Time for a Vacation? (Ideas #70)

Even more than a month of mourning, Av has become identified with the bein hazmanim vacation that starts the day after Tisha beAv. As opposed to the other major breaks of the yeshiva schedule, the break in the month of Av is host to neither major holidays nor their accompanying preparations. As such, it takes on a very carefree character, wherein the main occupation is to seek enjoyable activities with which to busy ourselvses and our children in liew of our regular schedules.


Taking a vacation is actually a much more serious affair then we might think.  After all, the Ohr haChaim suggests that it was precisely the desire for leisurely diversion that allowed the Jews to be ensnared by the women of Midian and their idols. Vacations are far from enshrined in Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, they seem to be an accepted part of the lifestyle of almost all Jewish families today. That being the case, we need to seek a Jewish perspective on the subject.

The obvious dangers of vacations notwithstanding, perhaps vacations can be used in our Avodat Hashem, in our efforts to build our relationship with G-d. In searching for such a role, it may be worthwhile to remember the festivities that occurred on the 15th of Av. When we read the Talmud's description of these events (Ta'anit 26b and 31a), it is hard to know what to make of them. Young Jewish women would go out and try to catch the attention of eligible young men, each group of women trying to accentuate their most impressive attributes. They would do this in order to elicit propositions of marriage which apparently were, in fact, the order of the day. At first glance, such a ritual may sound highly problematic, something that we would likely advise our children not to attend. Not only does it defy our concept of modesty, we wonder how it is that respectable Jews could make such quick decisions about such an important thing as whom to marry. Yet no less a figure than R. Shimon ben Gamliel tells us that this very ceremony made the 15th of Av into one of the two most joyous days of the Jewish year.

If we look carefully at the language the women would employ on the 15th of Av, we may perhaps see what might really have been going on. They would say to the men tnu Einichem le.. , literally give your eyes to (whatever it is they wanted the men to focus upon). The Maharasha points out that giving one's eyes here cannot just mean to look at something. While he does not continue to explain what the phrase does mean, presumably he would tell us that the women are not so much asking for the men to look but rather to reflect. It is possible, however, to look more deeply into this phrase and to understand something even more profound.

While one could relegate the two words to simply being an expression, the same way that, in English, paying attention is just an expression, it behooves us to at least consider the possibility that giving one's eyes is really rooted in the actual notion of giving. As opposed to placing (as we now say in Hebrew concerning the heart, the expression that conveys the equivalent of paying attention), giving implies the release of an object from oneself when I give something, that means that I no longer plan to take it back, as I have relinquished ownership over that item. In contrast, when I place something, it may well be temporary and I may have every intention of taking it back in the future.

From this point of view, to give one's attention, as in the women's request, would be no small feat. It would require the men to completely relinquish control of their focus. In other words, they would for a moment have to think of nothing else but what that which the women were saying. Far from frivolous, such cognition would allow the men to make a very well thought-out decision as to their priorities in marriage. In such a situation, a man does not need much time to make up his mind about whom to marry for he is completely focused.

Whether we are correct or not about the meaning of this phrase, the observation that it brings gives us a valuable insight. In choosing a spouse, as in most other things, what prevents us from knowing what to do is our inability to focus on the matter at hand. We are not able to relinquish our attention to any particular item at any given time and living in increasingly complex societies has made such an endeavor even more difficult. This is how true vacations may help us. The idea of getting away, of simplifying one's choices and pushing off one's responsibilities for a few days may give us a unique opportunity to completely focus for a change. (If this description of what a vacation should be sounds curiously like Shabbat, it may be no coincidence. It is likely that this is one of the main goals of the prohibition of work on Shabbat. Still, for many reasons, a vacation may allow us to get the focus that seems to elude us even on Shabbat.)

This matter may be most felt in the world of prayer, a pursuit that ideally requires complete focus. When I went on vacation this year (not in Av), one of the unexpected highlights was in the quality of my prayers. The lack of concern about projects, meetings, household obligations and the like allowed my mind to be focused on prayer and only on prayer.

If on vacation, we can create a situation that allows us to know what it is to relinquish our focus to one item alone then, at the very least, we can feel what it really means to pray. While it may not be something we can easily continue when we get back home, it gives us a model to try to emulate during the rest of the year.

Is Av really the time to take a vacation? If we use vacations as a time to learn how to focus more, perhaps Av is an ideal time. The time of year when we mourn that which we are lacking, specifically the Beit haMikdash, is a time of emptiness in our souls. We are not busy with the lofty thoughts of Pesach or Shavout and, for better or worse, there are few opportunities to study Torah - it is a truly desolate period in the calendar. This same desolation, however, can also be seen as a lack of clutter which, in turn, greatly simplifies the task of refocusing on that which is important. Indeed, the Netziv points out that Moshe had to go to the most desolate part of the wilderness in order to encounter G-d.

The Talmud (Berachot 63) tells us that the entire Torah revolves around the verse in Mishle that tells us "Know Him in all your paths and He will straighten your ways." As we take to our paths on vacation, we must remind ourselves that this too can be a very fruitful time in our spiritual growth.