Parashat Behaalotecha: Summer Vacation
The Torah in Parashat Behaalotecha tells of Beneh Yisrael’s departure from Mount Sinai, where they had been stationed for nearly a year: “Va’yis’u Me’har Hashem” (“They journeyed from the Mountain of G-d”). The Gemara comments that this departure from Sinai was a calamity. It was such a grave calamity, in fact, that the Torah had to insert two Pesukim after this verse to serve as a “buffer” between it and the next story, which tells of the tragedy of Kibrot Ha’ta’ava. Reporting two tragedies one after the other would be a source of great shame to Beneh Yisrael, and therefore the Torah made an interruption between these two terrible misfortunes – the nation’s journey from Sinai, and Kibrot Ha’ta’ava.
The obvious question arises, why is this calamity? Were Beneh Yisrael meant to remain at Sinai forever? Didn’t G-d want them to leave Mount Sinai and proceed to the Land of Israel?
Tosafot answer that the calamity lay not in the departure itself, but rather in the mindset with which Beneh Yisrael left. In Tosafot’s words, Beneh Yisrael left “as a child flees from school.” They left Sinai joyfully, as though “escaping” school.
Rav Mordechai Gifter (1915-2001) explained Tosafot’s comments by noting that when the school bell rings at the end of the day, the children “escape” in the sense of feeling free from school until the next morning. Throughout the day, they are bound by a schedule and set of expectations and responsibilities. The moment the bell rings, they are free from the school’s demands until the next day. And this was the tragedy of Beneh Yisrael’s departure from Sinai. They relished their perceived newfound “freedom.” They felt that their journey from “the Mountain of G-d” meant their “release” from the constraints and obligations which the Torah demands. They felt “free” like a child who hears the bell at the end of the last class.
This is indeed a tragedy, because a Jew must never feel “free” from the Torah’s obligations. We are bound by G-d’s laws when we are in yeshivah, at home, in the synagogue, in the office, at a social event, or on vacation. Even when we “journey from the Mountain of G-d,” when we – for entirely legitimate reasons – leave our familiar religious surroundings, the obligations and values which were taught at Mount Sinai must accompany us in our travels.
Unfortunately, many people – children and adults alike – approach summer vacation as “a child fleeing from school.” They see it as a time to relax their religious standards, to take a break from the regular schedule of prayer and study, and to enjoy a period of “freedom.” As Gemara teaches us, this is tragic.
There is never a break or vacation from religious commitment. When it comes to spiritual growth, momentum is critical. Once the momentum is broken, we can fall back to where we were at the outset. We all know that it is far easier to break than to build. An exquisite crystal vase can take days or weeks to make, but can be smashed in a split second. And this is true of spirituality, as well. We can all attest to the fact that it takes time and hard work to grow in Torah and in our connection to Hashem. But losing our achievements is very easy. It takes a lot less time than the 75 days of summer vacation.
As the summer unfolds, many of us will “journey from the Mountain of G-d,” and spend some time outside our ordinary framework of Torah and Misvot. We must ensure that even during this period of departure, we maintain our momentum of religious commitment. There is a beautiful initiative undertaken by a group of men in our community called the “Torahbus,” a special bus into the city every morning where Torah classes are given. This is just one example of how growth in Torah can continue even during the summer months. Each and every one of us must find his or her own way to keep up the momentum and ensure even as we “journey from the Mountain of G-d,” we will not, Heaven forbid, journey from G-d Himself.