Thursday, January 24, 2019

Better Watch the Boundaries (Yisro)

Today I would like to discuss boundaries – not the controversial type like the border wall, but the more personal ones that we build in our lives. From a Jewish perspective, our traditions are full of gedarim, boundaries created to protect halacha. As a parent, I have read a lot about the importance of parentally established boundaries for our children, and this really is true for adults as well. Boundaries help us thrive.
In this week’s parsha, as Bnei Yisrael arrived at Mount Sinai, Hashem provided Moses with instructions for how the people were to prepare themselves to receive the Torah. One of the primary instructions God gave to Moshe was: “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death” (Shemos 19:12). Moshe does so, and the people and the kohanim began their preparations. When Moshe then went up the mountain, God repeated this prohibition: “Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish” (ibid. 19:21). In response, Moshe says to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it.’” So the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come back together with Aaron; but let not the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest He break out against them” (ibid. 19:23-24).
The instructions for creating a boundary are well known, but I was intrigued by the particular details of the prohibition: “Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it” (19:12). Perhaps it was the specification of making certain not to touch even the boundaries, but these words made me think of the story of the Eitz Hadas, the Tree of Knowledge. Hashem told Adam not to eat from the tree, Eve believed that she was not allowed to eat or touch the tree and the snake deceived her by showing her that she could touch the tree. This, of course, led to the rest of the story and humankind’s banishment from the Garden of Eden.
These two boundaries mark, in some way, the beginning point of two epochs. The transmission of the Torah to the Children of Israel was the beginning of the era of focused kedusha, when God assigned the Children of Israel with the task of bringing His kedusha to the world. Before that was the era of Adam, a time when all of humankind was living through the repercussions of a wrong choice (eating the fruit) that prevented the Messianic Age, for if Adam and Chava had not eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, the world would have immediately entered an ideal state.
In Parshas Yisro, on the verge of this new era, Hashem provides and reinforces more explicit directions about what not to do. And when Moshe argues that the people understand, Hashem insists that they be repeated.
I found this possible connection an interesting thing to contemplate in light of the time in which we live. In Western societies, boundaries of all types are being ignored, argued, or dissolved. In my opinion, there has been a general degradation in respect for authorities. Our boundaries of public and private have been diminished by the ever-going present social media. Alexas and Google-dots have been brought into people’s homes and there is much discussion about exactly how much control one can have of one’s privacy with these seemingly innocent AI’s in our homes. Maintaining boundaries is harder than ever.
Parshas Yisro is the parsha of the giving of the Torah, the ultimate rule book. Perhaps from this interaction of Hashem and Moshe, when Hashem reiterates his instructions even after Moshe argues that the people understand not to go up the mountain, we can be reminded of the importance of reviewing the boundaries in our own lives.

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