Staying in the lines — or not

Staying in the lines — or not

Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

The combined Torah portions of Matot Masei is a densely legal one, including laws regarding vows, inheritance, and gender, and also laws about war and differentiating between murder and manslaughter. Any of these can be considered “lines” we are expected to stay within in terms of our behavior.

Even today, when it comes to keeping promises, harming others, and respecting property —both our own and that of others — we use phrases like “that really crossed a line,” or even the proverbial “line in the sand.” But these Torah portions don’t limit themselves to only hypothetical lines we would do well to stay within. They also contain quite literal lines.

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

Thinking of lines, staying in the lines, and when we need to step outside the lines (more on that in a bit) brings to mind art. In particular, comparing the abstract art of Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock.

If you are not familiar with their works, a quick online search to view their style will do more than any written explanation to show you what their work looks like. Though you almost certainly are familiar with their art; their styles are so iconic that essentially everyone in the West is likely aware of their art to some extent. Mondrian (1872-1944) was a Dutch artist whose career began in Luminism. Then he experimented with Cubism, until ultimately he established his own style, which he termed Neoplasticism. His most famous contributions are his abstract works using the three primary colors, the neutrals black, white, and gray, 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 could not be more different. It is just as recognizable and if anything even more famous, especially in the States. Pollock (1912-1956), an American painter, was popular and influential. His signature splatter style involved no straight lines at all and it used every possible color combination, 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).

To most people, the awareness of these painters’ works is of examples that stayed within the lines of their craft (or didn’t, as we might say in the case of Pollock). But just because they were devoted to their lines or lack of lines doesn’t mean they didn’t cross them, or keep to them, on occasion. Take for example Mondrian’s The Red Tree (1910). If you only knew his iconic neoplasticism style, you would never think he had also painted this vibrant red tree of organic lines that clearly is a tree, set against a bright blue background. There’s 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 though he is moving away from pure realism, it is in no way abstracted. The painting depicts an easily understood narrative as it clearly shows a caravan that is — wait for it — going west.

Just as lines are established only to be crossed in art, so it is with each of us, and definitely it was so for the Israelites. Back to the Torah portion, it is early on in Matot that, before even receiving the boundaries of the land or even entering and the promised land, two tribes, Reuben and Gad, request to stay outside the boundaries and on the other side (the East bank) of the Jordan River. God grants the request, as long as they send troops to help those crossing the river. The Jordan is arguably the clearest barrier in the region, and already the Israelites are going to be on either side of this dividing line.

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

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

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