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Parashat 08/20/2010

Parashat Ki Tetze
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Our Parashah is virtually a list of mitzvot, the connections between which are sometimes hard to discern.  Indeed a great number of Ba’al HaTurim’s comments to this Parashah are of the nature of “this mitzvah is juxtaposed to that mitzvah to teach that … .”  It is also instructive to see if we can find some threads that run through the disparate verses and tie them together.  I think one such concept is the idea of boundaries.  We have mitzvot regarding natural boundaries, such as kila’im (mixing of seeds in a single field, or working disparate kinds of animals together), mitzvot regarding sexual boundaries (cross-dressing) and marriage (yibum, Levirate marriage), commercial boundaries (weights and measures) and even safety boundaries (making parapets for one’s roof).

When we consider that the basis of all existence is infinite and unbounded, perhaps boundaries are looked upon only as restrictions and limitations, and that is of course one aspect of the nature of boundaries.  There is another aspect however, and one which is perhaps more highlighted in our esoteric tradition.  That is, boundaries provide the channels for the infinite to express itself; without boundaries there would only be the infinite, without any Self-expression or Self-knowledge.  This dual nature of boundaries is sometimes expressed by our Sages using the metaphor of a garment.  A garment’s obvious function is to hide – to cloak.  But in cloaking, the garment also gives definition to and, in a way, reveals that which it is covering up (especially a tight garment).

We find a similar concept in the sefirot, or emanations of the Divine.  There are 10 sefirot, divided into 3 “upper” ones (which are more or less beyond human understanding) and 7 “lower” ones (which we can better grasp in terms of more ordinary experience).  Of the “lower” sefirot, the first two are chesed (kindness) and gevurah (strength), which are associated with masculine and feminine respectively.  Chesed is associated with our forefather Avraham, who was the paragon of giving.  It is associated with the flow of Divine blessing.  Gevurah is associated with Yitzchak, who “concretized” and consolidated his father’s teachings – he gave them form, a form which would blossom into Israel, a community in which and through which the infinite, wholly abstract Divine underpinning of creation would be concretized in individual and communal life.

Another interesting angle on this concept comes from Physics, specifically from Thermodynamics.  A closed system that has no boundaries in it will simply move towards thermodynamic equilibrium – a state in which no one part is distinguishable from any other part.  It is completely flat and inert – and it is incapable of change or of any positive interaction with its environment.  Once boundaries are introduced into the system, there is the possibility of separating pieces of the system, making one part hot and another part cold for example.  Once there are differences, there can be flow of energy and material from one place to another, and, if this flow is strong enough, the system can evolve to states of greater organization and complexity.  Again we find boundaries providing a channel for flow and expression and growth.  Without the boundaries we would only have inertia and death.

The problem with boundaries, and the reason boundaries get such a bad name, is that if boundaries are too rigid they can inhibit growth.  If our arteries get hard, we have trouble in our circulatory system.  If our thinking gets ossified, we lose out on opportunities to grow and expand.  If a species cannot adapt to changed environmental conditions, it goes extinct.  In Kabbalistic terms, these ossified boundaries are called kelippot, shells, hard coverings that prevent the Divine light from penetrating all the way to the most expressed value of creation.

What Torah asks of us is that we take a balanced approach to boundaries.  Boundaries are fundamental to the process of creation and expression, yet they can also block creativity and expression if they become too rigid.  Treading the delicate line between too permeable and too rigid is beyond human intellect.  Fortunately, Gd has given us a blueprint to find and to stay on this line.  We only need follow it as best we can.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 11

He (R. Yochanan ben Zakkai) used to tell their praises (of his students)

R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanus is a plastered cistern that does not lose a drop…

R. Elazar ben Arach is like a wellspring that grows in strength

R. Eliezer said of himself that never did he issue a ruling or teach anything in Torah that he had not heard from his teachers (“a cistern that never loses a drop”).  By contrast, R. Elazar ben Arach took his teachers’ teachings and expanded on them and applied them in novel instances (“a wellspring that grows in strength”).  Of course these were their most prominent characteristics – surely R. Elazar was firmly grounded in the traditions that had been passed down from Moshe Rabbeinu, and surely R. Eliezer applied his creativity to draw out new rulings from the words of his predecessors.  But both characteristics are necessary – one cannot be creative in a vacuum, and neither can one simply live in the past.  Both flow and boundaries must be balanced for an organism or a tradition to be fully alive.  Which is more important?  A few Mishayot later R. Yochanan ben Zakkai states that if all the Sages of Israel were in one pan of a balance scale, and R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanus in the other, he would outweigh them all.  Abba Sha’ul said in R. Yochanan ben Zakkai’s name, that if all the Sages, including R. Eliezer, were in one pan of the scale, and R. Elazar ben Arach in the other, he would outweigh them all.  Final answer?  “These and these are both the words of the living Gd.”