Sunday, February 19, 2017

So Restless

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

If he (the killer) did not hunt and trap to murder, but Elokim brought about involuntary-manslaughter through him, then I will lay down a space where the killer can flee. -Shemos 21:13

 [HaShem said to Kayin] “You are more cursed than the ground … When you cultivate the soil it will no longer yield its strength to you. You will be restless and isolated in the world.” -Bereishis 4:11.12

Kayin responded “Is my sin then too great to forgive?” -Ibid 4:13

 Kayin left HaShems presence. He dwelled in the land of Nod (isolation) to the east of Eden. -Ibid 4:116

We live in an era in which our lives are kinetic and restless. In every phase of life and during all of our waking hours, we are always on the go. Yet few people really seem to mind. The pan-societal consensus seems to be that whenever a person is on the move, that he is doing so for his own good. Some people transfer to new universities or yeshivas in middle of their education. Others relocate to advance their careers. Even the increasingly rare “company man” who stays with one firm throughout his entire career will make frequent business junkets. The travel industry does not refer to the area between first-class and coach as business-class for nothing. Most ubiquitous of all is traveling for pleasure. 

Staycations are indicative of a general economic downturn or of one’s own lack of financial success. The old saying goes that “if you’ve got money … you can travel” and most people who have money — do. The rule of thumb for achieving greater social status through travel is that the further-flung the destination, the better the vacation. People advance all kinds of rationalizations to validate their wanderlust. “Travel is broadening” they will say or they might claim “a change of scenery will do me a world of good.” Still others associate their homes and offices with stress and tension and, impatient for the afterlife, their vacations as the precursors of the ultimate reward in the world-to-come; “I’ve worked really hard and I deserve some R&R.” Some will even couch their constant flitting about in religious terms. "מזל משנה מקום משנה” – a change of location will result in a change of fortune.” (cp Rosh HaShanah 16B and Talmud Yerushalmi Shabbos 6:9). 

But some latter-day nomads dispense with the rationalizations altogether. They travel lishmah, so to speak. They may not be able to articulate it as eloquently, but they are in general agreement with Robert Louis Stevenson who said “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.” Perhaps it is modern man’s relentless movement that robs him of the luxury of pausing to ponder; why this is so? Why is the great affair to move? What is the real subconscious compulsion, the psycho-spiritual dynamic at work, which induces us to travel for travel’s sake? 

Rav Tzadok-the Kohen of Lublin provides an eyeopening and astonishing answer to these questions: Like Kayin, we are wanderers because we are murderers. This is not to say that we are guilty of the most flagrant and literal forms of homicide. Stabbing, strangling, shooting or poisoning the victim is not required. Our prophets and sages taught that there are other sins that, while not causing the permanent irreversible termination of life, are still iterations of murder. We’re all familiar with the Chazal that equates inflicting public humiliation to the point of blanching, with murder. (Bava Metzia 58B) Chazal coined a term “the three forked tongue” to describe sins of lashon hara– gossipy speech, because these sins kill three people; the speaker, the listener and the subject of the conversation. (Arachin 15B) The prophet Yeshaya condemned another form of non-homicidal murder when he thundered “You that inflame yourselves among the Terebinth trees, under every leafy tree; that slay the children in the riverbeds, under the clefts of the rocks!” (Yeshaya 57:3 see Niddah 13A) While those who transgress sins that do not rise to the legal and halachic definition of homicide are not sentenced to utterly abandon their homes and exile themselves to a refuge city or to the camp of the Levi’im they become unsettled, itinerant wanderers all the same. The Lubliner Kohen goes on to say that, the good news is, when we do begin to lay down roots in a particular place and achieve some tranquility and stability we can rest assured that we have been metaken [ameliorated] these homicide-like offenses. There’s even an intermediate condition during which, while we may be more or less fixed and established in a particular location, we are not really happy about it. The normal state of affairs is that of יושביו על מקום חן- “every place is charming to its own populace.” (Sotah 47A) If, on the other hand, we do not find anything attractive or satisfying about our homes, neighborhoods, towns or workplaces this is symptomatic of having repaired and been forgiven for the deed that was in some way equivalent to murder but that the antisocial thoughts that motivated us to act as we did, still require tikun-repair and teshuvahatonement. While our feet may not be itchy enough to take the first step in a journey of 1000 miles, our minds and spirits remain agitated, distracted and 1,000 miles away. 

In his classic work of Hashkafah, Michtav M’Eliyahu, Rabbi Eliyahu Lazer Dessler, z”l, views the entire contemporary human condition through the prism of the Lubliner Kohens teaching. Writing presciently in the mid twentieth century he points out that never before has mankind been so murderous and, not coincidentally, so nomadic and adrift. Weapons of mass destruction can lay waste to entire cities in a matter of moments. Gossip is no longer something whispered in dark corners but a multibillion dollar publishing industry. Slander, inaccuracies and half truths coupled with a breakdown in civil discourse had transformed character-assassination by means of public humiliation into an international sport. Unparalleled pornography, lasciviousness and loose morals had disseminated the form of murder that the Prophet Yeshaya decried to previously stern and puritanical corners of the earth. Concurrently, advances in aviation and other technologies made modern man substantially more mobile than his ancestors. From one end of the earth to the other, millions of people traverse unprecedented distances at previously unimaginable speeds. And while these travelers may dream that all this running about is advantageous to them or that they’re doing so for pleasure and entertainment (בידור in Hebrew is entertainment which is synonymous with a deep-seated disquiet, distraction and scattering of the soul-פיזור הנפש) they are, in fact, just living through the curse of Kayin, humanities first murderer. Despite all of the giant leaps forward in technology man has never felt so rootless, anxious and insecure. Imagine how much sharper Rav Dessler’s critique of modern man and how vindicated his linkage of highspeed, easily accessible travel with WMDs, the venality and universality of gossip and humiliation would be, were he writing today. Virtue is always its own reward. So we already had ample incentives to avoid doing the many sins that our tradition teaches are equivalent to murder. But if we needed an ulterior motive the Lubliner Kohen, has provided us with one. As the Torah is eternal HaShem “lays down a space where the killer can flee” and be free of the curse of Kayin in every generation. Refraining from lashon hara, publicly humiliating others, withholding wages et al seem a small price to pay to achieve a sense of a rootedness, connectedness and tranquility via entry to the sanctuary surrounded by invisible walls of Torah and teshuvah — the space that HaShem has laid down.