From the desk of Rabbi Simon Jacobson, Director of the Meaningful Life Center:
You’re invited to a party. Do you ever have a problem figuring out when to stay and when to leave?
A friend confidentially consults with you about a personal matter. Do you know how far to pry and when to pull back?
You are concerned about a friend’s behavior. Do you know when it’s appropriate to intervene, and when you need to butt out?
You hear about a needy situation, but you too are in need? Do you take care of yourself or the other?
You hear a secret about someone. Should you act on it or not?
You’re dating someone you like. How fast should you open up and how much should you keep concealed?
You are married to someone you love and trust. Do you share every detail of your inner life?
For years your voice has been suppressed in a dysfunctional silencing home. Now that you have broken the silence, how much – and to whom – should you be speaking?
You love someone deeply. Do you drown them in your love, giving endlessly, or do you stop at some point, and at what point?
You get deeply inspired and are ready to do anything in that regard. When do you follow your instincts and when do you pause and reflect?
All these quandaries are rooted in the bigger question of defining healthy boundaries: What part of life should remain confidential and hidden, and what part should be revealed? When do we enter another person’s private life, and when do we stay out? When do we allow others into our inner sanctums and when do we not? When do we close the door and when do we open it? And when we do open and close, how much do we open up and how much do we keep closed?
These are not small questions. They touch upon issues of intimacy, trust, vulnerability, identity, self-confidence, fear, security and insecurity.
A striking contrast between the name of this week’s Torah portion and last week’s provides us with a formula to answer these and many other pressing questions.
Compare the names of these two Torah chapters: Last week’s portion began, “when you will go out.” This week’s portion opens, “when you will enter.” Go out vs. enter: There are times and situations when we must “go out,” and there are times and situations when we must enter.
The difference between the two is not semantic. Entering and leaving – going in and going out – carries the secret of all success. Knowing the difference teaches us profound lessons in distinguishing between the two worlds – your inner life and your outer life. Some call it having “healthy boundaries:” A healthy individual is one who has a crystal clear distinction between the parameters of his/her own identity and another’s identity; where his identity ends and another’s begins. He has a strong sense of self coupled with a profound compassion of others. He knows when to take care of his own needs and when to care for another’s.
Many of us often err by leaning too much to one extreme or the other: As caretakers of others we can compromise ourselves; or sometimes we get too self-consumed and neglect to help others. The secure individual is one who has an internal compass, deep focus and an intimate space within, while at the same time knowing when – and having the courage to – give time for another.
This balance is necessary across the board. Efficient leadership, for instance, requires knowing how much to do and rely on yourself and how much to delegate and outsource. Self confidence is dependent on an equilibrium between self-reliance (“if I am not for myself who will be for me?”) and relying on others (“if I am only for myself who am I?”). Wholesome love is possible when there is a balance between closeness and space. It’s not love if the relationship annihilates the identity of either of the partners. True love is when two distinct individuals come together as one, while maintaining their unique individuality. If their closeness is at the expense of their identities, or they remain cautiously apart in fear of losing themselves, they are not in a relationship.
The wise sage put it thus: “When you are close when you should be distant, you will be distant when you should be close.” A healthy relationship is one where there is a delicate balance between intimacy and distance. The mystics call it the symmetry between love (chesed) and discipline (gevurah).
Not to neglect the economy. Investors will tell you that the key to all good decisions is to know when to get in and when to get out, when to buy and when to sell. Often the move has to be made in a split-second: Facilitated by program trading, millions of stocks are bought and then immediately sold within nano-seconds. Not this advice helps anyone much (if it did, we wouldn’t be in our current mess). Except, of course, for Goldman Sachs and some others who have somewhat sensed when to stay and when to leave.
So how do we decide what belongs within and what remains outside? When should we enter and when should we leave? How do we determine when we should be “in” and when we should stay “out?”
Tells us the Torah: When waging war “go out;” when entering the Promised Land “go in.”
The world we live in is made up of an outside and an inside – form and function, body and soul, a package and the treasure it contains. Accordingly, we must have two set of very separate tools: the ones we use to protect ourselves and survive in a hostile world. The resources we access to tame the elements and wage the inevitable battles of life. And the ones we use to experience love and intimacy within.
The key is never to confuse the two. That which belongs outside – wars, battles, conflicts – should always remain outside. Never bring the anxieties of the workplace into your home and your inner space. And that which belongs within – love, intimacy, subtlety, sublimity – should remain protected within.
This doesn’t mean that we should not attempt to bring love to our outer lives. Obviously, we must be sensitive souls in every situation, even in an unfriendly environment. But, at the same time we must always remember that your intimate life is not your external life and vice versa. Your home and the street are not the same. Many of our inner feelings are meant to be just that – internal, intimate experiences. Not every private thing has to be worn on our sleeves (about a drunkard, they say, “whatever is on his lung is on his tongue”).
Modern life, sadly, has blurred the boundaries between our inner and outer lives. Things that are supposed to remain outside have entered into our inner sanctums, and things that are supposed to remain within are often inappropriately exposed and exploited.
An obscene example of these blurred boundaries is the dysfunctional life. Abuse of any sort is like an infection, which must be exposed, subdued and vanquished. When the infection is concealed, and everyone who experienced it is driven into a conspiracy of silence, it begins to fester until it becomes a monster. By the time its consequences explode and life has become unbearable, the situation is often completely out of control. All because of what? Because of instead of “going out” – revealing the crime – to wage war against it, the abusers chose to “go in” and keep it all a secret. That secret is in many ways worse than the crime – invalidating the pain and the dignity of the person who was hurt; closing off the possibility to seek help. “The silence,” they say, “was worse than the rape.”
Then there is the other end of the spectrum – when the battles we wage “outside” intrude our homes and souls. Do children really need to hear the gossip, politics and conflicts of their parents’ lives? Won’t they have enough to deal with when they have to enter the harsh world? Protect their innocent minds and hearts as long as you can.
And what about us adults? Do we have to bring into our pure hearths – the troubles of our outer lives? Why not reserve some of our inner space for more sublime experiences?
In every situation we should always avoid confrontation. But in those instances when we encounter adversary and there is no choice but to wage war – then at least do so “outside” of your inner self. Don’t let your enemies contaminate your soul.
Your “inside” should be reserved for entering the “promised land” – the internal life of your heart, soul, love and intimacy.
Some things ought to always remain within. Not because they are “secrets,” but because they are fundamentally internal experiences that cannot be contained by the tangible senses.
Our deepest and most powerful experiences happen in silence. Not to be confused with the silence of the weak or the fearful, the profound silence of the intimate is louder than sound, stronger than force. It is the essence of the Divine experienced not through the senses but in silence. G-d was not in the wind, earthquake, or fire that Elijah saw on Mt. Horeb, but in the still, subtle voice (Kings 1 19:11-12).
The still, subtle voice – that is where we should enter. Everything else can remain outside your door.