Boundaries: The Guardians of Society

June 24, 2024

Last night, as I stood in front of the open refrigerator, I found myself locked in an internal battle. There, on the middle shelf, sat a single piece of chocolate cake – the last remnant of my daughter’s birthday celebration. I wasn’t hungry. I’d already brushed my teeth. Yet the siren call of that rich, moist slice was almost irresistible. And let me be clear – there’s nothing wrong with having that cake! But I didn’t need it in that moment – and as I debated with myself, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurdity of the situation. Here I was, a grown adult, struggling against a piece of cake! But this small moment led me to a bigger question: Why is it so challenging to resist these small temptations? And how does this struggle relate to larger societal issues? The answer, I realized, might lie in a concept as old as the Bible itself: boundaries. This simple idea explains everything from my late-night dessert dilemma to why some societies function more smoothly than others.

A recent study published in the journal Appetite sheds light on this age-old wisdom. Researchers found that even the smallest obstacle – like a wrapper on a piece of candy – can significantly impact our behavior. In their experiment, participants ate fewer candies when they were wrapped compared to when they were unwrapped. Similarly, office workers consumed less candy when it was stored in a drawer rather than on their desks.

These findings might seem trivial at first glance, but they reveal a profound truth about human nature. We have a limited reservoir of willpower, and constantly battling our desires head-on can quickly deplete this resource. By setting up small boundaries or obstacles, we can conserve our mental energy for more important challenges. But is there such a thing as the wrong kind of boundary?

The principle of boundaries as safeguards against temptation isn’t just a modern discovery – it’s deeply rooted in ancient wisdom, particularly in Jewish tradition. The story of the scouts in the book of Numbers provides a powerful illustration of the complexities of boundaries and what can happen when they’re misapplied.

In this portion, Moses sends twelve scouts to scout the land of Canaan. Their mission seems straightforward: gather information about the land God has promised to the Israelites. However, the scous’ approach to this task reveals a crucial lesson about boundaries. They not only failed to set proper limits on their fears, but they also imposed the wrong kinds of boundaries altogether.

The scouts lacked flexibility in their faith, rigidly adhering to their own limited perspective rather than trusting in God’s promise. At the same time, they imposed strict, unyielding boundaries on hope and possibility. Their report focused solely on the obstacles they saw: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size”

In doing so, they effectively locked away any chance of success or divine intervention.

This misapplication of boundaries had catastrophic consequences. By closing themselves off to faith and hope, the spies spread fear and despair throughout the community, ultimately leading to divine punishment – 40 years of wandering in the desert. The story teaches us that boundaries, while crucial, must be applied wisely and flexibly. Rigid boundaries in the wrong places can be just as damaging as a lack of boundaries.

Interestingly enough, the concept of boundaries extends beyond personal self-control to the very fabric of society. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his writings on “societal watching,” argues that communities function best when there’s a sense of mutual responsibility and oversight among citizens. People tend to behave more ethically when they feel they’re being observed or when there’s a strong sense of communal accountability.

This idea resonates with the concept of covenant – the mutual commitment between God and His people, and between the Israelites and themselves. In the context of the story of the spies, we can see how the lack of this mutual oversight contributed to the spies’ failure. Had they felt more accountable to each other and the community, they might have been more careful in presenting their report and more open to alternative perspectives.

Interestingly, the story of the spies concludes with the commandment of tzitzit – the fringes worn on the corners of garments. This commandment serves as a perfect embodiment of both personal boundaries and societal watching.

The tzitzit or fringes act as a personal, visual reminder of God’s commandments, serving as a boundary against transgression. At the same time, they’re visible to others, creating a sense of communal accountability. It’s a brilliant solution that addresses the internal and external aspects of maintaining ethical behavior.

In our modern world, the principle of boundaries is at work in various spheres. In law, we have regulations that set limits on behavior to protect individuals and society. In personal relationships, we set boundaries to maintain healthy interactions. Even in the digital realm, we’re increasingly recognizing the need for boundaries to protect our privacy and mental health.

As our society becomes more interconnected and complex, maintaining these boundaries becomes more challenging and crucial. The story of the spies in serves as a cautionary tale – when we fail to set the right kind of boundaries the consequences can be far-reaching and long-lasting. We’re talking about consequences that equal forty years of wandering in the desert. 

As we learn from both modern research and ancient wisdom, the key to personal integrity and societal harmony might lie in those small, often overlooked boundaries we set for ourselves and each other – and in our ability to remain flexible and open where it truly matters.

And maybe, just maybe there’s nothing wrong with having that extra piece of cake every now and then.

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Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

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