My wife and I finished this 1000 piece jigsaw of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace at Night,” providing an excuse to revisit this essay from 2011.
210 years as slaves in Egypt. 40 years wandering in the desert. 70 years of suffering in Babylon. 1,931 years scattered to the far ends of the earth… and counting.
Exile has defined most of the history of Jewish people, always as a response to our failure to value our relationship with the Almighty. When we turn our backs on Him (or on one another), He responds by allowing us to experience the consequences of separation through the loneliness of exile.
How remarkable, then, that at times extraordinarily pious have undertaken journeys of self-imposed exile, wandering anonymously from place to place, begging for bread and lodging, concealing their true character and brilliance, and never knowing what awaited them around the next corner. There was nothing remotely romantic about these adventures. They were intended to inure budding Torah leaders against attachment to material comforts, and also to teach them humility as a safeguard against the reverence and adulation showered upon the learned. During the days of the Chassidic masters of the 18th and 19th centuries, stories of the tribulations of exile abounded.
I knew nothing of this when I embarked upon the most foolhardy undertaking of my life and set off to hitchhike across the United States after I finished college. What I did know was that my existence had become too comfortable and too easy. I had never had to overcome serious obstacles or grapple with substantial challenges. I had spent five years acquiring a degree that prepared me for nothing, and I lacked even the faintest outline of a plan for the future.
As I had approached the culmination of my college career, I found myself disconcerted — not because I had no idea what I would do next, but because my lack of prospects didn’t seem to bother me at all. I had been carried by the current along the River of Least Resistance, without ever learning to navigate or deciding upon a destination. Now the river was about to empty into the Sea of Countless Possibilities, and my boat was not seaworthy.
So I slung a pack over my back and hit the road. I didn’t think of it as exile, but as escape. Escape from too much comfort and too much security; escape from too little responsibility and too little accountability. And as much as I tried to make it sound romantic, all such illusions were swept away my first night on the road clambering out into the cold to stake out my tent as it buckled before the November wind that swept out of a still evening sky.
I wasn’t Jack Kerouac — indeed, I was already old enough to see through Kerouac, whose revelations had lost their drama by the early eighties and who, when he ran out of money the first time out, caught a bus back home to his mother.
I wasn’t Christopher McCandless, who walked away from his prospects and possessions to go off into the wild. After all, I had $500 in traveler’s checks, carried two credit cards, and I was never far from a phone in case of emergency. On the other hand, I didn’t die of exposure after eating poison berries.
And I certainly wasn’t Rabbi Zusia of Annipoli, whose secret acts of piety in the face of astonishing adversity have become legend.
But I did learn to look at myself and at the world around me through different eyes. And one of the most powerful lessons came, albeit inadvertently, from a most unlikely teacher.
I met Steve at a youth hostel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from where he agreed to drive me as far as Fort Worth, Texas. I remember the blue desert sky and dazzling sun that morning, and I remember going out in shirt sleeves as I would have in California, only to be driven back inside by an air temperature ten degrees below freezing. I was already starting to learn.
Steve was in no hurry. He was taking the two weeks before starting a new job to see the country, but he was on a budget and insisted upon driving 50 miles per hour to save on gas. Having begged my ride I was in no position to argue. I certainly wasn’t in a hurry myself, except to keep pace with the advancing cold front as I headed south.
Nevertheless, I gritted my teeth in frustration as we crawled along the highway. Cars, trucks, and trailers sped past us, each a blur of motion, as did birds and tumbleweeds — or so I imagined. But it was going to be a long trip, and as I forced myself to make peace with the inevitable, I began to notice something completely unexpected:
By slowing down a mere fifteen miles per hour, the world beyond the roadside changed from a blur into a sharply defined landscape; trees and shrubs transformed from shapeless, green masses into a nuanced tapestries of leaves reflecting sunlight in infinite combinations as they rippled softly in the breeze; every lonely farmhouse acquired a unique character, whether from weathered paint or strewn tractor parts or kitschy statuary or slung hammocks and yard swings. Even the gray asphalt of the highway and the painted white lines took on texture and depth.
Stripped completely of any control over our rate of progress, I relaxed enough to recognize the view beyond my window not as a continuously rolling panorama but as a carefully fashioned composition of myriad parts and variegated pieces. Like an impressionist masterpiece, the apparent randomness of details up close belied the order of design revealed by distance, and the holism achieved at a distance belied the attention to detail that only became recognizable up close.
The wise man’s eyes are in his head, says King Solomon. Well, where else would they be? As the wisest of all men, Solomon never wasted time stating the obvious. Rather, he was commenting on the Creator’s placement of the eyes, upon which we rely most for sensory input, adjacent to the brain, which enables us to process and interpret the information we acquire.
A wise may does not merely look, nor does he merely see. He perceives. And he understands that perception requires looking at the world in many different ways, from different directions, and in different environments. As the great impressionists demonstrated through an innovative style that was originally derided by traditionalists, the appearance of any object or phenomenon can change dramatically depending on how we view them. Things do not look the same at morning as they do in the afternoon, or in the afternoon as they do at evening. Light, shadow, angle, context — these are the elements that create perspective, which is the key to genuine understanding.
It might seem logical to race through the exile of this world in order to more quickly escape its travails and come out on the other side. But only by paying attention to where we are can we chart a course toward where we need to go. As we race through our lives, too busy to notice the subtleties that make our world a place of limitless fascination, too preoccupied to take revel in the development of our own children and the maturing of our own relationships, too distracted by the blur of ephemeral attractions to contemplate the eternal complexion of our souls, we cheat ourselves of the opportunity to learn the lessons of exile. And it is only by learning those lessons that we can truly shorten the road that leads us home.