tend to judge, and put our individual concerns over those of others. As Serling said in his closing narration from this episode of The Twilight Zone, “There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices–to be found only in the minds of men.”

But although we don’t choose them, these relationships are valuable and important—neighbors look out for each other and share resources. It gives new meaning to the commandment from Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” While we tend to think of this as “our fellow human being,” perhaps we need to start close to home, and love our next-door neighbors as ourselves first.

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