The Art of Being Away
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
I find it very difficult to go away on vacation (given all my responsibilities) and need my wife to encourage me along. However, when I finally get away for a few days, I find myself able to change gears, relax, and reflect on aspects of my life in a more profound way. I get to see my wife and children in a different light and reconnect with them. Why can’t I do this at home? Because at home I am less able to view things as an external observer. I am wrapped up in my day-to-day activities and do not have enough external awareness to view things from the correct perspective. We are like ants on a beautiful picture focused only on the paint in front of our eyes, unable to see the broader picture.
In Parshat Shoftim, the Torah commands the Jewish people to set aside cities of refuge. Individuals guilty of involuntary manslaughter (accidental murder resulting from negligence) were commanded to leave their hometowns and flee to a city of refuge. A person guilty of involuntary manslaughter must relocate to specific cities for rehabilitation. Maimonides (based on a Mishna) states that a Levite dwelling in a city of refuge (who is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter) is obligated to leave his home city and flee to a different city of refuge. Clearly, being in one of these cities is not sufficient for rehabilitation. The actual process of being exiled from one’s regular living place is an essential part of the rehabilitation process.
A person guilty of involuntary manslaughter has become overly focused on him/herself and acts negligently, without considering others, resulting in tragedy. The Torah, in its wisdom, therefore commands that the person be exiled. The exile process enables the person to get out of him/herself, to broaden his/her awareness, and, thus, shift his/her focus and priorities.
The problem is that one cannot always be away and on vacation. The solution must be to somehow have a broader ‘away’ consciousness while still being at home. There must be a way to be able to stand back from the busyness, stresses, and hustle and bustle of life. The two tools I have found to be most useful in this regard are Torah study and mindfulness practice. Torah study reorients our worldview and priorities, enabling us to expand our consciousness. Mindfulness practice helps us to be aware of ourselves and others as external observers, freeing ourselves from the myopic and self-absorbed mindsets we tend to fall into. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement, let us strengthen our resolve to step back, notice our patterns, realign our priorities, and commit to living at home with an ‘away’ consciousness.