Leading British management theorist Alasdair White proffered what is perhaps the most authoritative definition of what we know as a “comfort zone”.
In his words, a human being’s comfort zone is a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk. Our ever-expanding online fountain of knowledge, Wikipedia, adds that a comfort zone is a type of mental conditioning that causes a person to create mental boundaries which allow for a sense of security.
Each of us has our comfort zone. They are symptomatic of the human condition. We are naturally risk averse. We fear change. We enjoy consistency and predictability in life. We like routine.
We feel safe in our comfort zones because they allow us to continue with the status quo without being challenged to change.
And leaving our comfort zone is always tough no matter how much life experience we have.
From toddlers letting go of Mum’s hand for their first day of kindergarten to a senior’s transition into aged care, change is always difficult. The uncertainty change brings evokes our yearning for what we had before.
But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that change is part of life. We exit our comfort zone and cross new frontiers. We adapt to a new normal. And then we start the process again.
In fact, our ancestors did this no fewer than 42 times within a very short period of time. The Torah portion this week describes in great detail the 42 specific journeys the Jews embarked upon from when they left Egypt until they arrived near Jericho, in close proximity to the Promised Land.
The Torah narrates their series of journeys with the following introduction: “These are the journeys of the children of Israel going out of the land of Egypt” after which it details the exact names of each of the journeys and subsequent encampments.
But there appears to be a grammatical inconsistency. Their first journey was from the city of Ramses which lies inside the Egyptian border, to the city of Sukkot which is outside Egypt. Hence, there was only one journey that took the Jews out of Egypt. The other 41 occurred outside of Egypt. Why then, does the Torah refer to the “journeys” (in the plural) out of Egypt instead of the “journey” (in the singular) out of Egypt?
The answer is simple yet profound. No matter how far our ancestors travelled away from the border of Egypt, they never truly left Egypt. Egypt is not just a country but a state of mind.
Egypt, in Hebrew “Mitzrayim”, means boundaries or constraints. So long as we live within our comfort zone we are trapped within our self-imposed boundaries. Only when we rise to the challenges of life and progress beyond our comfort zone, we become truly free.
But even after achieving this, we eventually find our routine and once again find ourselves trapped in our own little Egypt, until we progress beyond our comfort zone once more and enter into our next phase in life. And so it goes on.
This is particularly the case when it comes to our relationship with God and our faith. We must never be content with our current level of Jewish knowledge. We should always strive to learn more.
Life is a series of spiritual journeys and our Torah portion teaches us that each time we mature to the next stage of our commitment to Judaism, we will eventually regress back to Egypt – bound to the status quo of our new comfort zone.
Indeed, our Sages teach us that the righteous never rest – not in this world and not in the world to come.
They constantly strive to become better people and to live in a perpetual state of spiritual growth. And hopefully, we will emerge from the biggest change we’ve had in the past century due to this pandemic, as better and stronger people.
This is by no means an easy feat, but life is not as much about the destination as it is about the journey getting there.
Yaakov Glasman is Senior Rabbi of St Kilda Hebrew Congregation