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?