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Waiting for the Promised Land – Mattot/Mas’ei 5780

Two weeks ago my family and I were on vacation, tent camping in the Allegheny National Forest, and it was simply wonderful. It’s easy to socially distance when you’re out in the woods, and the hiking and biking were joyful and restorative. Despite the inconvenience of regularly checking for ticks, I actually really love being out of doors, and for me there is nothing quite like it. More importantly, we had no wi-fi or even a mobile phone signal for most of the time, so it was fairly easy to forget, at least for a few days, about the public health catastrophe that is going on all around us.

But we cannot ignore this, folks. It is not going away. I think the State of Pennsylvania made a critical tactical error in labeling this phase of re-opening “Green,” because it seems to me that this suggests, “Go for it.” People poured into bars and restaurants, flew off to the beaches in South Carolina and Florida, and in Allegheny County we went from almost no new cases to a couple of hundred a day. And I cannot even muster the energy to try to comprehend how the governor of Georgia decided to outlaw local mask-wearing orders. I am beside myself.

Let’s be clear here, folks: we did this to ourselves. Our politicians have ignored the directives of actual scientists and experts and have lacked the intestinal fortitude to clamp down, and we the people have refused to comply with simple, sensible health measures. As a result, this journey of grief and unemployment and depression will last much longer, and many more Americans will die.

Speaking of journeys, the end of the book of Bemidbar / Numbers documents the various places that the Israelites traveled to and set up camp on their 40-year journey from slavery in Egypt to redemption in Israel. It is one of a handful of passages in the Torah that list stops along the way. The question is asked by some commentators, why bother to list these locations? They are in the desert, unremarkable places that hold no other significance.

One theory, promoted in a midrash, is that God wanted the Israelites to have a record of where they had been, so they could recall the travails of the journey. “Here is where you were tired and needed to rest; here is where you felt ill; here is where you were thirsty and needed water.” Perhaps. 

But the Jewish journey that began in the Torah and effectively continues up until today includes stops in many places that we will never recall. How many of us can name the towns where our great-grandparents were born? Or their great-grandparents? And yet, we know how they suffered. They suffered at the hands of Cossacks and Spaniards and Arabs and Persians and Romans and Babylonians. They suffered through famines and plagues, and were often blamed for these things by their gentile neighbors. They suffered through blood libels and anti-Semitic laws and accusations and suspicions. They were forcibly conscripted into the Czar’s army, forcibly converted to Christianity and Islam, forcibly taken from their homes and put on trains and sent to death camps.

In the context of today’s pandemic, I must say, I am certain that we will survive. We will still be here when this is over. 

We will still be here because we have survived worse than this. Much worse, in fact.

A few of you may know that I host a bi-weekly meeting for what I refer to as the Hanhalah Team of the synagogue, the senior staff. It includes Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah, our Etxecutive Director Ken Turkewitz, Youth Director Marissa Tait, ELC Director Hilary Yeckel, and JJEP Director Rabbi Larry Freedman. And we had a meeting on Thursday that was tremendously frustrating. The ELC is open and functioning safely for about 60 kids in small, non-intermixing pods; that’s the good news. But for the rest of us, planning for the coming year – the High Holidays, JJEP’s classes, youth activities, Derekh activities, youth tefillah – all of them are effectively up in the air. We feel as though people are Zoomed out. We are working in an environment in which we cannot make decisions about the future, because we simply have no idea what the future looks like.

It’s not just frustrating. It’s downright painful. We all care about living and teaching our tradition, and since being Jewish so heavily depends upon being around others, it has made our lives so difficult.

But let’s face it: things could be much, much worse. Has veshalom / God forbid.

We always open these meetings with a devar Torah, and Rabbi Freedman regaled us this week with a wee bit of optimism: the Promised Land is coming. It’s actually not that far away. Yes, we are still in the desert, and we will be for a while. But next week we start reading the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy, and we know what happens next.

But maybe that’s why all those stops along the way from Egypt to Israel are there: to remind us that 40 years was a VERY long time. To remind us that the journey can be easily forgotten when recalling its endpoints. To remind us that there were headaches and hunger and thirst and loss along the way.

The silver lining is this: we are gathered here this morning, a testament to the fact that the Jews have survived 2,000 years of dispersion and destruction and suffering and loss. And how did we do this? By recounting the journey. And by leaning into the words of our tradition: the Torah, and of course the words of prayer, the words of our siddur. And let me just bring this to a close by pointing us all to one particular line in our siddur, one that is so often overlooked because it is mumbled through quickly in a transitional moment in the service. 

It’s found in Yequm Purqan, p. 412 in Sim Shalom and 176 in Lev Shalem. We only say this on Shabbat morning; it is a request for health and welfare for the congregation, and also includes a wish for our children. Open up and take a look for a moment:

זַרְעָא חַיָּא וְקַיָּמָא, זַרְעָא דִּי לָא יִפְסוק וְדִי לָא יִבְטול מִפִּתְגָּמֵי אורַיְתָא

Zar’a haya veqayama, zar’a di la yifsuq vedi la yivtul mipitgamei oraita. 

May [our] children thrive, never ceasing to speak words of Torah.

It’s in Aramaic. Why? Because that was the language that our ancestors spoke for many centuries, and therefore understood it better than Hebrew. We do not know exactly how old it is, but it first appears in the 13th-century French Mahzor Vitry.

Prayer, you may recall, is a blueprint for a better world, a vision of a society that could be. The point of this wish is to remind us that, just as we have carried our Torah with us for millennia, we want our children to do so as well.

It is a beautiful plea; a statement of yearning that, whatever challenges we face right now, in whatever spiritually-barren place in which we find ourselves, that our children receive and carry with them the words that have kept us alive and nourished us up until this very day.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we continue to face this pandemic, the dysfunction of our governing structures and the lamentably growing death count, remember that the silver lining is that our children will know Torah; that its wisdom and values and guidance will never depart from their lips. And now go out and make that happen. That is how we will get through this. The Promised Land is not far away.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/18/2020.)

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Sermons

Why I Love Camp Ramah – Mattot/Mas’ei 5776

I love summer camp. And in particular, I love Camp Ramah, with which I have a relationship extending now back 36 years, to my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England in 1980. (In case you do not know, Ramah is the camping arm of the Conservative movement; there are 13 North American camps plus affiliated programs in Israel, Ukraine, and Argentina.)

We arrived at Camp Ramah in Canada pretty late at night – it was 11:00 by the time we found our way to the guest cottage, which was far nicer than any such accommodations that I have seen at any of the other Ramah camps (I’ve now been to five of them, including the day camp in Jerusalem, where I worked in the summer of 2000 as a music specialist). The night air was cool – it was 63 degrees – and the stars were bright and vivid.

This camp really feels like the end of the world. Having never been so far north in Ontario before, I could not help feeling as we drove there that we kept taking turns onto smaller and smaller roads, finally ending up on a dirt pathway as we entered the camp property. The camp’s official address is on “Fish Hatchery Road,” which sounds far more organized than the rural environment reveals. (Curiously, my alma mater, Camp Ramah in New England, is also down the road from a fish hatchery. Coincidence?)

Nonetheless, the camp was alive and pulsing with energy when we pulled in – the staff was having a late-night barbecue, and we were promptly offered hot dogs, which we politely declined.

And, it wouldn’t be camp without some mayhem, so as we were getting into bed, all the smoke detectors in the guest cottages went off, dragging everybody out of bed and frightening my 7-year-old son greatly. But it was an opportunity to meet our neighbors and chat for a bit, so it wasn’t too bad. And that’s sometimes how camp works: you plan as thoroughly as you can, and then something sends your fabulous program gloriously off-course. But you adjust and go with the flow, and everything mostly works out fine in the end.

So we spent three and a half days there, playing soccer and frisbee, dunking in the agam (lake) and davening, dining in the hadar okhel (dining hall), lying around in the sun, welcoming and saying goodbye to Shabbat with all of the nearly 600 campers and staff together in raucous song.

What I love about camp are the following things:

  1. Being away from the craziness of everyday life, and replacing that with a totally different kind of more-rustic craziness.
  2. Kids enjoying themselves away from digital devices, which, if not the scourge of humanity, are at least a plague on those parenting teenagers.
  3. Timelessness. Camp does not change that much, and there is something beautiful in that.
  4. The sounds of camp: the breeze at night; the powerful sound of singing and pounding on the tables in the hadar okhel, the dining hall; the sound of Jewish kids playing basketball and dancing Israeli folk dances and preparing a musical in Hebrew and just hanging around on the migrash (field).
  5. The Jewish framework. OK, so camp teaches a few things about Judaism fairly well, and a few things not so well. But the most essential thing that camp teaches very well is the rhythm of the Jewish week, the implicit foundation on which all other camp structures are built: six days of work, and the seventh day of rest. Tefillah / prayer three times a day. Expressing gratitude before and particularly after eating. Jewish text here and there, as a part of the environment.

But the thing that I love about camp the most is that it is the most successful Jewish educational endeavor that we have ever crafted, mostly because it teaches Jewish kids about Judaism in an informal way, that does not let on that it’s education. The Hebrew language is integrated into all facets of camp, from announcements at meals to learning to play volleyball. Yes, there is formal Judaic learning in daily shi’urim (lessons), but Jewish life saturates every aspect of camp. Love of Israel is reinforced in many ways, from the presence of a delegation of Israeli staff to Israeli pop music played over the PA system in the hadar okhel. Torah and Jewish text are infused into many activities.

It is the informality that makes camp work. Jewish life simply happens in the context of summer activities. Camp is not like Hebrew school, wherein kids get 5 or 6 hours a week of Jewish instruction. It’s actually even more powerful than day school, because it’s a kind of immersion. There is no quick dip into Judaism before returning to regular, not explicitly Jewish activities. Camp is 24/7 Judaism. It never stops.

And the secret to continuity in Jewish life is that ongoing connection. Today’s world is very fragmented: all of our activities are siloed. Work is separated from family time which is separate from school which is separate from entertainment and on and on. It can be very isolating to live in that environment. Judaism, for the vast majority of Jews, is what you do on a Saturday morning, or on Yom Kippur, or when there’s a family bar mitzvah. But our ancestors did not live that way. The rabbis of the Talmud see Torah as a part of all facets of our lives, from business to romantic relationships to recreation to family. And camp endeavors to create that environment in a way that our lives at home may not.

Does it always succeed? No. But the impact of camp can be quite strong, nevertheless.

One of the items appearing in Parashat Mas’ei is the list of places which the Israelites passed through on the way from slavery to freedom. It is a catalog of place names with no detail given as to what each place was like or if anything happened there during their visit. However, a midrash (from Tanhuma) understood this passage as being an important historical record for our ancestors to recall what happened at each stage of the journey through the desert: here is where we slept; here we caught a cold; here you told me that your head hurt. (You know the Israelites… always complaining!)

And, as you know, we have continued to journey as a people. We continue to grow and change as human civilization moves forward. My Jewish world is quite different from that of my great-grandparents. Even so, camp is a model that continues to work, and only at the Ramah camps do our children learn about the open, egalitarian, and yet traditional form of Judaism to which we are committed.

Here is where a young woman donned a tallit for the first time. Here is where we made connections with young Israelis who represent the Jewish state while teaching Hebrew and volleyball. Here is where a boy learned how to chant the Torah from his madrikh (counselor). Here is where a girl played a lead role in a production of the famous Broadway musical, Kannar al haGag (Fiddler on the Roof).

We had seven kids there from Pittsburgh last weekend, including two of my own. But we can do better than that. If we want to help our children along that traditional, egalitarian journey, Ramah is where they should be.

Shabbat ended as it had come in: cacophonously, with music and prayer, and the entire camp gathered together for ritual. And I recalled the camp days of my youth, and the havdalah ceremonies that seemed so powerful, so evocative, so connective. You grow older, you leave camp – camp is for the young, and your journey continues and takes you elsewhere. You leave camp. But camp never leaves you.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/6/2016.)