Holy Limits

This is the second edition for this essay.  Rewritten for the anthology, Earth Etudes for Elul: Spiritual Reflections for the Season.  Edited by Katy Z. Allen.  Published by Strong Voices Press in 2018.

“Self-respect is the root of discipline: The sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.”(1)—Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

When you were a kid, did you also feel the unbounded delight that I felt when I learned that a few small coins could get me individually wrapped yellow cakes with creamy filling? In my childhood, I felt that this unbounded joy was the ultimate freedom.

Growing up, I learned that instant gratification has grave impacts on our lives, our communities and the entire planet. Thanks to corporations built on historic conquest, slavery, massive waste and pollution, we have expanded to the point where we can carry all the musicians of the world in our pocket; we can place all the foods of the world on our table; we can search through all the hard-won intellectual treasures of the world; and we can play and watch all the games, movies, comedians and news of the world on demand. For the first time, we can buy stuff at the push of a button.

And yet, we all know our planet is in dire need, waiting for us to collectively learn limit-setting. Our planet is being severely impacted by our collective means of energy production, food systems, transportation choices and buying habits. Our planet is changing and human society cannot withstand continued consumer growth. We need to recognize limits. We need to learn to live with the reality of riddles like this(2): lily pads are doubling on a pond every day, Day 1—1, Day 2—2, Day 3—4, Day 4—8 and so on. On day 30, the pond is filled. On what day is the pond half filled?

Let’s dive into our treasury of stories and see what may be imagined. I am writing one week after the destruction that is Tisha B’Av. It is now the time of consolation. And yet, in Torah Moshe Rabbeinu, Moshe our great teacher is begging to cross over into the good land. He is old, but still of strong mind and strong eye. He has done so much: he grew up as Egyptian royalty; grappled with social injustice; responded with mortal violence; healed by land, love and a new wilderness community; followed his calling into a fateful showdown with Pharaoh and chose to spend the rest of his days leading an enslaved people into freedom. He is not a man used to taking no for an answer.

But here he is, reduced to pleading to be able to join his people as they cross over the river Jordan and enter the Land. Confusingly, the response from Gd is not consolation; instead it is the harsh rebuke—“Enough!” (Deuteronomy 3:26). I can’t help but wonder, might there be consoling insights hidden for us?

My mind connects back to another ‘Enough!’ that was shouted by the Holy One to the expanding World at the very beginning of time. The Holy One noticed the speed of the expanding world and understood that if the expansion continued at break-neck speed, it would all be over in an instant. In response, the Holy One shouted ‘Enough!’ (BT Hagigah 12a). This slowing of time brought the gift of Shabbat into our world. This allowed us to slow down, remember what is most important in our lives and connect with the holiness at the root of our world.(3)

I wonder, might the Holy One saying ‘Enough!’, preventing Moses from crossing over the Jordan, also have gifted the rest of us with the opportunity to seek out and connect with holiness? After all, the Kabbalists say that if Moses actually crossed over with that desert generation, then he would have unified time and space, bringing the Messianic era and consequently ending the world as we know it.

Connecting these two ‘Enough’s!’ allows us to imagine that these ‘limits to growth’ may be mythically woven into the very fabric of our world. Waiting for us to activate this cosmic power to counter the material affluence that is consuming and drowning the world.

Amazingly, the Rabbis, at their mythopoetic finest, show us how to activate the power of limit-setting. They remind us that we are not just passive receivers, but also wielders of power as co-creators with the Holy One!

The Rabbis teach us that each week, when we lift the goblet of grape for Kiddush and we invoke words from Torah, we are holding and wielding the power that limits the expanding world. At that moment, we become partners with the Holy One when we say “Vayechulu, and they were finished” (Heaven and Earth were finished). The Midrashists creatively shift a few vowels, raising our participation by turning Vayechulu into Vayechalu: ‘They finished’ (Creator and Human finished together) (BT Shabbat 119a).

We all know how hard it is to set and maintain limits. Any of us who have tried a diet or negotiated the limits of screen time with children know this; let alone limiting the work of a week or Moshe’s ultimate challenge of limiting the work of a lifetime.

The Rabbis have been showing us the way all along—the way through the gate of limits. Through this gate of limits, we can nurture the power of voluntary simplicity and consciously reverse the trends of non-stop industrial growth. Inspired by the power of our own voices saying ‘Enough!’, buoyed by the Holy One, we can look into our lives and talk with our families, our synagogues and our communities and find new ways to simplify, to reduce consumption, and to advocate for the holy sacredness of our world.

As Rabbi Heschel teaches, this holy work of limit setting does not have to be the work of self-deprivation; instead, it can be the work of growing in dignity.

This Elul, how will your powers of limit making deepen?

(1) Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man: a Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1955, p. 216.

(2) Riddle Answer: The 29th day. And the 28th day the pond is only a quarter filled. The 27th day one-eighth. The 26th day? From Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., & Behrens, W. W., III. The Limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Universe Books, 1972.

(3) Epstein, K.K. and Wineman, A. Letters of Light: Passages from Ma’or va-shemesh. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishers, 2015, p 124.


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