The Boundary of Boundaries Shavuos Yizkor

3,325 years ago, our ancestors gathered around a modest-sized mountain to receive a set of laws that would change them and the world forever. Thanks to our tradition, we know not only what was taught at Mt. Sinai, we have a sense of what this momentous scene looked like. The mountain was small. The mountain miraculously sprouted flowers. There was thunder, there was lightning. According to the Talmud, G-d dislodged and lifted the mountain over the Jewish People’s heads. All of this is well-known. But there’s one detail which I think we all miss when we imagine what the giving of the Torah looked like. And it’s not just a detail.

In His instructions to Moshe three days before the giving of the Torah, G-d demands that boundaries, or a fence, is to be built around the mountain. “V’higbal’ta et ha’am saviv/ and create boundaries for the nation around [the mountain].” On the day of the giving of the Torah, G-d reiterates, ‘Warn the people not to overstep those boundaries!’ Moshe pushes back, “Lo yuchal ha’am la’ah’lot” They won’t go up the mountain, I told them not to. But G-d doubles down: Remind them. Do not cross the boundaries.  

Clearly, those boundaries were not just a security fence to prevent crazy fans from storming the stage, they were a fundamental feature in the giving of the Torah. They symbolized a core value of Judaism; Havadallah, separation – the ability to distinguish between one idea and another, and the ability to differentiate between one person and another. For us to live in this complicated world, we need to know where holiness ends and the mundane begins, where good ends and bad begins, and perhaps more importantly, we need to know where I end and you begin. There needs to be boundaries between each person and the next.

A life without boundaries, in which if you want something from me or I want something from you and you and I are unable or unwilling to say no, that’s a life that will quickly fall apart. People who do not have personal boundaries burn out, feel overwhelmed, and at times feel like they don’t really know who they are because everything they’re doing is for someone else. V’higbal’ta et ha’am saviv. Create boundaries, G-d says, so you can live a life of values, your life, your values.

Last summer, I wrote a short Facebook post which I want to share with you this morning. The background to the piece is as follows: I grew up on stories of strangers showing up in a town looking for a place to eat. Usually, these strangers were dirty and rude and exceptionally difficult. And usually, as the story goes, no one wanted to take them in. The upshot of these stories would always be that this stranger was really Elijah the prophet, or the father of the Chassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, or even Mashiach. Had the people of the town just invited him in, the Messianic era would have arrived. Those are the stories I remember being moved by as a child.

As I got older, those stories became more difficult to live up to. One particular weekend this summer, I was feeling quite tired. I was low on emotional energy, and because of that, there were a number of times over that weekend, I felt I had to say no. I felt guilty saying no, but eventually I put my guilt to rest, and I wrote as follows:

“If Mashiach does not come this week, it’s likely my fault…

The Baal Shem Tov called me Erev Shabbos asking to join us for a meal. I hadn’t spent a Shabbos meal with two of my children for a month and the “Baal Shem Tov” needs a lot of attention, so I said no. 

Eliyahu Hanavi came knocking on my door on Shabbos afternoon. I really needed some sleep, we were hosting a big shalosh seudos and ‘Eliyahu’ is not always an easy guest, so I turned over and went back to bed.

Mashiach himself called Motzei Shabbos. He was going through a hard time and needed to vent. I was exhausted after Shabbos, so I let the call go to voicemail. I’ll call him back on Monday.”

I continued the post with a rationalization:

“We’ve been knocking on G-d’s door for quite some time now. I’m not sure what His excuse is, but He keeps on saying no. And that’s clearly okay. It doesn’t mean He does not love us and care. Only that now is not the time.

I believe be’emunah sheleima, with perfect faith, that He will eventually open that door and let us in. But for now, He’s playing the long game. And He’s giving us permission to do the same.”

I was very proud of this piece. (Clearly, I just shared it with you.) I was proud because boundaries are clearly fundamental to Judaism. V’higbal’ta et ha’am saviv. And I felt like that boundaries don’t get enough attention.

But with time I came to regret writing it.

Because you see, in addition to the regular Torah reading we read that highlighted the need for boundaries, we also read the Book of Ruth. The book of Ruth begins with a man named Elimelech, a wealthy man, a leader. But there’s a famine in the land and he is feeling overwhelmed by the line of people knocking on his door. They need guidance, they need money, they need his attention. And at some point, he decides he needs to set up boundaries to protect himself. He packs his belongings, and he and his family move away from Israel. If he had a therapist, she would likely be proud of him – you need to have a sense of self. So he creates a new life in a place where he is not called upon to help others, he creates a new life with healthy boundaries. It’s a place that has a motto endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, “Mah sheli, sheli, mah shelach shelach. What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” Only that the boundaries that he and his sons create are so good, are so impervious, that he and his sons whither away and die.

The turning point of the story is when Ruth, Elimelech’s daughter-in-law rises above those boundaries, when she literally crosses a boundary, the border between her comfortable home country and the foreign land of Israel, when she gives up her own future to care for someone else. In the final chapter of the book, Ruth, the protagonist of the story, and Naomi, the woman she is caring for, their identities start to bleed into the other, to the point that Naomi is described as the mother of Ruth’s child and at times, it’s not clear from the text who is talking and who is who (see the k’ri and k’siv’s). It’s a boundary-less world. And it’s in that boundary-less world that the people are redeemed, that blessings are restored to the nation, and in which King David, the savior of Israel, and grandson of Ruth, is ultimately born.

To be clear, boundaries are important. Every negative prohibition in the Torah is effectively a boundary. “Thou shall not,” is the Torah’s way of saying step back, don’t do. And there are more negative prohibitions, or boundaries, in the Torah than there are positive commandments.

And yet, in the odd circumstance that the two conflict with one another, when the only way to fulfil a positive commandment would be to violate a prohibition, we are taught, asei docheh lo sa’aseh. The positive, the breaking free, the overcoming limitations, supersedes the boundary-making prohibition. As the Ramban beautifully explains, a positive Mitzvah is an act of love, a negative prohibition is an act of awe, or stepping back, and love, the act of breaking free from our constraints is more important and therefore more powerful than creating a boundary.

If we could read the thoughts of the people in this room while Yizkor is recited, the positive memories that will be conjured are not when a spouse said no, or a parent said, enough, or a friend said, not now. The memories that inspire us to cry and to miss and to yearn are memories of when our loved ones went the extra mile, memories of the times they really didn’t have the time but made the time, memories of the times they broke free from what was expected of them.

I’ve been to too many funerals in my life, and I’ve heard too many eulogies. At none of them did anyone ever get up and say, “She was so special. She had incredible boundaries.”

To be clear and to reiterate, boundaries are important for our survival. We cannot be a shmattah if we want to accomplish anything in this life. We do need to say no. We do need to let some calls go to voicemail – even if it is a loved one calling. We do need to take time for ourselves. But if we all have is boundaries, if we all we do is say no, then we have nothing at all.

Ruth teaches us that Mashiach is indeed knocking our door. She’s pulling on our sleeve, begging us for attention. She’s off to the side at kiddush, trying to figure out how to start up a conversation. She’s sorry but doesn’t know how to apologize and is hoping we could help her by taking the first step. She’s sitting across the table from us at home, just hoping we could put our phone down and give her some much-needed attention. The world as we know it began when G-d told Moshe to set up boundaries, but Mashiach, the redeemed world, will only come when we break our boundaries down.

So if I could ask you on this Shavuos during which we commemorate the need for boundaries and the recognition of their limitations, on this Yizkor morning during which so many of us recall our loved ones and all of us are reminded that one day we too will be recalled,

Will we be remembered as cliquish or friendly with all?  

Will we be remembered as being stingy or as being generous, with our time, resources, and energy?

Will we be remembered as one who forever held onto grievances – a boundary too many of us hide behind, or as one who would always seek to forget and to forgive?

Will we be remembered for never being available to our family, friends, and community, or for creating time, or just being more honest, that there is always more time for what’s really important?

Simply put, will we be remembered for constantly extending ourselves or will we be forgotten behind our boundaries?

A Lesson from ‘Jewish Matchmaking’

Knowing that we had an aufruf this week, I decided to do some very important research. There is a brand-new show on Netflix, called, Jewish Matchmaking. It’s a reality show about dating and all the participants are Jewish. And so naturally, it was very important for my work at shul to watch the show, for research, of course.

In all honesty, I would never in a million years watch a show like this. However, the last time Netflix had a show depicting Orthodox Jews it was a shanda. This show, I was told, does a wonderful job. And they do. Most of the ‘daters’ on the show are not Orthodox but the shadchan, Aleeza Ben Shalom, is warm, friendly, very wise, and very Orthodox. The show constantly breaks from filming the individuals dating to Aleeza, who literally shares a d’var Torah, a thoughtful Torah-based message on dating. How beautiful is that?

That said, I felt like I lost a million brain cells watching one episode. Reality television is… inane.

However, I did learn an extremely valuable lesson from the show. You see, Aleeza, the shadchan, meets with a client, someone who is single looking to get married. She interviews them by asking them questions to get a sense of what they’re looking for in a spouse. After the interview she is left with a list of what they are looking for. Here is one example of a list she created after an interview with one woman. This is what this woman is looking for:  

Someone who… Celebrates High Holidays

  • Keeps Shabbos at the family home
  • Is family-oriented
  • Someone who treats her like a queen

And – has amazing eyebrows. That’s right, amazing eyebrows. This young woman takes her eyebrows very seriously, she calls herself the eyebrow queen, and she wants someone who can match her eyebrow awesomeness. And you know what happens next? Aliza, the shadchan, finds her a date, based on five criteria! One of them being eyebrows?! And yes, his eyebrows were magnificent.

It dawned upon me, after the shock wore off, that I have made very few matches, very few shidduchim in my life. I have set up an embarrassingly low number of people on dates. I know a decent amount of people so you would think that I’d be setting people up left and right, but I don’t. The main reason I don’t is because I’m concerned that whatever idea flits through my mind – it’s not a good match. Yes, they line up in this regard and that regard, but there’s another part of them that doesn’t exactly match up. If I am going to set someone up, I want to be confident that this is a perfect match. Perfect. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time and so unless it’s perfect, I bite my tongue.

Now the irony of this is that about 17 years ago, a good friend of mine suggested that I date someone. Why? “Well, your father and her father are both in the music industry.” I was like, ‘Wow, that is the dumbest reason to date someone.’ And I didn’t listen to him – initially. But had I listened to him I would have found my wife two years earlier.

Now I am not suggesting that we get inspired by Jewish Matchmaking and start setting up two people just because they’re human. That is unfair and completely disrespectful to the people you are supposed to be helping. Nor am I suggesting that you turn to your friend or child who is single and tell them to stop being picky. It’s their life and they’re going to hopefully live with this person for the rest of their lives. We need to have a little – actually, a lot, more respect for people who are looking for a soulmate. But what I did learn is that we cannot allow the perfect to get in the way of the good. I had refrained from setting people up because I couldn’t do it perfectly, and that’s a really bad approach. I may not be a perfect shadchan, but I am sure I can do a decent job. I can come up with ideas of people who have enough in common, you know, they both have nice eyebrows, and I can make a suggestion or two or three. This Netflix show taught me to not let the perfect prevent me from the good.

And so Friday morning, I took a break from everything I was doing, including writing this sermon, and wrote a list of people I know who are looking to get married. A list of men and a list of women and I looked at it. I didn’t come up with anything so I saved the file and placed it on my home-screen so I could revisit it from time to time.

The truth is, most people get set up with their life partner by friends, not by professional matchmakers. And all this time, I’ve been holding back because I didn’t want to do a less than perfect job. How silly. I have the ability, we all have the ability, every one of us, to help someone out in something so important, so life-altering. How long does it take to write a list of people you know who are single and looking to get married? Five minutes? Twenty minutes? How much energy does it take from us to look at this list for a few minutes every week and to make a phone call here and there? Don’t allow the perfect to get in the way of the good.

This idea is actually found in the opening lines of Parshas Bechukosai. G-d tells the Jewish People if they keep the Mitzvos, it will be good for them. But if you read the text carefully, you’ll notice, G-d doesn’t say, “If you observe my Mitzvos, I will reward you.” Instead, He says, “Im b’chukosai teileichu, if you go on the path of My laws.” What does that mean, “to go on the path of My laws?”

Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains that Mitzvos are not an all-or-nothing enterprise; you either keep all 613 or there’s no point in keeping any of them at all. That’s wrong. That’s frankly impossible. We’re human. We’re going to always be falling short in our Mitzvah observance. That’s not how G-d judges us. He judges us by which path we are on. “Im b’chukosai teileichu, if you go on the path of My laws.” Which path are we on? In which direction are we heading? Are we moving closer to Mitzvah observance? Are we moving closer to G-d or are we moving further away? G-d does not expect us to be perfect, He expects us to be good and to try and to stumble, and to keep moving forward.

There’s a woman in our shul who you may not have seen in a very long time, Estelle Levitas. If you bump into her, she will tell you why she’s not here at shul on Shabbos morning. (She also gave me permission to share this with the congregation.) She’ll tell you how she used to drive to shul, but then over Covid, she wasn’t driving to shul, she wasn’t driving anywhere. And I remember speaking to her at the time and she jokingly said, I’m sort of keeping Shabbos now. And I corrected her, “No, you are keeping Shabbos.” But I’m using the phone, she argued. “Still, you’re keeping some parts of Shabbos. Is it perfect? No, it’s not. But you’re on the right path.”  

And then she kept Shabbos for another week and another week and another week. And eventually she said, you know what, I am keeping Shabbos. She stopped using the phone on Shabbos and will not drive. And that’s why you don’t see her here on Shabbos mornings.

It is so inspiring to know someone who could make a major life decision in their 90’s. That’s not easy. But what’s even more inspiring to me is that she didn’t paint herself as keeping Shabbos or not keeping Shabbos. She was able to appreciate how she was on the path, even if things weren’t “perfect,” and to appreciate how meaningful being on that path really is.

How often do we box ourselves in? I am observant, I am not observant. I keep this Mitzvah, I don’t keep that Mitzvah. That’s not how G-d looks at us, that’s not the way we should look at ourselves. Perfect doesn’t exist. The only question is which path are we on? In which direction are we going.    

I’ll share with you one more story, another woman in our community, who I will not name. She grew up keeping Shabbos but at one point in her life, due to significant trauma, she found herself no longer able to do so. But she really really wanted to. About a month ago, she decided she was going to observe Shabbos on Friday nights, that’s what she could handle. We spoke the other day, and she proudly told me, she did it. For a month, on Friday nights, she didn’t use her phone, she didn’t get in a car, she had a Shabbosdik Friday night, she really kept Shabbos. Then she sheepishly asked me the following: “Would it be appropriate to make a little celebration for me and some close friends to celebrate this accomplishment?”

“Appropriate?!” I said. “That’s the most beautiful idea ever!” And then I did the most tactless thing ever, I invited myself to the party. I have been to celebrations of people finishing the Talmud, all of Shas, celebrations of people starting new charities and foundations. But none of those hold a flame, I told her, to what you accomplished. To not get stuck in whatever label you had for yourself, to pick yourself up, to turn yourself around, and to take those steps, difficult, impossible steps, down that path. There is nothing more impressive, more beautiful, more accomplishing.

Nothing in life is all or nothing. There is no perfect in this imperfect world. In looking out for our friends, in being there for a loved one, in having a relationship with G-d, our goal is to make sure that we are on the right path. Mazel Tov to the bride and groom and Mazel Tov to all of those who are taking steps, or even just looking longingly in the right direction.