Last week we talked about one need for boundaries, but left a question unanswered: what are boundaries? We now have some ways of looking at that question. We start with the rules concerning a woman making vows and who and when they can be annulled. The attack on the Midianites is set up and executed, though not with the results Moses expected. This brings up issues of how to divide the spoils of war, and how to deal with female war orphans. In the third part, the tribes of Gad and Rueben want to settle east of the Jordan and not cross, which brings up new issues.
We read at the beginning of the Perkei Avot:
Moses received the [oral] Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the great assembly. The latter used to say three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, rear many disciples and make a fence round the Torah. [M. Avot 1:1]
This is the classic statement of the Oral Torah, the laws spoken between the lines of the written Torah. But the key to such a transmission and use is the curious phrase “make a fence around the Torah.” What does a fence, a boundary do? At its most basic, it keeps something in or something out. We have examples in this week’s portion of the basic use of a fence or a boundary. As part of their land deal, the tribes of Gad and Reuben propose
And they came near to him, and said, We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones; [Num. 32:16]
Sheepfolds are fences to keep sheep in. Walled cities are walls to keep wives and children safe from outside forces. Of course they do not have one function at a time. A fence does both simultaneously. The sheep may be kept penned in but they are also safer from wolves and bears. The walled city may keep invaders out, but it also keeps little ones from wandering around. When we talk about a fence around Torah we talk of it often in this simple sense. It is a protective barrier for a mitzvah. The mitzvah prohibiting boiling a kid in its mother’s milk can through a series of fences creates a halakah mandating separate dishes and utensils, one for milk and one for meat and poultry for example. Since we are not sure what the original mitzvah truly means, we put a series of protective measure in place to make sure we do not transgress it even accidentally.
Yet fences are physical. Often territories are not marked by fences but by flags and banners. Indeed the name of our portion matot is such a boundary. The word means staff or stick, denoting the staff or stick or standard that each tribe used to identify itself, hence its meaning here of tribes. Many times boundaries are set not by a physical barrier, but by a grouping of attributes in one place. These are indentified by some symbol, like a flag or staff or standard. Each tribe is marked by their staff and the tribe groups around that staff. Go to any major tourist destination and you will see such things today. Tour groups or field trips will gather around a flag, sign, tour guide, or teacher in order to keep together. Sometimes the tribe will share some visual component for the entire group to find such as a badge or t-shirt. Having the visual attribute keeps the group together
Sometimes the boundaries don’t even have that. We can have a hard time telling where one boundary ends and another begins. To make things worse, no tribe has completely identical people, everyone has some attribute different. For example imagine two people we’ll call AC and AB. They a share a common trait “A” and thus are the tribe of A. But AB does something B. Is this act good, bad, or indifferent for AC? The answer is not clear, but that is a question addressed in this portion.
The portion begins with the annulment of vows made by women. Vows made in the name of God are hard and fast we are told. However there is a set of exemptions. If a father hears that a daughter in his home has made a vow, then he can annul it only on the first day he hears of the vow. If he delays, the vow stands. If the girl vows in her fathers house and then gets married, her new husband only on the first day of hearing of the vow may also annul what her father did not. In a similar case, if a wife vows a vow, her husband may annul it on the first day he hears of it. Otherwise, the vow stands. For widows and divorcees, no one can annul the vow.
Some vows do not affect other’s boundaries and some do. A vow not to eat cheeseburgers for six months crosses no boundaries. One kind of vow which becomes problematic is a vow not to derive benefit from another person for a period of time. One particular benefit which comes from women is the gestation of children. As the daughters of Zelophehad made clear in last week’s portion, children become the mechanism for inheritance. If a woman vows not to go near men, then we have a problem, since this affects the inheritance chain. Without any children, a man’s inheritance goes to distant relatives. Secondly, the potential for a girl to get married and have children is strongly inhibited by such a vow, since she has less value to suitors than a woman willing to have children. Thus she becomes a permanent financial burden on her father and family. Such a vow by a female dependent on her husband or father violates communal and familial boundaries. If a man vows not to go near women, he is merely spiting himself in terms of the inheritance system.
Said another way, we have a girl called AB. AB’s father, AC finds out that AB has vowed to abstain from something that might get her married and give AC grandchildren. AC is obligated to care for AB until such time as she is married. AC is thus stuck providing for AB his entire life. If AB had a brother, he would be stuck too. If she had no brothers, she does inherit her father’s inheritance, but on her death it goes to an uncle, breaking the chain and increasing the uncle’s inheritance. AC’s property and boundaries are violated by AB here. He thus has a chance to annul her vow in order to correct for this boundary violation. But he has a short window to do so in order to minimally violate AB’s boundaries and personal space. If he fails to do so, there is still a possibility for annulment. AF, a potential husband, might marry AB anyway, and on the day he learns of the vows annuls them as her husband, bringing his boundaries of inheritance back into alignment.
This can get increasingly complicated, and whole tractates of the Talmud deal with cases of how this all applies. But at the core is one person breaking someone else's boundaries to the latter’s detriment. Indeed we even use such a word for sinning. Transgressions are when we break a boundary of God’s making. The Midianites were worse than that: they did not just break boundaries of others, but they enticed transgression, to spread boundary breaking like a virus. That was why God told Moses to avenge the people against the Midianites. They have caused people to transgress once, and were likely to do it again.
Knowing where the boundaries are is different for different people. Moses, as we’ve mentioned before had an all-or-nothing thinking. When he said to attack Midian, he meant killing everyone. But the actual troops on the mission thought along different boundaries. Their boundaries were based on the census that counted them: you weren’t a real person unless you were a male of military age. So they didn’t kill the women and children. Moses, as the text tells us, freaks out
14. And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, who came from the battle. 15. And Moses said to them, Have you kept all the women alive? 16. Behold, these caused the people of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.[31:14-16]
The agent of transgression that Moses most wanted to destroy in the Midianites was left alive, all because boundaries were not clearly communicated. This can cause conflicts for us. One person’s boundary is not necessarily another’s. If we do not communicate and agree on boundaries, problems ensue.
There are plenty of stories of boundaries and boundary violation in the story of the attack on Midian and its aftermath. Yet the last third of the portion is one I want to focus on next. Reuben and Gad come to Moses with a request about physical boundaries:
4. The country which the Lord struck before the congregation of Israel is a land for cattle, and your servants have cattle; 5. Therefore, said they, if we have found grace in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession, and bring us not over the Jordan:[32:4-5]
This can be taken two different ways, and again two different views of boundaries come out of it. First there is Moses’ view, that these two tribes are lazy and cowardly. They do not want to do what is good for the rest of the tribes. They set their boundaries in what they already have, the lands conquered in the last few months. Gad and Reuben might see differently. That the land starts on the west side of the Jordan is a boundary that Moses assumes. They break that boundary to include more land, to the east of the Jordan. Yet they understand Moses’ boundary issues as well. So they come up with their solution of both settling west of the Jordan and all the military age men remain as part of the military contingent of the people in entering the land.
This suggests the most difficult types of boundaries: ones imposed on us. Sometimes we are told that there are things we can and can’t do. Sometimes we come to that conclusion ourselves. Like the walled city or the sheep pen, those boundaries keep us limited. Sometimes they are completely valid boundaries and limits. I’m color blind for example and that disability makes it impossible for me to discern certain shades. Trying to figure out what are flesh tones from a box of crayons or pastels is near impossible for me. Since second grade, I’ve had a self imposed boundary that I am not an artist. That boundary however is an illusion. Limitations do not always equal boundaries. I only need look up from this keyboard to a wall covered with my own watercolors, or click a link to my on-line gallery to remember that. Limitations may mean there will need to be some adaptations, but those boundaries can be crossed, and we can become better people for it.
I was once painfully shy. I’ve found as I’ve become less shy that most of my shyness was due to boundaries set up long ago. Some of them made sense at the time, but the boundaries remained outside of their usefulness. Many people live in fortresses built on false assumptions. I think it is not coincidental that we hear mention once again of Caleb and Joshua in Moses’ response to Reuben and Gad. According to the Sages, Caleb did not just spy out the land; he decided while there that he wanted Hebron and the surrounding area. He did not say “we can’t enter because the boundaries are too great” but he said “we surely can, (and I’ve already picked out where I’m going to live.)” When the land is distributed, he does get Hebron because he changed his boundaries.
There are boundaries that are agreed on. There are boundaries that are imposed. There are boundaries that are crossed and there are boundaries that isolate. There are boundaries that are clear and understandable and boundaries that are blurred and misunderstood. The art of living in the Promised Land is knowing when a boundary is each of these things and how one is supposed to deal with them. It is the art of relationship, relationship with ourselves and relationship with others, and even our relationship with God. Setting boundaries can protect use and make us grow. Setting the wrong boundaries can hurt, isolate and stifle us. Being in the Promised Land is not a static endgame, but a new stage of living. Living in the land requires understanding boundaries, but it also requires something else found at the very end of the journey in the wilderness.
Next week, to finish the journey, we’ll see why that last commandment is so critically important.