Rav Dovid Orlofsky speaks of a telling moment in American culture: the day they began selling faded jeans.
Though jeans may not be an item of clothing we ourselves wear, there is a fascinating aspect to what it represents in Western culture. Jeans are made of tough fabric, and are thus perfectly suited for someone – such as a hiker, climber, construction worker, etc. – who leads an active lifestyle. Jeans, therefore, came to symbolize an active life.
Even jeans, however, tough as they may be, eventually reach their limit. For those whose days bring them near-constant action, their jeans do begin to fade. Extreme action causes not only the fading of color, but eventually also the rubbing out of the fabric itself. Someone with faded jeans was thus someone with an active life. A man with rubbed-out jeans was a man with a very active life.
What was a man to do, however, if he led a boring and sedentary lifestyle? Wouldn’t one glance at his still-fresh jeans mark him as a bore and a loser? Thus evolved the marketing of faded jeans, made to give one who had no action an image of someone who did. Do you want to come across as someone who sees lots of action? No problem, you can buy already-rubbed-out jeans, or pre-ripped ones, to give you the look of a very active man!
This, then, explains Rav Orlofsky, is how Western culture turns reality on its head, because one who sees past the superficial sees a completely opposite picture. Buying a pair of faded jeans is basically making a statement that, “I have no life. I need to pay to have my clothing worn out, because I myself don’t wear them out.”
One who purchases ripped jeans is saying, “I really have no life!” This person is basically announcing that he never sees much action or excitement. He needs to pay to make it look like he has a life, because he has no life.
Is Your Bein Hazemanim Exciting?
This brings us to bein hazemanim, the time of summer vacation. This author remembers summers spent in a local camp or similar area in the company of truly lively and entertaining bachurim. One needed to go no further than the nearest clearing to enjoy an unforgettable evening or all-nighter. Spontaneous kumzitzen, the most hysterical give-and-takes, camaraderie and high-spiritedness with bochurim who led rich and meaningful lives both in the bais medrash and out were the highlights of many a bein hazemanim.
These were people who had a life.
Some years later, I met someone from a different crowd, who liked to think of themselves as somewhat more “elite.” This fellow tried describing a “not shayich” bein hazemanim. “First we rented a festeh car,” he began, in the hottest vernacular of those years.
“Okay,” I nodded. “But where did you go?”
“You don’t chapp; that wasn’t the point. It was poshut a matzav! The car, the chevrah; we drove out ergitz who-knows-where, and we mamish had a blast.”
It sounded exciting, so I asked, “Takeh? What did you do?”
“Well, we had some serious ‘cues – burgers, steaks, the works.”
“I hear,” I nodded, hearing how the very shortening of “bar-b-cues” to “cues” was itself supposed to indicate what a festeh chevrah these guys were. “But what did you do that was takeh so exciting?”
Eventually, it emerged that these guys actually didn’t do much of anything. For lack of a fun and exciting chevrah who could turn any venue into an “event,” they tried valiantly to convince themselves that they were having fun by going through the superficial motions. It was like they’d bought ripped and faded jeans and were trying to convince themselves that they had a life.
Only they didn’t. If you have to pay someone to wear your pants out for you, you have no life, and if you need to pay lots of money on car rentals, food and entertainment to try and convince yourself that you’re having fun, you’re clearly not having all that much fun. Real fun, true good times, can be had anywhere by people who know how to have a great time, with no need to go through any great motions that declare: “Look: we’re having fun.”
Look! I have a life! Not.
The sad part is that in today’s superficial world, it seems that even those bochurim who would know how to have an enjoyable bein hazemanim no longer do so. Rather, so many are instead bitten by the bug of “buying the faded jeans,” going through empty motions to show that they’re having a life, when they’re having no life. Cars are rented and destinations grow ever more distant and “exotic.” “The mountains? Ech! We can go miles further than that!”
Of course, the next group must show that they can have even more “fun” by going yet farther, and the next group farther still.
“You bought faded jeans? I bought rubbed-out jeans!”
“Hah! You bought rubbed-out jeans? We bought ripped jeans! We really have a life!”
In this manner, sadly, bein hazemanims are becoming emptier and emptier, while the sign on the rented car grows bigger and bigger: “Look,” it declares. “We’re doing something really far out. We really have a life.”
Only they don’t. The louder the declaration, the more it’s trying to drown out the emptiness it’s covering up. How pathetic. Those who really know how to enjoy themselves can do so with little fanfare and surely with no sacrifices to their principles. A truly geshmakeh chevrah can have a blast while looking like the bnei Torah they are. I’ve seen serious bnei Torah having some serious bein hazemanim excitement climbing through challenging wadis in Eretz Yisroel and hiking to pre-dawn sunrises, all in their white short and black pants (an old, junky pair, of course). If one needs a less fine get-up to convince himself that he has a life, then he has no life.
We’re not even discussing doing things that are clearly unbecoming or worse. Such “vacations” have no place in the life of any ben Torah, and are often not for any frum Yid. Again, if one is really a fun person and knows how to enjoy himself, he can do so without sacrificing his self-respect and self-worth. Anyone who needs to go places where there are no minyanim, where they are placing themselves in an atmosphere of total pritzus, where the “fun” is in drinking like a common shikkur rather than in anything real, is truly pitiful in how lacking he is in any real excitement, fun or geshmak. A real geshmakeh chevrah know how to have a great time and a great bein hazemanim without needing to buy into the external, and empty, displays of “having fun.”
Four Jews on a Train
Among his writings describing his travels throughout pre-war Europe, Rav Moshe Blau relates a fascinating, yet frightening, episode. As the right-hand man and confidant of the gedolei hador of the old yishuv as well as in Europe, and the leader and power behind many of the frum organizations of the time, Rav Blau traveled from Yerushalayim to Europe to attend the 1923 Knessiah Gedolah as well as other gatherings of rabbonim. He took advantage of his time in Europe to visit the rabbonim and kehillos throughout Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and other places. Upon his return to Yerushalayim, he put many of his impressions on paper, describing to his brethren in Eretz Yisroel the situation and circumstances of the various communities in Europe.
In describing Lita (Kisvei Rav Moshe Blau, Rishmei Chol, Lita, 1) Rav Blau writes how true it is that the Jews of Lithuania were steeped in Torah learning. “Torah learning, and even pilpula d’Oraisa,” he writes, “were not the sole purview of those who sat in the bais hamedrash or of specific talmidei chachomim who learned continually. Rather, it was taken for granted as the possession of every man of the masses; of every businessman, storeowner, tradesman and worker.”
Lita, in other words, was saturated with Torah learning. This did not contradict, notes Rav Blau, the fact that Haskalah was making terrible inroads in Lita and taking many sacrifices. Rather, despite the vast numbers who were influenced by the secular culture and the many who completely abandoned the mesorah, Torah learning had been so ingrained in Lithuanian Jewry that it was still to be found not only in the bais hamedrash, but also in the street and in the business world.
Rav Blau then relates an eye-opening episode that had taken place while he was riding aboard a train in Lita. “I was in a car along with four Yidden,” he writes, “who, when glanced upon superficially, would have been indiscernible to even know that they were Yidden. I entered into conversation with them, and our discussion moved from topic to topic until one of them happened to make mention of the halachic term ‘ka’asher zomam velo ka’asher osoh.’ Immediately, all four became enthused and began discussing all the sevaros of this rule from their sources, and they entered into an in-depth discussion of this halacha with great bekius and pilpul. And during this entire time that they were arguing in learning,” concludes Rav Blau, “not one of them thought it necessary to don a yarmulka!”
Such is the sad result of Torah – even with lomdus, bekius and pilpul – when it is removed from any sort of yiras Shomayim.
Is it a stretch to suggest that if we embark on a free-for-all road-trip to places with no shul and no minyan but with much exposure and hefkeirus, we are not much different than those four Jews on the train no matter how much lomdus and Torah we bring along with us?
Who is Serving Whom?
The Medrash on the words “Vehinei Hashem nitzav olov” (Vayeitzei 28:13) contrasts the word “olov” as found here regarding Yaakov Avinu as opposed to the way it is mentioned later by Paroh. “Reshaim miskaymim al eloheihem,” the Medrash tells us. Reshaim, too, have a god, but they see themselves as atop their god. Their god is there to serve them.
Tzaddikim, on the other hand, “E-keihem miskayem aleihem, their G-d is always on top of them,” says the Medrash.
The easy way to tell whether one is a true ben Torah or merely one who knows how to learn Torah is to see who is in the service of whom. If our fun and good times serve us as bnei Torah, then we’re indeed having a great bein hazemanim. If, however, everything we stand for throughout the year is suspended in the face of a desperate search for thrills, then it’s time to re-evaluate both, whether we are indeed bnei Torah, as well as whether we truly know how to have fun.
It’s not easy. There is a terrible lack of options for many older (as well as younger) bnei Torah, and it is not necessarily that much better for the girls, with so many camps losing their minds – and souls – in search of ever more empty “thrills.” One hesitates to speak negatively of those who work so hard all year and mean well, yet have so few options for simple relaxation and geshmak during their vacation weeks.
Still, we have it within ourselves, and the stakes are high. It often takes months after the start of Elul zeman for a bochur to return to a semblance of where he was before his summer free-fall, and sometimes he can never really climb back. If we put some thought into it, we can indeed have a good time – with fun, camaraderie, Torah and aliyah – rather than merely pretend we’re having fun by doing nothing but acting irresponsibly and shouting, “Look! We’re having fun!”
It may take some going against the crowd, some trend-setting, some doses of achrayus and responsibility. (Of course, some parental impetus, rather than parents AWOL, helps as well.) In the end, after a summer filled with real memories absent horrible feelings of emptiness and guilt, we’ll be happy we made the right choices.