Parshat HaShavua

Borders and Boundaries (Ki Tavo)

I was struck upon first moving to Seattle how difficult it is to give directions based on geographical features. You can’t say, “Head towards the water” because water is all around. You can’t say, “Look for the mountains” because east or west we can (occasionally) see the Cascades or the Olympic mountains. Being surrounded by water and mountains is a wonderful and occasionally disorienting experience!

In parashat Ki Tavo, we find instructions for a different multiple-mountain experience, one that is meant precisely to orient the Israelites morally as they enter the land of Canaan. Half the tribes are supposed to climb Mt. Gerizim, and the other half are to climb Mt. Eival. From across a valley, the tribes will call out to each other blessings from one mountain, and curses from the other. The combined effect is to discern the right path to follow as a moral society, God’s promises and warnings booming and echoing like thunder (perhaps recalling Mt. Sinai, where Torah was first given.)

One of my favorite definitions of what a blessing and a curse are comes from the medieval scholar Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra. Commenting on Genesis 2:3, he writes, “Peirush berachah tosafot tova – The explanation of “blessing” is an increase in goodness.” A curse, by contrast, is a diminishment of goodness. Often, the blessings in Torah are rewarding a generosity of spirit, and the curses are afflicting those who diminish others. 

One of the curses in Ki Tavo expresses that sin of diminishment literally: “Curses be the one who moves their neighbor’s landmark” (Deuteronomy 27:17). Commentators clarify that the person moving the landmark is doing it in a way to make their neighbor’s property smaller, thus enlarging their own property. They are stealing land, violating boundaries, and diminishing both the material well-being and dignity of their neighbor. The curse appropriately redirects that diminishment towards the one violating another’s space. 

While the surface level of this verse focuses on actual land, I see in it the potential to reflect on boundaries more generally. Karl Schlögel, in his book Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland, lifts up the centrality of boundaries and borders to the nation and to human experience.

Ukraina is generally thought to mean ‘borderland.’ Ukraine has been a paradigmatic  land of borders, and not only because it once bordered the steppes; it is a territory criss-crossed by [geographic, religious, and linguistic] boundaries…

“…The two words (‘border’ and ‘boundary’) cover an extraordinarily wide and differentiated spectrum of phenomena. There are hard and soft, permeable and hermetically closed borders; real and virtual boundaries as well as phantom boundaries that have been effaced and yet continue to have palpable effects; unfenced ‘green’ borders and fortified ones with troops stationed to defend them; territorial boundaries and lines drawn by social distinctions… Borders are among humanity’s most elementary experiences of space and time.” 

Boundaries have been at the core of some of the biggest social issues of our time, from the border wall that in the xenophobic imagination protects white America, to the #MeToo movement shining a light on how painfully often women’s personal boundaries are violated by men in power. Boundaries are also at play in conversations about work culture and burnout, and health and safety in a time of pandemic. 

More than just a rule about property theft, our verse in Deuteronomy might serve as a reminder of how much we should use this High Holiday season to return ourselves individually and collectively to a sustainable and loving and respectful relationship to boundaries. When boundaries are healthy, keeping out what should be kept out and allowing in what is nourishing and necessary for life, we experience shleimut, integrity and wholeness. 

Contemporary author and composer of parables Noah Ben Shea wrote a book several decades ago about a simple yet wise baker named Jacob. Here is his take on the boundaries we’ve internalized, the walls we put up around our hearts. 

A community leader came to see Jacob, hoping to find peace of mind, an ease for his burden. The man was troubled by a repetitive dream that he did not understand.
“Jacob, in my dream, I have traveled a long distance and am finally arriving at a great city. But, at the entrance to the city, I am met by a tall soldier who says that I must answer two questions before I am admitted. Will you help me?”
Jacob nodded. “The first question the soldier asks is ‘What supports the walls of a city?” 
“That is easy,” said Jacob. “Fear supports the walls of a city.”
“But what supports the fear?” asked the man. “For that is the second question.”
“The walls,” Jacob answered. “The fears we cannot climb become our walls.”

As we approach the High Holidays, here are a few questions for reflection:

1. Where have you diminished someone else by taking up too much of their space, or crossing boundaries they had set? What might you do to mend the situation?

2. What do you need to do to respond to the times when your boundaries were crossed? 

3. What boundaries do you need to set in place to enter the new year strong and whole?

4. What inner walls do you need to tear down to enter the new year open and unafraid?

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