This week’s Torah portion, Maasey or “marches,” might also be called heeganoo k’var or “are we there yet?” The expression doesn’t really exist in Israel. The country is so small that “getting there” is not usually the drawn out road trip so many of us are familiar with. But the Exodus was undeniably a road trip for the ages.
Maasey tells us: The Israelites set out from Ramses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham…They set out from Etham, turned about toward Pi-hahiroth (someone must have had the map upside down) which faces Baal-sephon and they encamped before Migdol.
Place after place after place, forty-two times, the Children of Israel pick up their tents and move forward only to set them down again. Imagine the multitudes gathering the bedrolls; the plates and utensils; possibly something in which to gather the day’s worth of manna. Imagine them retracing their steps a time or two for forgotten pacifiers (and by the way, Miriam did you remember to put out the cooking fire?) and before they know it they’re stopping again. Our Torah commentary tells us that for thirty eight of the forty years they encamped in 20 places. Even if you portion those way stations out evenly, they were still on the move every other year.
Chapter thirty-four takes up the narrative with further delineation and boundary setting. Following the “are we there yet?” verses, come the verses where God establishes the physical boundaries — north east south and west — of the land of Canaan that the Children of Israel are to possess. These boundaries are quite specific: with the southern boundary starting on the east from the tip of the Dead Sea (not just on the east but specifically the tip). The text tells us not once but twice that the coast of the Great Sea will serve as the western boundary. Maasey or marches might also have been called G’vulot or boundaries. God wanted to bring the Children of Israel into Canaan to lead a holy life, to preserve the land’s sanctity by keeping the Torah and its mitzvot. Once they were within the proscribed borders of the land they were to act in accordance of the boundaries of the commandments.
We’re often ambivalent about boundaries. They restrict us. We like them for other people but not necessarily for ourselves. ‘Go West, young man’ ‘Don’t fence me’ are phrases born of a time when when the possibilities in our country were seemingly as limitless as the nation’s own far-reaching physical boundaries. Boundaries can challenge us to reach higher, to invent airplanes, to find cures for diseases, to fly to the moon and back.
For four hundred years the Children of Israel were bounded by the dictates of successive Pharaohs. With those strictures left behind at the shores of the Sea of Reeds, these embryonic Jews needed new boundaries — physical, spiritual and moral. Without the boundaries as laid out in the Torah, how could they possibly coalesce into the Jewish people?
Although our kids are pretty much launched it’s not hard to remember the struggles of adolescence — call them the boundary years. How late? Why? How far? Who with? Why? How much? Why? The testing was constant. And exhausting. Was I really an unreasonable tyrant? Or just a mom flying blind and as best as she could through this new territory called adolescence?
A turning point came the morning my son asked me to drop him off at a friend’s house. There was no school that day and why was I being so unreasonable that I wouldn’t let him hang out with the two dozen or so other ninth and tenth graders just because there would be no parent present. “Why do you have to be like this?” he railed. “Do you know J’s parents don’t even care what she does?”
I let those words “J’s parents don’t even care what she does!” hang in the air. The difference between his parents and J’s hit him swift as a tennis serve; he burst into tears, tears of frustration, of his own impotence perhaps and also, I’d like to think, in recognition of the fact that his parents cared very much what he did and at times expressed that caring by setting boundaries. It wasn’t the end of our struggles on the road to young adulthood but it was definitely a mile marker along the way.
There are the boundaries of the physical, the boundaries of parental love and caring and within the recitation of this week’s encamping and decamping the text also makes reference to temporal boundaries — our days are indeed numbered; our lives inevitably and inescapably circumscribed by death.
Weeks ago in Chukat we read that Moses sent messengers to the King of Edom asking for passage through the Edomite territory. They were refused passage and instead were forced to travel along the kingdom’s boundary. Mas’ey picks up the thread of the story again telling us that the Children of Israel set out from Kadesh and encamped at Mount Hor on the edge of the land of Edom. It is here towards the end of their journey, on the border of the kingdom that refused them entry, that Aaron dies. And then the text continues with nine more verses of unpacking. Tents and cauldrons, the blankies, the sleeping mats, perhaps a souvenir or two gathered along the way.
Mention of Aaron’s death, the death of the Moses’ brother the High Priest rates a mere two verses sandwiched between verse after verse of encampments and decampments. What are we to make of this? That death is death and life goes on? Does Aaron’s death, coming as it does amidst all these other delineation serve as a reminder to live life to its fullest — bed rolls, cooking pots and all — because each of our lives is circumscribed by its inevitable twin?
I am fortunate to have both of my parents still. Somehow, the simple fact that our parents are alive affords a certain boundary — between us and death; between still being someone’s child and being an orphan; between taking a new place on the family tree or hanging out on a lower branch. My husband and I have felt it at family weddings and Bar Mitzvahs — there are fewer and fewer of the elderly aunts and uncles. When the last of that generation dies he and his cousins will be the extended family’s next frontier, the next boundary. And finally we’ll get the seats far away from the band!
When my grandmother died, I felt the ground shift. She had been a constant comfort my entire life, her routines rarely changed, the way she greeted me on the telephone never varied. “Hello Debra,” she would say the minute she heard my voice. Her life, the sweetest of fences, had always encircled mine. When she died I felt as if I were literally walking across new territory. Without the boundary of her life I was lost for weeks on end going in circles. I no longer recognized my own world without her outline defining it. My life had a new boundary — the years spent with my grandmother and the years without.
And what of spiritual boundaries? Maasey enlightens us on these as well. Aaron’s sons died in the midst of making a strange fire before God. Ostensibly they tried to come too close to God and paid for this audacity with their lives.
Even Moses was never allowed to see God’s face. “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” he says in Exodus 33 verse 18. ‘Oh let me behold Your presence.’ It’s such a primal plea. God! I want to know You! Reveal Your Self to me!” God’s answer to Moses, and by extension to us, is ready. “You cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” That is a boundary never to be crossed. God is too magnificent. His power is too great, mighty and awesome to behold face to face. But for Moses He made a small exception. Moses was instructed to face toward a cleft in the rock in order to be shielded until God passes by. “You will see my back,” God says, “but My face must not be seen.” Look upon God’s face and you will die. Talk about an unmistakable line in the sand.
Some weeks ago our rabbi commented that if we want to see God’s face we only have to look in the eyes of another human being. But for how long can we do this before becoming self-conscious, perhaps even uncomfortable? If looking into another’s eyes for five minutes makes us squirm, “Look upon God’s face and you will die” does not seem so outlandish a pronouncement after all. Whether we are in ninth grade or ninety, sometimes we just have to accept our Parent’s limits.
Is it coincidence or not that this portion delineating boundaries comes at the end of Numbers? The journey is at an end and this week’s reading underscores this by giving itself over to the laying out of boundaries. When we get to the end of a book in the Bible we say, Chazak Chazak V’ nitzchazek. Strength, strength and let us be strong. Five times each year we are indeed there yet.
Let us be strong when, as parents, we must set boundaries. Let us be strong when life forces us to live within the boundaries of our own limitations. And when we reach that point where the boundaries we have lived within no longer protect or define us but instead hinder us, Chazak Chazak V’nitzchazek, lets us also be strong as we transcend them.