Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reading BaMidbar and Thinking about Boundaries

Reading BaMidbar and Thinking about Boundaries Jane Collingwood, a psychologist writes as follows: Setting clear personal boundaries is the key to ensuring relationships are mutually respectful, supportive and caring. Boundaries are a measure of self-esteem. They set the limits for acceptable behavior from those around you, determining whether they feel able to put you down, make fun, or take advantage of your good nature. We are in the cycle of Torah readings that brings us to the stories and narrative of BaMidbar. We are “in the desert” – wandering through space where boundaries may not be quite so clear or present. The boundaries are there but they are spiritual boundaries within the vast abyss of the physical desert. The boundaries are there but they are found in the laws and dictates that govern society in the absence of visual places of judgment and justice. We know there are boundaries regarding appropriate speech from the stories, and more important, the consequences of the actions, of Miriam and the scouts that go to check out the land of Canaan/Yisrael. We know there are boundaries regarding how one has to respect the common and collective good and the leadership entrusted with maintaining it from the story of Korach and his followers. We know there are boundaries regarding gratefulness and the need to remain disciplined from the debacle regarding the manna. Ironically, it takes someone OUTSIDE of the camp of the B’nai Yisrael to remind us of the boundaries of good will and communal cooperation in the persona of Balaam, who sees peace and well being when he looks at the camp of the Israelites, proclaiming the beautiful words of Mah Tovu that we recite when we enter our Batei Kenesset to begin our prayers in the morning. Sefer BaMidbar is as much, even more so to be sure, about fighting to break through boundaries as much as it is about finding and maintaining those boundaries. We understand this in our own lives, where we will fight the boundaries all around us in terms of the rules and regulations that govern our lives, the relationships that define our being part of our world and so much else, in our attempts to work towards a better world. In this, Sefer BaMidbar is so supremely instructive. True, there are many causes for which we must fight in our lives. I have certainly written about those causes in these blog posts on many occasions and hope to be able to continue to do so. That being said, there are boundaries in how we go about this attempt to find what is right and proper. Miriam’s concern about Moshe and his relationship with his wife, Tzipora, as we are taught, was not what was problematic; rather it was the way she went about criticizing Moshe that created the difficult and contentious set of circumstances that ensued, ultimately resulting in her being plagued by leprosy. We understand the people of the wandering multitudes becoming inpatient with the manna and losing sense of their purpose; from this we learn that difficult tasks are, as the word goes, difficult and that patience is the need of the hour when fighting for something just and needed, such as control over one’s destiny in the case of the B’nai Yisrael. The desert is perhaps without physical boundaries, but its vastness reminds us of a most important personal boundary, namely that of humility. We are but “specks of dust in the wind’ as the song goes. If we remember THIS boundary, namely the humble piece our lives play in the enormous universe, we may be able to rethink our relationships and our interactions with others and our world. In thinking about this, let us remember that by observing self-imposed appropriate personal boundaries, we will be able to be part of relationships that are mutually respectful, work towards a better world, and redefine the desert in which we all function to some degree.