GETTING PAST OUR BUFFERED SELVES

"If he comes in alone, he shall go out alone..."

Parshat Mishpatim begins with the law of the Hebrew bondservant. The words - yavo - "come in" and - yetze - "go out" appear repeatedly in this section. These words create directionality. They also indicate that there is a boundary that the bondservant crosses in becoming and ceasing to be a servant. Yet, what that boundary demarcates remains unclear. Is it the home of his master; is it the institution of servitude; or is it something else?

Philosopher Charles Taylor uses the concept of a "Buffered Self" to describe how modern people differ from those in the past. He says, "Modern Westerners have a clear boundary between mind and world, even mind and body. Moral and other meanings are "in the mind." By contrast, our ancestors had what he calls a "Porous Self." They saw themselves as part of a spiritual and metaphysical matrix. They did not experience meaning "in the mind" but as something real and present.

Taylor's idea can be extended beyond how we perceive the world, but also to how we relate to others (both socially and economically). In pre-modern times, people interacted with one another in a more porous way. People came in and out of each other's lives in ways that reflected a deeper connection. The servant became a part of the master, and to some degree the master was part of the servant. Social and economic relationships required an almost organic "coming in" and "going out."

Today, our social and economic relationships are far more buffered. We ask everyone to "mind their own business," both literally and proverbially. Even those of us who give charity and make an effort to engage in acts of loving kindness do so from a position of interpersonal distance. We care for others, but we don't make them a part of our deep selves. Sadly, this is true not just of strangers, but also for family and friends. As Paul Simon writes, "I've built walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate." Rare is the person who has not built such walls. Rare is the person who can enter another's fortress.

The Torah describes a porous self that allows a stranger to come in and go out. Even if we lack this porous self, there is spiritual meaning in imagining such an existence.