The Torah designates unique cities to be set aside for the Levites (priest-educators). The Bible’s unique zoning laws include not only designated areas for living (where building can take place) and for agriculture (where planting can take place), but also a designated open area (where neither building nor planting may take place). Maimonides teaches that this law actually applies to all cities in Israel (Shmittah v'Yovel 13:5). Why is this area (the migrash) is left open, without development (Numbers 35:2)?
Firstly, this may be yet another manifestation of the Torah’s deep concern for animal welfare (as it is partially designated for the free grazing of animals). This area is also designated for the beautification of the city (Rashi) and is a reminder of valuing our land (and to not merely have an instrumental relationship to the environment). Most significantly, though, it sends a message that we need open space in our lives. We need space for reflection and imagination. Everything is not to be developed.
Consider the words of Joseph Campbell:
This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen (Power of Myth).
Our spaces are cluttered with things, our time is jammed with activities (more so than ever with smart phones, at-home computer work, and social media pressures), and our minds are constantly filled with external stimulation. What would it look like to leave a bit more space, time, and mind-space open for reflection and processing?
On a secular level, English, and later American, reformers created the movement for urban parks more than 150 years ago, realizing that people needed a refuge from the crowded, polluted city, in which they could have physical activity and engage in solitary and community activities that crossed class lines. Can you imagine New York City, for example, without Central Park? It would be so much more stressful than it already is now.
The migrash also fulfills a spiritual mission. We know that there is one aspect of spiritual life that is consumed within content (liturgy, text, relationship, etc.). There needs to be another type, however, that is about emptiness and openness. When we remove all other content, a new space is open for creativity, discovery, and possibility.
Where might you carve out a new “migrash” in your own life?
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”