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Rosh Hashanah 5782 Day 1: Boundaries

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

As the Israelites begin their wanderings in the wilderness – after spend­ing two years at Mount Sinai – they were instructed on how to carry and transport the mishkanthey had built, the tabernacle that housed the tablets, along with the holy items used for their sacrifices. The regular Levites immediately surrounded the mishkan, north, west, and south, with the east reserved for Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons.  Surrounding the Levites were the Israelites, three tribes on each side.

A bat mitzvah student I worked with many years ago had this portion. In her D’var Torah, she likened the mishkan, something holy and precious, to her grandmother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Then she compared the Levites to her mother, who was painstakingly and lovingly caring for her grandmother. Finally, she saw herself as an Israelite, whose job it was to support and offer help to her mother. Not surprisingly, this former student is now a rabbi who works as a hospital chaplain.

What the Torah described, and my former student knew, is that in caring for and supporting all that is precious, we need boundaries, clear and well understood, boundaries. Judaism is a religion of boundaries. Consider the question “Who is a Jew?” Born of a Jewish mother? Yes. Born of a Jewish father and raised as a Jew? Yes, in the Reform movement. Formally converted to Judaism? Yes. Living a Jewish life within a Jewish family or on one’s own? We say, “not enough.” You are welcome to be a part of our community, but to be a Jew, to be boundaried within, you need to formally convert.

We know of other boundaries in our faith – laws about what foods are considered fit for eating, about modesty in our dress, and even a law that commands us not to remove our neighbor’s landmark, that is, encroach on their boundary – are all a part of the Torah.

And what we lost over the past 18 months were boundaries – not just clear and well understood boundaries – but all boundaries.

We worked from home. We turned whatever rooms we could into offices. Our kids went to school in kitchens, dining rooms and bedrooms. Our living rooms and dens became our gyms. We ate meals anywhere – and often not in the kitchen or dining room. Our kids and pets Zoom bombed our work meetings. No place felt like a safe retreat space because every spot in our home was used by every member of our home for everything they needed or wanted.

In May and June, we tasted, albeit too briefly, what it felt like to return to a routine that allowed us to try to re-establish boundaries. Many of us had returned to work and our kids to school. As summer came, our kids could play outside or if we were blessed, we could send them to camp or to their grandparents. Older kids took jobs. We were vaccinated, mask free, and living and breathing an old familiar.

And then Delta came. Masks on. Social distancing reinforced. Some camps closed early. Many people canceled their vacations or changed from flying out of town to driving elsewhere in New England. We still don’t know how bad it will get; nor do we know what variants will follow. As I stated last night in my sermon, it has felt to some extent like one step forward and two steps backward. And with the return of uncertainty comes the return of unclear boundaries.

Boundaries are so necessary. Not to answer, “who is a Jew” or “what foods can I eat as a kosher-observant Jew.” Yes, there are times and places for those boundaries. But I mean the ones that keep us sane and healthy in our relationships.

Let’s begin with our non-intimate relationships. In all the craziness of the past 18 months, there’s a good chance our relationships with our co-workers and supervisors changed quite a bit.

As odd as this sounds, most people worked more from home than from their work places this past year and a half. Lack of boundaries meant a lack of a clock and clear demarcations. We didn’t start our day at 8:30 or 9:00 and end it at 5:00. Maybe we were online for our child’s schooling from 8:30-10:30 am. We probably didn’t make up only two hours because on top of not working those hours, we felt guilty and we felt a need to escape because as smart as we are, we are not elementary-middle school-high school teachers. We gave up two hours and worked four or five to compen­sate. Our boss asked more of us, and we gave it. And in truth, we probably only noticed all of this when someone pointed it out.

We must reassert our work boundaries, whether we are working at home, in an office, or a combination thereof. When the Torah speaks of not encroaching on a neighbor’s landmark, it’s not only referring to physical boundaries. There’s an economic understanding, too. Those who hold the financial upper hand, the bosses, may feel empowered to take advantage of the weak, the employees. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Most companies right now are desperate to hire people and hold on to the ones they have. Only those people who are really bad at what they do are at risk of losing their job. So, stop working so much. Turn off your computer. Silence your cell phone. Don’t be available at all hours for all assignments. Take walks, cook, dance, or play your guitar.

And as hard as it sounds, that’s the easier part. Because re-establishing the boundaries at home is where the true challenge lives.

The author Chana Weisberg points out that often when we feel drained, stressed, constantly exhausted, and not appreciated – and who doesn’t feel that way right now – we need to learn how to set firmer boundaries. She reminds us that boundaries – personal boundaries – are “physical, emotional, spiritual, or relational limits that define us as separate from others.”

Perhaps your personal boundaries weren’t particularly good before the pandemic and have only weakened since. You then have an even greater need to set boundaries and limits. Remember that with boundaries, you define yourself, you nurture your own well-being, and you determine the path you will take. You are an active participant, not a passive one.

Again, as Chana Weisberg teaches, “Instead of taking on other people’s beliefs, standards, and feelings, you become in tune with your own. You learn to develop a more solid sense of self that helps you take control of what is important to you and make decisions that serve your value system.”

Boundaries in relationships are necessary under the best of times – never mind when we face the ongoing challenge of a pandemic. Boundaries, though it may seem counter-intuitive, are actually freeing. Alleza ben Shalom reminds of this when she writes:

“Freedom is often found within boundaries. For example, if you were playing catch in an open, public area, would you feel free to throw as hard as you wanted? No; you would be afraid that the ball might hit someone, damage something, or roll into the street, so you would contain yourself. On the other hand, if you were playing in a [completely] fenced area, you … would feel safe to throw [with abandon].”

Pesach, Passover is all about freedom within boundaries. As I like to remind the community each year during the period of the counting of the Omer – the days from Pesach to Shavuot – freedom from Egyptian slavery was not for mayhem in the wilderness. It was to take us to Mount Sinai to receive Torah, rules and restrictions, because true freedom requires a framework.

In our relationships with loved ones in our home, boundaries allow us to be ourselves, to be free and relaxed. And that is exactly what we want for the other members of our household as well. We all need boundaries to able to connect with one another in healthy and affirming ways.

When that happens, what flows in our relationships will be open and healthy communication, mutual respect, trust, honesty, support, independence, and compromise.

And this is true in both our adult relationships and our relationships with our children. We know that we need boundaries with our kids – after all, someone must play the role of the adult. But boundaries are just as necessary in your relationship with your spouse, partner, roommate, aging parents, and all other adults in your household. You need time alone. You need your own identity. You need to pursue what gives you joy. You need your own set of friends. In other words, you need to take care of yourself, and allow others to take care of themselves, and that’s exactly what it means to set boundaries.

Lexi Joondeph-Briedbart, a licensed social worker, has a number of suggestions that can helps us set boundaries.

First, she suggests, is to write down the reasons for your setting boundaries. Here are some possible examples:

  • I do not want to contract COVID or potentially give it to someone else.
  • I need to create limits in my work setting.
  • My spouse and I have been off kilter these past 18 months and we need to get back on track.

Second, she suggests, is to consider ways to implement those boundaries. Continuing with the examples from above you might consider something like the following:

  • I will spend as much time with others outdoors; I will not spend time with people who are not vaccinated; and I will mask indoors and only go places where I know others will be masked.
  • I will turn off my work computer at 5:30 every night.
  • I will be open with my spouse about our need to share more equally around our house so I don’t feel like the bulk of the burden is on me.

Third, she suggests that you get comfortable with speaking up for yourself. She continues, “This may take some self-reflection. If you are someone who feels that setting boundaries will cause confrontation or conflict with your people pleaser personality, it will be beneficial to think about why this is and how you can change your reaction when setting a boundary.”

Finally, she says, do it. One practical tip is to know what your boundaries are before engaging in the conversation. This way you will know your bottom line and your goals.

As our ancestors stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, waiting to hear God utter the words of Torah, God instructed Moses saying, “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching its border. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death: no hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.”[1]

Boundaries can be a matter of life and death – your emotional and spiritual well-being is dependent on your establishing and enforcing healthy boundaries. Stop delaying. Do it now. As Ana Claudia Antunes has said, “Because time is not something to be measured with the eyes, but by the heart, it’s never too late to go and change.”

It’s a new year and with it must come new ways of living. Shanah tovah.


[1]Exodus 19:12-13

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784