Vacation Destination

School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces

Alice Cooper’s classic, “School’s Out!” You may remember it from your childhood, if you grew up in the 70’s.  I understand that it’s still quite popular today.

Or how about this one?

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the class room
Teachers leave those kids alone

Pink Floyd!

These songs influenced a generation, me included.  It was challenging to develop a positive attitude towards learning when these were the overt and subliminal messages coming at us from the broader culture.

I recall one evening as I was saying the bedtime “Shema” with our first son – he was about two at the time.  As we were reciting ושננתם לבניך ודברת בם – “…and you should teach them to your children and speak about them…”, an upstairs neighbor was playing “The Wall” at full blast.

Each year, I find it challenging to reconcile the western concept of summer vacation with Jewish values.

How does our tradition view leisure time?

This past Shabbat, I quoted from a sermon given by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm nearly five decades ago at the Jewish Center in Manhattan. It later made its way with significant changes, into the book, “Faith and Doubt”:

Saadia Gaon….speaks of the excessive striving for “rest” . Granting that leisure is necessary for physical and mental recovery… it nevertheless is a vain and empty goal if taken by and for itself. It has meaning only as the aftermath of strenuous exertion, and hence is ancillary to work, but can never replace it. Taken without work, it is mere laziness……

… the authentic Jewish view is not that the Sabbath was created for the six days, thus reducing menucha to the character of a vacation, but that the six days were created for the sake of the Sabbath; that, as indicated, the menucha was itself the apex of the order of creation.

In fact, Dr. Lamm notes, the first full day of life of Adam was the seventh day – Shabbat!

What are our priorities on Shabbat and Yom Tov? Dr. Lamm:

By simply removing the distractions and the obsession with work which chokes off creativity during the week, man’s innate propensity for self-creativity may come to express itself quite naturally….

Second, and more important, Judaism provides its classical answer to the ideal utilization of leisure time. It is the intellectual way: the study of Torah.“The Sabbaths were given to Israel in order that they might study Torah.” The Sabbath, both as a specific day and as the model for an ethic of leisure, is the occasion for study.

This message dovetails nicely with a profound observation by the great Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein:  The mishna records five tragic events that took place on the 17th of Tamuz:

  1. Moses broke the tablets at Mount Sinai – in response to the sin of the Golden Calf.
  2. The daily korbanot (offerings) in the First Temple were suspended during the siege of Jerusalem
  3. Jerusalem’s walls were breached, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
  4. Prior to the Great Revolt, the Roman general Apostamos burned a Torah scroll
  5. An idol was placed in the Sanctuary of the Holy Temple.

RCA colleague Moshe Stavsky paraphrases Rav Lichtenstein’s query:  The negation of the daily korbanot doesn’t seem as devastating as the other 4 events; it was merely the absence of the daily offering;  the Temple was still around and the situation could have been reversed.  What’s the big deal?  

A similar question emanates from a midrash, in which three prominent Tannaim debate the verse that expresses the most all-encompassing principle of the Torah:

  • Ben Zoma: Shema Yisrael
  • Ben Nannas: Love your fellow as yourself
  • Ben Pazi: One lamb should be brought in the morning, the other in the afternoon. 

The first two views are simple to understand: Ben Zoma focuses a Jew’s commitment to the One G-d of history, while Ben Nannas highlights the oneness of the Jewish people.  But Ben Pazi’s view is cryptic! How all-inclusive is the concept of a twice daily offering?

Answer: Judaism is built on consistency. Those two little lambs represented the consistency required in religious life.  This explains why, when the daily sacrifice ended, we mourn.  It signaled the end of normal religious life.  The absence of these korbanot, starting on the 17th of Tamuz, broke our consistency, it broke our expression of commitment to The One who dwelled in the Temple.  Dedication and commitment to Hashem is THE all-encompassing principle of Jewish life – hence, Ben Pazi!

How many of us – especially in the environment of the American summer – carve out sufficient time for ourselves for matters of the spirit?  It’s wonderful to come to synagogue on a weekly basis and to engage in both Torah and Tefilah, but how do we fare outside of the environment of the Kehilla?  How can we create a daily island in time to pursue the matters of the spirit ?  What is our personal vacation destination?

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