Challenging boundaries

Boundaries and borders are set to provide order.  Yet, sometimes a challenge to the order or even a little disorder is required. Evidence of this is found at the end of the Book of Numbers which closes with the final resolution of the land inheritance of the daughters of Zelophehad and setting the stage for the Israelites transitioning from wandering in the wilderness to conquering and settling the land.

In this double portion, Matot v’ Ma’sei, there is a great focus on keeping everything orderly throughout the transition process. In the previous portion a census was taken to determine the size of each tribe for military purposes as well as land distribution. As you can imagine, there would be many opportunities for disputes – especially over boundaries – if things weren’t extremely well defined from the beginning. The case of the daughters only comes up because it is a request to alter the “order” of things – to make an exception to the inheritance rule that land passes onto sons not daughters. The initial decision to grant the daughters inheritance rights and the ability to preserve their father’s name needs to be emended to prevent tribal land from becoming part of another tribe’s through marriage. The fix to the request contains within it a way of keeping the order of things. The women must marry within their tribe and the tribal boundary is upheld to protect order. An exception is made albeit in limited form. It addresses the need to balance righting an injustice with the need to keep the peace.

Keeping the balance between those two goals is not easy and often it feels as if they are sorely out of balance. For those who crave order, it may seem that things are weighed too heavily toward righting injustices, for those who crave a just world, keeping the peace may seem to suppress voices of those who cry out for  justice. It is the tension between Shalom – peace - for the larger group (or the group in power), and Shalem – wholeness - of individuals being able to live to their fullest potential.

The story of the Israelites out of Egypt into Canaan is a journey of balancing group order and justice through the creation of norms, instructions, aspirations, and boundaries that if followed will help the ever evolving human enterprise manage more complexity and challenges with success. Stepping outside of those boundaries often resulted in plagues (e.g. the golden calf) staying inside them led to success or peace. The journey is one of learning and testing those boundaries over and over again.

In the bible, wars and plagues are often a punishment for overstepping boundaries that is supposed to lead to “getting back in line and putting things in order”. In our modern world, they are the very things that lead to disorder and the response is the same – “to get things in order”. Yet, how often is the “order for the greater good” used to ignore root causes of disorder?

For some, this disorder opens new possibilities as they are no longer constrained by the rules of an oppressive society.  For others the lack of order and boundaries is frightening. Just as the Israelites migrated to a new land to escape oppression and to become a new people, we have 65 million refugees in the world who have had to leave their homes and risk finding safety and hospitality elsewhere. What an amazingly brave and hopeful act. And we can celebrate that faith through welcoming immigrants, supporting organizations that work on behalf of refugees, and connecting their journey stories to our story of seeking justice and freedom.

JoHanna Potts