The Three R’s of Summer Fun

Most of us know about the three age-old R’s of schooling and education: Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic. In more contemporary times, when the focus has gone from being educated to simply focusing on oneself, we read a lot about a new sort of three R’s: the Three R’s of Relaxing, Recharging and Rejuvenating. Of course we’re assured that a healthy you is the first step in being there for others, so one must see to these three R’s of self-pampering simply as a means of being a good parent, friend, boss, employee or child.

The problem is that often, even after an intense (and expensive) experience that promised to deliver on relaxing, refreshing and rejuvenating, we come back to the daily grind to find that – shockingly – while we felt so refreshed until we got back, suddenly it’s as if we’ve never taken a break at all. What happened to coming back recharged and refreshed? Where did all it go?

While there may be more than one explanation for the above phenomenon, all too often the culprit is our misjudging in which areas and in what ways to apply these Three R’s. Indeed, a person does need to recharge. The gedolei Yisroel back in Europe went on dacha during the summer, and they surely did so for good reason. Perhaps a look at those dachas might inform us as to what a vacation is and what it is not.

Many people mistakenly believe that vacationing is about physical relaxation. This, however, is rarely the case. If it would be, people would be staying home and doing nothing rather than exerting much effort to travel and then engage in all sorts of activities while on their vacation. On the whole, though, staying home and doing nothing drives people crazy and makes them desperate to go on vacation. Hence, vacationing can hardly be about the relaxation we often picture it to be.

What, then, is a vacation all about, and what is gained by going “on vacation”?

There are many famous photos of Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz and a young Rav Aharon Kotler – as well as many others – speaking in learning while relaxing in reclining chairs in a clearing in midst a wooded area. Obviously, their vacation was not from Torah study, as it would never be. Why, then, did they need the dacha in the first place? If they continued their rischa de’Oraisa, their involved Torah study, on vacation as they’d been doing in the bais medrash, why not simply continue it in the bais medrash?

Perhaps, then, a vacation means a change of scenery. Too often, though, we change our scenery, but we bring all of our worries, pressures and anxieties along for the ride. It brings to mind the overworked young mother whose own mother begged her to leave her young children with her, the grandmother, for a few days, so that the young lady and her husband can “get away” for a bit.

The grateful young woman accepted the offer, packed up a few days’ supplies of baby and toddler items, dropped the children and paraphernalia at her mother’s, and left with her husband for the airport. The flight, however, was torture. “Do you think the kids are okay?” she asked her husband not five minutes after take-off. “Oy, I should have packed the truck book that Mendy loves.” “I hope Mindy’s not trying my mother’s patience; she could be a handful, you know.” “Oh my gosh! I forgot to tell my mother about that time Mendy broke out after eating asparagus. What are the chances that my mother’s going to serve asparagus? Oy vey, I can’t even reach her now.”

Of course, the second the plane landed, the young mother was on the phone, and it continued that way for the duration of the “vacation.” Needless to say, the vacation left both her, and her mother, exhausted and not very relaxed or recharged.

Boruch Hashem for Yiddishe mamas who never really can take a “break” from their children. Still, how can one take a nice and fun vacation if he or she packs their year-long worries along with all the other items for their trip?

Perhaps the timing of our greatest vacation time (of course there are others) may be illustrative of what is supposed to be accomplished during our time off.

The summer, specifically the weeks after Tisha B’Av and before Elul, are amongst the greatest “off” times in our calendar. It may begin earlier or it may go a little later, but the time period following the Three Weeks and leading up to Elul is, and has been for hundreds of years in the Jewish calendar, a time for “vacation.”

Now the Three Weeks are about focusing on our past – and present – misdeeds and on the suffering, rather than any imagined pleasures, such deeds bring in their wake. We mourn the levels we could have reached but haven’t.

Elul, on the other hand, is not so much about mourning our misdeeds, but on our attempts to rectify them. Forget what was; now is a time to leave the past and work on a far brighter and better future. Hashem comes close to us, and we, in turn, grab the opportunity to come – and hopefully remain – close to Him as well.

How do we bridge the gap from feeling badly about what was to working actively towards a better future?

The answer, of course, is by practicing the real Three R’s: Relinquish, Refocus and Renew. One cannot truly enjoy himself so long as he’s holding on to all of his old baggage. Difficult as it may be, we must learn to relinquish our hold on so many things that we carry with us for no real reason at all.

I once heard a remarkable insight in the name of a talmid of Rav Aharon Kotler. This talmid, who ultimately became a talmid chochom and yirei Shomayim of note, once spoke about how he had been going through a period in which numerous life challenges were weighing upon him.

“The rosh yeshiva (Rav Aharon) taught me,” he explained, “that when I come into the beis medrash, I can leave my pekel by the door. Although I am so used to carrying it, there is really no reason for me to bring it inside.”

“I later realized,” this talmid revealed, “that very often I don’t even have to pick the pekel back up on my way out!”

The Chofetz Chaim in Sefer Shemiras Halashon (cheilek 2, Parshas Shelach) describes how the yeitzer hara is a master of reminding us of every bad deed we’ve done any time that we contemplate improving ourselves or doing something positive. “Don’t forget how you did this or that or the other thing,” he reminds us. “Now suddenly you’re going to be all holy and good? Who’re you fooling?”

While in truth Hashem is perfectly fine with us feeling bad and accepting to be better in the future – teshuvah – the yeitzer hara is an expert at each of our individual guilt buttons and knows when to press them to keep us bogged down instead.

As such, after acknowledging, during the Three Weeks, that we have many areas in which to improve, we must now learn how to relinquish them and move on rather than sit in the muck of depression, stuck to our past.

The only way to relinquish our bad habits is through Refocusing. Misdeeds don’t just happen. They are almost always the result of a failed focus. If our focus was on the here and now, the fleeting pleasures, the passing whims, the latest trends or the newest material indulgences, only through refocusing on what will truly bring us pleasure will we be able to move on and move upwards.

If a misguided focus on satisfying our physical desires caused us to waste our precious G-d-given time, talents and resources on moments that add not an ounce of lasting benefit or long-term meaning to our lives, then only a change of focus on what will really bring us joy and happiness will allow us to utilize our time, talents and resources on moments with lasting pleasure, lasting meaning and lasting dividends.

With this fresh focus allowing us to relinquish the stale ways in which we may find ourselves mired, we can now truly Renew our lives in a way that will bring us real and lasting joy, fulfillment, excitement and pleasure.

This brings us back to our vacations. If vacations are often more physically demanding or grueling than daily living, from what are we vacationing? If vacations do not solve any of the things we’ve felt worry or pressure over, then how is it a vacation? Lastly, if we engage in many of the same daily activities over our vacation as throughout the year – such as learning, davening, behaving with decorum and tznius and bringing overall kiddush Sheim Shomayim wherever we may be – then in what way are we on vacation?

The Three R’s are the key. It’s not what we do, where we go or what we do or don’t bring along. Rather, it’s the attitude that counts. A change of pace, venue, scenery or locale is merely a way of reminding ourselves to change our focus on where it’s been until now to where we’d like it to be going forward. This is why those who know how to enjoy their vacations can have an absolutely great time whether in a local park or on an exotic getaway. One can bring all his baggage along on the farthest getaway, and one can leave his worries behind even while simply flying paper airplanes in the park with his children or friends.

Remember, too: We need not always pick those worries back up on our way home.

So with all this vacation time ahead of us (for those who are not facing such a time now, then whenever the next opportunity may present itself), we want to have fun, right? We want to enjoy, chill out a bit, relax and have a blast. Nobody wants to get some quick thrills only to come back and feel like they need a vacation all over again, like the air’s been let out of the fun before it even set in. We want to feel happy, light and carefree.

Indeed, that’s what vacation’s meant to be. We can do it if we use the opportunity to Relinquish, Refocus and Renew. Whether we’re playing ball, zooming down a trail, relaxing along a burbling brook or getting soaked in some wild rapids, let’s get the max enjoyment out of it by bringing our values along with us on our vacations while leaving our failings behind. In that way, we’ll be able to enjoy the vacation itself, while keeping the feeling of exhilaration long after we’ve come back.

A safe and enjoyable rest of the summer to all.