I Have a Problem With Vacation

In Zalman Jaffe’s diary, “My Encounter with the Rebbe,” he records a casual remark of the Rebbetzin regarding the schedule and worth ethic of the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

The Rebbetzin disclosed to us that the Rebbe would be enjoying a few days’ “vacation” during the upcoming week, when he would be able to catch up on his reading, including my diary.

“Where is the Rebbe going on vacation?” I enquired.

“Oh,” replied the Rebbetzin, “he is not going anywhere. Instead of retiring to bed at 3:00am or 4:00am in the morning, he will be able to do so at 1:00am!”

These almost tangential words stand as a testament to the Rebbe’s superhuman commitment to his mission. They have burrowed their way into my mind, and forced me to examine my own discipline and commitment. More than ever, as we enter this vacation season, these thoughts have resurfaced.

For the Rebbe, it was clear that anything more than this meager allowance was a frivolous indulgence. Famously, in over five decades of leadership, the Rebbe barely ever left Crown Heights.

Perhaps you might be thinking “that’s not healthy”, “there’s no way that I could live like that” or “Hashem doesn’t expect that of you or me.” And you’d probably be right. Such a life is exceeding rare. These were the Rebbe’s personal standards; standards to which he did not hold his Chassidism or even his Shluchim.

Nevertheless, the Rebbe’s example gives us the opportunity to challenge ourselves: What are our standards? How much vacation do we need? What are we trying to achieve when we take a break? Are we even trying to achieve anything?

For most of the Western World, these questions themselves are missing the point. Vacations are designed, advertised and celebrated as a chance to rest, relax and recharge. There are no goals, no “achievements” other than to not be working.

Vacation is touted as the reward one earns in exchange for the months or years we have been working. Depending on one’s expendable income, the capacity to relax and enjoy might be enhanced by delicious and exotic foods, getting pampered in luxurious accommodations and enjoying memorable experiences. At the very least, our vacations are supposed to allow for some kind of escape from our daily responsibilities.

If we’re being honest, I think that this is exactly what we’re all looking for as well. These are our vacation aspirations.

Practically, this presents us with a problem, because it means that our dreams and aspirations are in stark contradiction with our often stated position that “there is no time off from Avodas Hashem”.

I don’t doubt that you agree with this sentiment. None of us think that we should take off time from being Avdei Hashem. Perhaps, you’ll argue, one can certainly rest and relax as an Eved Hashem! On a fundamental level, I don’t disagree, but things have quickly become more complicated than we’d like to admit. And without some serious consideration, there are pitfalls that we are guaranteed to encounter ourselves as Bnei Torah, and certainly regarding our kids.

Let’s talk about kids first.

As caring and committed parents, we know that a break from carpools and homework should never translate to a laxity in Torah and Mitzvos. But this is easier said than done.

During the school year we outsource many of aspects of chinuch and parenting to our wonderful Rebbeim, Moros and Schools. They take care of davening, learning, reading, practicing skills, wearing tzitzis, tefillin and attending minyanim.

Barring some obvious problems, we aren’t always great at keeping tabs on our children’s religious performance and growth. This naturally leads to a reality where, as the summer begins we aren’t always aware of where our kids are holding. How much of davening do they know? How connected are they to the words of Tefillah? What do they enjoy learning?

“It’s cool, my kid loves parsha!” But what exactly do they do in parsha class? How do we replicate some part of that experience? Do we know how to learn with our children?

And without clear guidelines of how to do it, we are reluctant to schedule any of our precious vacation minutes on these tasks.

When we don’t know how teach the parsha, most often, we concede: “I have no idea what to do here. But it’s ok they’re going to camp in a week or two. Not such a big deal if we don’t do so much davening and learning this week. After all... it’s vacation!”

The next time we blink, our kid is in camp, slowly developing the understanding that Avodas Hashem is a school or camp endeavor. Home becomes a place devoid of religious commitment.

And what about us as adults?

When pressed to choose between Avodas Hashem and relaxation, which are we inclined to pick?

It’s an uncomfortable questions, but we should ask it. Does more time on vacation means more focused Tefillah and more iyyun in the Daf? Are we using the time to be more intentional with our chessed and more attentive in our relationships? Or perhaps the moment we are outside of our regular schedules and environments, we tend to rationalize our laxities? “...After all, don’t we deserve a vacation as well?”

I am by no means trying to pass judgment for the way you choose to spend your summer. If anything, this is a public self-critique; an observation I had about my own Avodas Hashem.

Throughout the year, with the pressures of school, events, schedules and deadlines, my focus during davening is not always where I want it be. It’s an area where I want to do better. Of course, what better time to work on it than when things slow down and the summer arrives? But even in the past three days I’ve caught myself cutting a little too much slack. “It’s been a tough year, after all...”

This week it hit me: if I rationalize my lack of kavanah “because it’s vacation now”, then there will never be a time for me to improve.

The same concern is true regarding the chinuch of our children and the attention we give our spouses. It applies equally to our relationship with Hashem and observance of His mitzvos. It applies to every aspect of our personal, religious, and emotional growth and our general wellbeing.

Once we notice the pattern, it becomes easy to spot the Yetzer Hara lurking around the corner.

Have you ever decided to get back on a healthy diet and excursive routine when the summer arrives? Despite these best intentions, perhaps you’ve also found that the temptation of delicious foods and inconsistent schedules makes it embarrassingly easy to rationalize another delay? “I’ll start when we get back home... As soon as the kids are back in school.”

My point here is not, Chas V’Shalom, to demonize vacations, but simply to demonstrate that the summer offers us the unique opportunity to honestly audit our excuses.

The Torah tells us this Shabbos that Aharon kindled the Menora as Hashem had instructed Moshe. Rashi, quoting the Medrash explains that this was high praise:

לְהַגִּיד שִׁבְחוֹ שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן שֶׁלֹּא שִׁנָּה This is stated in order to tell the praise of Aaron — that he did not deviate from God's command.

But how is this praise? Do we really expect that Aharon HaKohen would disregard any aspect of what Hashem told Moshe?

The Mei HaShiloach explains: Rashi is telling us that Aharon never ever deviated from his commitment and never lost the excitement that he felt on that first day. He never made excuses, got bored, or passed up the opportunity to light the Menora.

The Ramban writes that Aharon’s sons could certainly have filled in. Despite this, Aharon lit the Menorah himself for the rest of his life.

He never took a break, because he didn’t want to.

That was the secret to the Rebbe’s vacation schedule. When you truly believe in the value and importance of your Avoda, there is nothing greater than ensuring that you can and will always do it.

Perhaps that’s our Avoda this summer as well.

Take the time to examine, discover and decide what it is that you could never take a vacation from. No matter when, where or how, what’s your mission? What’s your Menorah?