Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Parshat VaYetzei
2 Kislev, 5771
November 9th, 2010

If you pass by my office on particular mornings, you’ll see me studying Talmud with a good friend. It may also look, at first glance, like we’re trying to kill each other.
There is a kind of learning relationship that, superficially, doesn’t make any sense: it involves a lot of pacing, contradicting, occasional shouting. Our body language would say to any outside observer: “conflict;” unless, of course, you watch our faces, which are often smiling.
That hour that we spend together is one of the most life-giving of my week. It’s space for unfettered curiosity, where every question is fair game; it’s a space of honesty, where opinions are not held back for fear of offending one’s partner – when we think the other is right or wrong, we say so, when there is evidence to contradict, we do so; it is a time to work together to answer difficult questions, to be intellectually and spiritually creative, not to hold back. It is, in short, amazing.
But relationships of this intensity are also exceptionally fragile, and the only way that havruta (learning partners) are able to sustain them is by creating boundaries that keep the interaction, as well as the two people interacting, safe. One of the biggest is that the relationship is about Torah, not about our individual selves – being in shared service to a larger ideal places ad hominem attacks outside the pale. The other is learning partners strive for radical equality within the boundaries of learning – hierarchy doesn’t work when one isn’t holding back.
The point is that real relationships – in which the content is authentic and alive – require real boundaries. The center cannot hold when such interactions have no frame. Respecting the boundaries of another person or of an important relationship is a precious gift, and it is the only true way to let real connections grow between people.


  1. Rabbi, I respectfully disagree with your essential final point. I actually think that only formal, inauthentic, or superficial relationships are based on being respectful of boundaries and “holding back”.

    The fundamental basis of real and true connections between people is their dependence on the absence of boundaries. We can tell our close friends, “I can’t wait too put on my sweatpants because I ate way too much cholent this Shabbat.” This is not a statement you are likely to utter to the person you just met in line at trader joes in response to his asking how your evening is going.

    Close relationships are built upon a foundation of honesty and benefit of the doubt coupled to an expectation that when this honesty leads to conflict, both parties are committed to finding resolution (or at least peace) and willing to practice forgiveness. I can tell my husband that it REALLY bothers me when he wipes his hands on the tablecloth instead of using a napkin, but I never would have told him this on our first date (even though I noticed it then too).

    Indeed, we often create closeness by ignoring perceived boundaries. In many ways, the ability to interact honestly serves as a reflection of our confidence in the relationship—the more formal a relationship is, the more cognizant we have to be of each others’ boundaries.

    These real connections know no boundaries because there is an expectation that the relationship can and will withstand any conflict. There is an underlying assumption that the intention of the interaction is never to challenge or break the relationship itself.

    It is perhaps for this reason that truly strong connections between individuals have necessarily been challenged. Perhaps this is why we tend to have the most conflict in life with those we have the closest connections to—our parents, our siblings, or spouses— we can only fight with these people because we know we can take our relationships with them for granted. Sometimes, it even feels as though we intentionally challenge these relationships for the purpose of testing and demonstrating their strength.

    If we can’t be completely honest in our relationships, we will never feel truly safe in them. I would go so far as to argue that people are often starving for honesty and would appreciate the verbal acknowledgement of obvious subtextual conflict.

    We should therefore strive to strengthen all of our connections and relationships with each other to the extent that we have no need to be concerned about boundaries. We should feel blessed and lucky to have the opportunity to honestly disagree with each of our friends and colleagues without the fear that doing so will break our connections; we should approach each perceived boundary with the hope that breaking through it will reinforce our connection to each other.

    … and I bet if you did tell the stranger behind you in line at trader joes that you ate way too much cholent, you might end up having a real and genuine laugh together, and perhaps even make a new friend.

  2. Rabbi Perlo's response:

    You know, I agree with your sentiment. To kill that kind of spontaneity and the new ground that can be found in relationships would be to take all the spice out of life.

    But I'd want to distinguish between rigidity and real boundaries. Rigidity would mean that any challenge to a relationship, any new element, any new redefinition is to be spurned. And I completely agree that rigidity is what prevents us from honesty.

    But I think that rigidity is different from boundaries (not in the colloquial sense, but in the sense of real and necessary things). One should always search for new love with one's partner, but that doesn't mean that it will ever be ok to commit adultery. One should always reach out to strangers, but it isn't ok to insult them casually or order them to do things (here the boundary of human dignity should be kept).

    Without those safeguards, there is no space for real connection.