As the parent of a 6-year-old and 9-year-old, I think I’m relatively immune to the jabs they throw at me when we set down a boundary. When you’re a child, boundaries feel more like punishments than safety precautions. This, of course, means they’re quick to hurl at us a line like “You’re being unfair!” or “He gets to do this, so why can’t I?” or worst of all, but not unheard of, “I hate you!”
Despite my children’s belief that boundaries make me a terrible parent, setting clear expectations and limits is a critical part of parenting. What’s important isn’t that they like the rules, it’s that they understand them. That’s the thing about setting boundaries: both parties need to understand their purpose. If you set a boundary without explanation, it leads to all sorts of questions and distrust. Instead, establishing clarity in boundaries is how we best move forward. We learn this too in our Torah portion this week.
Parshat Devarim begins the final book of the Torah, which shows the Israelites totally unmoored by the change in leadership and location ahead of them. Devarim stresses the covenant between God and Israel and looks toward Israel’s future in a new land as they build a society that pursues justice and righteousness. The central theme of this section of text is monotheism, the belief in one God, and building a society around the laws we’ve been given over the course of the four previous books.
As the narrative of this last book continues, we see the Israelites trying to find their place and larger purpose in their post-Egypt society. In the first chapter, they appear flummoxed and exasperated. They say out loud in verse 27, “God hates us.” This reaction is not totally unexpected. After all, they’ve lived through some pretty challenging times in their exile and wandering. Ever since they left Egypt, they feel as if they gained their freedom only to be handed more and more rules and responsibilities. It’s a childlike behavior, in a real way. Young children, and even occasionally tweens and teens as well, tend to forget or ignore all the things they are given, like food, shelter, love, not to mention life itself. They focus only on what they wanted but didn’t receive. And, being the overreactors that they are, the word “hate” might get thrown around.
The Israelite nation is a toddler nation, so to speak. We read this section of text to remind us that while being let down feels terrible, part of maturing is learning the value of hakarot hatov, or “recognizing the good.” With age (of an individual or a society) comes the experience to be able to look at the grand scheme of things.