What if the right boundaries are what
by Rich Robinson | May 22 2023
Freedom. Who doesn’t want it—for ourselves and for others?
We celebrate freedom at Passover. We pray for freedom for those caught up in human trafficking. We hope to see dictatorial nations become free democracies. And we long for freedom for ourselves: freedom to follow our dreams and passions throughout our lives.
All these are worthy goals. But as I write this, I think back to a novel I had to read in high school, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.
In this book, a group of boys of around 10 or 11 years of age are stranded on an island. In this situation of complete freedom, they end up spiraling downward into tribal rivalries, violence, and eventually murder. Without restraints or structure, they are ultimately reduced to the level of beasts, without self-control or morality. Their freedom becomes anarchy and brutality.
Most of us aren’t about to descend into violence and brutality any time soon. But as a kind of thought experiment, the novel presents a very believable scenario.
I’m also writing this about a month before the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. It’s not the most popular of our holidays, but it’s a significant one.
Shavuot follows Passover as a kind of companion holiday, celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. At Passover, we celebrate our deliverance from long years of slavery in Egypt. Then seven weeks later, we arrive at Shavuot to celebrate the gift of the Torah, which means rules, structure, things we’re supposed to do, and things we’re forbidden to do. Wait a minute—what happened to freedom?
Contemporary people tend to think about freedom as a freedom from something. But that’s a much narrower idea than our ancestors had.
The crazy thing about the biblical story is that when Israel became a nation free from Pharaoh, they became, in a sense, “enslaved” to someone else—God. God had freed them; now He made the people into a nation and asked them to follow His commandments and His own desires for them.
Was this an escape from the frying pan into the fire? Or was there something profoundly different about this new relationship in which Israel was now free to follow and obey God?
The key to understanding Shavuot—and the Bible as a whole—is the deep insight that true freedom requires boundaries. Every great painter requires a canvas (yes, even Banksy). Every great nation requires a rule of law. Every great inventor needs to know and heed the laws of both physics and ethics. Greatness in any field of human endeavor requires a set of appropriate limitations.
And boundaries are absolutely necessary as soon as we want to live together. That’s why you’re free to park anywhere you like at the mall. But “anywhere” does not include the middle of the food court. In the United States, you are free to drive anywhere in the country without being stopped. But you’re not free to do it at whatever speed you like.
The idea of boundaries doesn’t appeal to some, but it’s actually a fact of life that prevents us from descending into chaos like the boys in Lord of the Flies. Life without rules is like trying to play checkers without a board.
When you start to imagine it, life without any constraints or boundaries would immediately become chaotic, not to mention dangerous. Too much freedom leaves us with either stagnation or disorder.
That said, we also know that boundaries are not always good. The wrong boundaries set on our lives can be harmful. It’s true that some legal, religious, or cultural boundaries seem arbitrary or oppressive.
But God’s boundaries in Torah were different; they were meant to promote human flourishing. There’s a reason why our ancestors celebrated them! If you had just come out of a life where you were subject to vicious taskmasters and suddenly found yourself free, you would need—you would even want—some guidelines to know how to live.
Shavuot commemorates the boundaries, guidelines, and help that God gave to ancient Israel to help them live a full life.
For Jewish people of that era, the boundaries ranged from ethical commandments to legal rules to religious rituals designed to help them know God. It was structure, not for structure’s sake, but for Israel’s sake—for humanity’s sake.
When you think about it that way, who wouldn’t want to know the best way to navigate the world we live in as free people?
Our boundaries today are different than they were for Jewish people who lived in ancient Israel. And yet they still retain the same core, because though we have to adapt God’s guidelines for a new context, they still reflect the same ethical principles they always have.
For example: In 1000 BC, the poor in society could be supported by farmers leaving parts of their crops unharvested for poor people to collect. That was a rule that made generosity part of the culture and gave not only food but dignity to those of little means. But today, not many of us have fields such as they did. So the guideline or boundary now must be expressed differently by supporting the poor in new and creative ways.
A student at UCLA remarked to one of our staff once that he felt adrift, with too many choices and not enough structure in his life. Passover and Shavuot are the two poles of life. We became free from Pharaoh in order to be free to follow God and so flourish in our humanity.