Stay in the lines – or not

The combined portions of Matot Masei’s Torah are densely legal, including the laws regarding vows, inheritance, and sex, as well as the laws of war and the distinction between murder and manslaughter. Any of these can be considered “lines” that we are expected to stay in in terms of behavior.

Even today, when it comes to keeping promises, harming others, and respecting property – both our own and that of others – we use expressions like “who really crossed a line”, or even the proverbial “line in the sand”. But these portions of the Torah are not limited to hypothetical lines in which we would do well to stay. They also contain some pretty literal lines.

In this combined parashah, the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, the land of the Israelites, are defined. It is a crystal clear description, to the point that most Torah commentary editions include a map of the area showing the borders as described. It is so clear in fact that the lines of the cards in different editions of Torah commentaries (or in a quick search for images online) are nearly identical.

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Thinking about the lines, staying in the lines, and when we need to get out of the lines (more on that in a moment) evokes art. In particular, comparing the abstract art of Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock.

If you are unfamiliar with their works, a quick search online to see their style will do more than any written explanation to show you what their work is like. Although you are almost certainly familiar with their art; their styles are so iconic that virtually everyone in the West is probably aware of their art to some degree. Mondrian (1872-1944) was a Dutch artist whose career began in luminism. Then he experimented with cubism, until he finally established his own style, which he called neoplasticism. His most famous contributions are his abstract works using the three primary colors, black, white and gray neutrals, and only straight lines. An iconic example is Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow (1930), which is one of the purest representations of the style.

Jackson Pollock’s equally iconic style within the abstract movement couldn’t be more different. He is equally recognizable and even more famous, especially in the United States. Pollock (1912-1956), an American painter, was popular and influential. His characteristic splatter style involved no straight lines and used all possible color combinations, differing from painting to painting. For example, look at Convergence (1952 and also black, white, gray and primary colors) or Full Fathom Five (1947, with an emphasis on teal).

For most people, knowledge of the works of these painters consists of examples that remained within the bounds of their craft (or not, as one might say in Pollock’s case). But just because they were dedicated to their lines or the lack of them doesn’t mean they didn’t cross them or respect them on occasion. Take for example Mondrian’s The Red Tree (1910). If you only knew his signature neoplasticism style, you would never think he also painted this vibrant red tree of organic lines that is clearly a tree, on a bright blue background. There is not a single straight line, square or ninety degree angle in sight. Or for Pollock, consider Going West (1934). The subject matter is pure 19th century, and although it strays from pure realism, it is by no means abstract. The painting paints an easy-to-understand narrative as it clearly shows a caravan that – wait for it – is heading west.

Just as lines are drawn only to be crossed in art, so it is with each of us, and it certainly was so with the Israelites. Returning to the portion of the Torah, it was very early in Matot that, even before receiving the limits of the country or even entering the promised land, two tribes, Reuben and Gad, asked to remain outside the limits and to the other side (the east bank) of the Jordan. God grants the request, as long as they send troops to help those crossing the river. The Jordan River is arguably the clearest barrier in the region, and already the Israelites are going to be on either side of this boundary line.

As Jews today, we continue to live in a world defined by lines and lines that intersect. We live in our cities, counties and countries, but we also live in Jewish communities that rarely fit these civil lines on a map. We live within the laws of our state and our nation, but we are also beholden to the religious and ethical mitzvot of our own religious tradition.

And where does that leave us? It forces us to know how to “paint” our lives as both Mondrian and Pollock. We need to be able to establish clearly defined rituals, routines, and behaviors, but we also need to know when to be flexible or even be a little spread out. There are times to stay in the lines, and times to cross them, and times to remove the lines. It is up to us to recognize which path to take as individuals and as a community, and to realize that when it comes to lines or lack thereof, one thing is certain: lines never stay the same for still.

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