By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
There’s something intimidating about boundaries, something stifling and confining. Even if it’s not a high partition barrier covered by barbed wire, surrounded by intrusion-tracking dirt roads, and covered in electronic sensors meant to prevent trespassing. Even if a boundary isn’t marked in territory, there is still that limiting sense of confinement.
One Land, Three Sets Of Boundaries
The Land of Israel’s borders mentioned in this week’s parashah are not the only set of boundaries described by the Torah. When Hashem promised the Land of Israel to Avraham Avinu, He didn’t leave the promise amorphous; rather, Hashem provides a detailed list of boundaries, much more expansive that the ones mentioned in our parashah. The boundaries of the b’rit bein ha’betarim are called “gevulot ha’havtachah,” boundaries of the promise.
But if you thought that with this week’s list of borders we are done, we have another set of even narrower boundaries. The borders described in our parashah relate to the region that would be conquered by the Israelites who left Egypt, which is why they are called the borders of olei Mitzrayim. However, the most constricted boundaries, which carry with them the greatest degree of halachic importance today (while the other borders also have relevant halachic importance), are the boundaries of olei Bavel, which, as the Rambam writes (Hilchot Terumot 1:5), will always retain their sanctity.
Down the line (and due to our prolonged exile), the identities of part of the border markers were forgotten. This gave rise to disputes from the times of the Rishonim until today, with all parties attempting to decipher the landmarks mentioned by the Biblical and Talmudic sources.
This all begs the question: What is the big deal with extensive discussion and identification of Israel’s boundaries, and who needs them anyway?
The Wisdom Of Boundaries
It seems that Hashem wants to teach us here a profound idea that relates not only to geographical borders, but to all boundaries in general.
The wisdom of Kabbalah teaches us that every person and object possesses a spark of holiness that gives it life. Even evil possesses this spark of holiness, otherwise it would cease to exist. Does this mean that evil is good? Of course not. Through the lens of Kabbalah, one can see G-dliness in everything, but we know that in this world there is much evil that hides the good.
This highlights the importance of studying boundaries. The halachah is, in essence, a clarification of the definitions of permitted and forbidden, of obligation and exemption, and of purity and impurity. Studying internal wisdom (Kabbalah) alone can be very misleading. Since in the future pork will be kosher, can someone who eats pork today be considered as if they are living already in the future utopian world? Of course not! On the contrary, this indicates that the person is currently very far from being in any sort of spiritual utopia.
Even the Ari, z’l (R’ Yitzchak Luria, whose yahrzeit is 5 Av), a giant of Kabbalah, engaged extensively in the “revealed wisdom” as a disciple of Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi. The Ari even assisted his master in editing the Shita Mekubetzet, R’ Betzalel Ashkenazi’s commentary on Shas. The Ari viewed the study of halachah as a most lofty pursuit. There are accounts that the Ari would toil and sweat over resolving intricate halachic issues with his disciples as part of their work of spiritual clarification.
Differentiation Depends On Knowledge
The ability to discern between the sacred and the profane is one of the unique abilities of mankind, G-d’s most lofty creation. “ואם אין דעת – הבדלה מניין” — and if there is no knowledge, how can one differentiate? One’s understanding of the general holiness that exists in the world must not interfere with our unique job in this world to discern between the sacred and the profane, the pure and the impure. While it is important to recognize the sanctity that exists within the profane, it is much more important and urgent to see and understand that there is huge chasm separating between the sacred and the profane, and of course the pure and the impure.
Even today people unfortunately miss this critical point. In earlier generations, this happened with the false messiahs who transgressed severe prohibitions to “repair” these sins on a spiritual level, as they claimed. We can assume that they even believed that they were doing the right thing, but this doesn’t change the fact that they sowed spiritual devastation by their actions.
Even within the world of sanctity, there are different levels. On the time continuum, there are weekdays (in Hebrew: yemot ha’chol, lit. “profane days”), chol ha’moed, holidays, Shabbat, and Yom Kippur. So too, there are levels of holiness on a geographical level: the ten levels of holiness delineated in the first chapter of tractate Keilim, and the different sets of borders of the Land of Israel. The differentiation between the sacred and even more sacred is also extremely important.
The study of borders should not intimidate us. This is, after all, our primary purpose in this world. Since Adam’s primal sin, good and evil mixed together, so it is our job to differentiate between the two. The primary means towards this differentiation is by learning about borders—that is, by studying halachah.
HaRav Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today.