Roads and Cities

(This is a second angle on the same topic as my earlier Semitic Perspective post, as well as Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Behar.)Do roads exist to connect cities, or do cities exist to serve the roads? We naturally assume the former, that roads are built to allow people and goods to travel from one center to another.

However, historically speaking, it’s usually the reverse. Medina, in Saudi Arabia, grew from the crossroads of trading routes. Canaan was at the crossroads of three continents, and its very name comes from the word for “traders”. This is why the Israel of Na”kh was so often crossed by the soldiers of Assyria and Egypt, en route to the other to battle. And being at a traffic center placed us in the ideal situation to influence world thought. Because of the centrality of shipping, New York, Baltimore and Boston all grew around their harbors, and many European cities are on rivers — London, Paris, Budapest, Frankfurt, etc…

This is illustrative of a basic issue of perception, one which may not be the most central to Judaism, is perhaps most fundamental. It shapes the framework in which Jewish tradition looks at the world and frames its questions and answers.

Western Thought is based around the notion of “things”, devarim in the biblical sense — davar as object, dibrah as statement or idea. These are primary, and the relationships between them are seen as a consequence of the essence of those objects.

Our Mesorah seems to pretty clearly be based on the idea that “cities are defined by their roads”, in other words, that the essence of an object is in the roles it plays. And therefore, the word “boneh” means both “is building” and “builder”. While someone is building, he is a builder. The difference between a present tense verbs and active participles (a builder, a fisher, a watcher, a guard, a guide, etc..) is not meaningful from this perspective. (See also part II of the entry on tenses in Hebrew.)

Morally, Western Civilization places rights more central than duties. “Live and let live.” As long as no one else is harmed, an action should not be prohibited.

Jewish morality is founded on the opposite principle. As I wrote earlier:

Moshe Rabbeinu lacked his full prophetic gift from the time of the Golden Calf until the rise of the next generation. The Or haChaim explains that this is because “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” (Shevu’os 39a), which is usually translated “All Jews are guarantors one for another”. That’s consistent with another version of the quote, which ends “lazeh” (for this). However, “ba-“, in, implies a different meaning of the word “areivim”, mixture. All Jews are mixed, one into the other. Moshe’s soul did not stand alone, it is connected and overlaps those of the rest of the nation. When they lowered themselves with the calf, Moshe’s soul was diminished.

(The “bazeh” version is found in the Ein Yaaqov, which in general is considered more accurate than the Vilna edition of Shas.)

The notion of “areivim zeh bazeh”, or even “zeh lazeh”, is diametrically opposed to the west’s “live and let live”. We are not asked to respect the individuality of others; instead our attention is called to our need to relate to them. Giving someone space is appropriate in many situations, but not if it means one could stop self-destructive behavior but doesn’t.

A person is defined by the relationships he maintains. As I wrote on Pesach, those relationships are generally grouped by the internal one he has with himself, the one we maintains with G-d, and his relationship with other people — Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim. The ideals of Da’as, Rachamim and Tif’eres are the essence of the ideal self because they are the ideals of each of those relationships.

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  1. Rachack says:

    also relevent to this is another post you wrote, see this as well as this.

  2. One of my Rebbeim said in the name of Rav Chaim Shmuelovitz that there are four American slogans:
    1) Live and let Live.
    2) Mind your own business.
    3) (i forgot)
    4) Own dogs.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “And being at a traffic center placed us in the ideal situation to influence world thought.”

    Menachem Liebtag has also made this point. He posits that the idea of Israel’s borders ‘from
    Nahal Mitzrayim to Nehar Prat’ does not refer to a political border but that the Jewish people would influence the two main cultures surrounding them–Egyptian and Babylonian. And it’s not hard to argue that, to a great extent, Jews have done that–if not always in a Torah fashion–during the past hundred years or so.

  1. September 26, 2007 – י״ד בתשרי תשס״ח

    […] but ours. The only point in common in the three uses of the root is a realization of connectedness. I wrote last year: Do roads exist to connect cities, or do cities exist to serve the roads? We naturally assume the […]

  2. December 17, 2009 – ל׳ בכסלו תש״ע

    […] Roads and Cities […]

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