Boundaries and forgiveness – a d’varling for Kabbalat Shabbat

In this week’s Torah portion, Shlach-Lecha, we find the story of the scouts. Maybe you remember it. Here’s the thumbnail sketch: Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. They come back bearing a giant bunch of grapes, so big they require two men to carry.

They agree that the land indeed flows with milk and honey. But ten of the men say that the inhabitants of the land were giants, and that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison. The people rebel, demanding to know why God would bring them into a land only in order to be slaughtered by its giant inhabitants. “If only we had stayed in Egypt,” they wail. “Let’s go back!”

And for a moment there, God is really angry. Moshe convinces God to calm down. And Torah says, ויומר ה׳ סלחתי כדברך / vayomer Adonai salachti kidvarecha. “And God said, ‘I pardon, as you have asked.'” And, God adds, none of you will make it into the Land of Promise. None of you are ready for freedom. Your outburst just now made that clear. So you won’t be going.

I’ve written before about how Moshe, in the wilderness, seems like an overtired parent. This time it’s God who seems to me like the exasperated parent. God and Moshe are the two-parent duo: when one of them gets angry, the other acts as the balance. Ultimately God is forgiving, and affirming love, even while drawing boundaries around what’s appropriate and what’s not.

We can quibble with God’s parenting choices here — was that a proportional response? — but what God is doing here feels entirely familiar to me. Appropriate. Even necessary.

Drawing a boundary isn’t a sign of lack of love. On the contrary: it can be precisely a sign of love, love for the other and love for oneself. It’s precisely because I love my child that I set boundaries around appropriate behavior.

And if my child were to do something that goes counter to the rules and expectations of our household, I would hope to respond as God does here: I love you; I forgive you; and, here’s the consequence for the poor choice that you made.

Earlier this week I had my second voice lesson, as I work on preparing for the Days of Awe. My voice teacher asked me what piece of music most intimidates me, and I said “Kol Nidre,” whereupon she brightly said, “Great, let’s start there!” So I’ve spent part of this week singing Kol Nidre.

And I couldn’t help noticing, looking at my machzor — my high holiday prayerbook — that there’s a line from this week’s Torah portion immediately following Kol Nidre. ויומר ה׳ סלחתי כדברך are the words that are sung immediately after Kol Nidre.

These are the words our liturgy gives us, from God, in that tender moment of confronting our own failings. And they come from this week’s parsha, from this moment in the unfolding of Torah’s story. “And God said, I pardon, as you have asked.”

The pardon still comes with a consequence. Sometimes a loving parent has to say, “I love you, and the answer is no.” If a child does something wrong, and the parent doesn’t draw a boundary, the child won’t learn about consequences. But the consequences should come hand-in-hand with forgiveness and love.

Sometimes the answer we get — from God, from each other, from the universe, from our lives — is “you screwed up, so the answer is no.” Mature spiritual life asks us to receive that answer when it comes, and to learn from it.

Ideally that doesn’t mean self-flagellation. Ideally we remember that even when we’ve screwed up, we are loved. Ideally we remember that God forgives. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean that someone we’ve wronged will forgive. Forgiveness from human beings isn’t guaranteed. Apologizing and doing our inner work and making teshuvah and becoming better people is worth doing even so.)

Life comes with boundaries. We don’t get to ignore the rules or what’s ethical. We don’t get to blithely make bad choices without consequence. But if we can hold on to the knowledge that love and boundaries are two sides of the divine coin — that God balances chesed and gevurah, and so can we — we can learn to take comfort both in the tochecha of being told where we’ve mis-stepped, and the sweetness of being reminded that we are loved.

This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

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