Everyone knows how important proper boundaries are. Relationships need them to maintain each person’s private, safe space. Movements need them to define who is in and who is out. Countries need safe borders for security and self-definition. In chapter 34, the word used for drawing borders is ‘vehit’avitem’, related to the word ‘ta’avah’-desire. We yearn for clear borders.
But we Jews are just terrible at setting them. 67 years into statehood, and it’s not just that our borders are not internationally recognized- within the citizenry of the state itself the borders are seen radically differently.
What we lack politically, we also lack socially. As any North American oleh can tell you, this is a culture with serious boundary issues. Titles and formalities are disposed of. Doctors wear t-shirts, jeans and flip flops. No really doesn’t mean no. It means: negotiations begin now. A person can tell you emphatically ‘ein davar kazeh’, ‘that’s impossible’, and, with a little prodding, can make it happen. And you never know when a complete stranger will engage you in a personal conversation about your marital status and that of her daughters on the bus.
But maybe there’s something to this. Boundaries and borders tend to depersonalize. By definition, they turn people on the “outside” into the “Other”. By nature, boundaries need to be clearly defined, which can’t account for the messy particulars of real life, and therefore, they always lose sight of the full complexity and humanity of the other.
You really feel it at border crossings. Never mind crossings in areas rife with tension and violence. I can feel it in the gaze of the guard when going from Canada to the U.S. What business do you have here? Do you fit in? Do you deserve to enter? Without exception, I always have an experience of becoming alien to myself, second guessing myself, wondering if perhaps I’m smuggling something, or wanted for a crime.
Similarly, discussions of movement boundaries are intensely dehumanizing. They are defined by a politics of exclusion unable to account for complexity, which has to know whether one is in or out, ignoring the thick web of beliefs, practices, associations, decisions and priorities of the individual.
The great challenge is to set boundaries without losing a sense of humanity.
The borders described in chapter 34 have a notably human quality to them. The journey of the border echoes the Jews’ journey- it turns, passes, descends. And then, immediately after so clearly delineating the border, Moshe undermines them by mentioning the tribes that have already managed to redefine the borders by virtue of their request. Here, Moshe does refer to this portion as their nachala, their inheritance, granting their full legitimacy.
Borders are important, boundaries are valuable, but they’re not absolute. They need to be respected, but not worshipped at the expense of the people who are behind them, around them, and especially, outside them.