June 29, 2020
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“The wide world is all about you: You can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

“Try to stop a parent. A parent will run through a barbed wire fence and then a brick wall for their child.” — Mark Schiff

Pirkei Avot (1:1) (Ethics of our Fathers): The Men of the Great Assembly commissioned their disciples to “build a fence around the Torah.” 

I can’t think of many things these days that aren’t locked up, fenced in or protected. We have prisons, guard dogs, alarms, cameras, bars on windows and border walls. We lock up guns and ammo and meds. We lock our phones and computers. Hotel rooms safes display warnings that the hotel isn’t responsible for the safety of your belongings. I know one place that locked up its defibrillator and, when someone keeled over and they couldn’t find the key, they had to break it open with a hammer. Luckily, the hammer wasn’t locked up. 

Growing up, I remember hearing about chastity belts. Imagine these days some guy saying to his wife or girlfriend, “Sure, I trust you but wear this when I’m out of town. Plus, I’m taking the key with me.” We told women we don’t trust you but you’ll have to trust us. And look how well that worked out. No problem there, right guys? 

In the 1950s, most people in this country didn’t lock their front doors. When I was a kid, if I wanted to visit a friend, I would just show up at their house unannounced. Today, except for Jehovah’s Witnesses, no one shows up unannounced. Nowadays, it would be considered rude or scary.

One thing a person should protect but also keep open is his or her heart.

When I was 12, at about 6 a.m. one Sunday, I went to see if my friend David wanted to go for a bike ride. David’s family lived in an apartment on the fourth floor and never locked their door. So, I tiptoed into the apartment and woke him up. A few weeks later, I went back, got off the elevator and walked into his apartment, first stopping in the kitchen for a glass of milk only to realize I was in the apartment one floor below. I finished the milk and left. 

Fences can be wonderful things. They keep what’s inside protected and what’s unwanted at a safe distance. Throughout Jewish history, our rabbis and leaders have erected fences to protect Jewish tradition, Jewish custom and Jewish communities and to keep out the unwanted influences. These fences are called siyagot laTorah (fences around the Torah.) On Shabbat, we’re not supposed to spend money. To keep us far from transgressing, rabbis erected a fence teaching us that we should not even touch money. That’s why I take my wife to malls and jewelry stores on Shabbat. I know she can’t touch money. 

I’m a married guy so I don’t usually chat with or spend much time alone with other women. A handsome guy like me is very vulnerable to who knows what. So, there’s a fence around me. And I love it. 

About a week ago, my wife caught me stealing. She had baked some cookies and told me not to take any. When she wasn’t looking, I snatched one. Our indoor camera recorded it. Now there’s a fence around the cookies. 

One thing a person should protect but also keep open is his or her  heart. That’s tricky. We need to protect our hearts but we also need to keep them open enough to let in people. Every human has had their heart broken. But if we lock up our hearts, we lock out many of life’s possibilities. Our hearts have to remain open and be ready to welcome the next person, place or thing. That’s why we give people we trust the key to our hearts. A closed heart can lead to a limited and unhappy life. Getting hurt is part of being human. I’ve been hurt and I’ve done the hurting. It’s never fun but it didn’t kill me either. 

So, pop by anytime. I won’t think you’re rude. The door will be locked but if I’m home, I’ll be happy to let you in. 

Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer.


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