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This Shabbat, we conclude our reading of the Book of Numbers with the double-portion Mattot-Mas’ei. At the beginning of Parashat Mas’ei, Moses recounts the places the Children of Israel have encamped along their forty-year journey through the wilderness. While the list might seem a bit dry to us as readers (there is not a lot of detail as to what happened where), I imagine that for the Israelites, it was a reminder of all the places they had been and the things they had experienced in each place. What a fitting parashah for the end of camp!
By now, it is likely that your child has shared some camp memories with you. Perhaps they have told you about the places they went, the friends the made, or some of the things they experienced. Spending two or four or six weeks at Ramah Galim, after all, is a journey filled with growth. At camp, kids are encouraged to try new things and to take risks that will help them stretch and evolve.
The culture of Ramah Galim is founded on four primary midot (values), which influence our programming and relationships at every level. Those four midot are: Kavod, respect; Ahavat Yisrael, a love of Israel; Simcha, joy or happiness; and Manhigut, leadership.
Two years ago, I moved to Israel, where I study in the Center for Jewish Educators at Pardes in Jerusalem. Ramah Galim has become my home away from home, the place where I spend the most time outside of Israel. I always look forward to my time here, where I get to connect with this incredible community and witness, in real time, the preparation of the next generation of leaders.
This week’s parasha, Pinchas, focuses on manhigut. It presents a series of three vignettes that show different types of leadership, each with unique merits and each with a unique outcome. Everything is framed by the context of the narrative which, at the end of the book of Numbers, finds Moses looking for a successor to lead the people into the land.
It’s 7:30 on a typical July morning, and a band of 50 middle schoolers are found out of bed, conga-lining theirs souls out to a festive, upbeat song. No, Taylor Swift hasn’t made a surprise appearance, neither has a corn-dog truck pulled into town. The young lads and ladies are, gasp, in their morning prayer services, or “Shacharit” as we say in Hebrew. Over the past few weeks here at Camp Ramah in Northern California, campers in Edat HaSollelim (seventh-and-eighth-grade boys and girls) have been at the core of a thrilling shift in regard to the way we pray. With the expert and generous guidance of Rosh Edah, Alli Moses, as well as other talented members of our community, I feel so lucky to have been allowed the privilege of collaborating with various tzevet (staff) and chanichim (campers) with the goal of making morning prayers more educational, engaging, and meaningful. The results? Campers are at the center of prayer, proudly embracing their Judaism.
My inner geek loves this week’s Torah portion, Balak, because it seems like something out of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. We read the story of sorcerer-extraordinaire, Balaam, and his foiled attempt to curse the Children of Israel. Instead of using his powers to curse Israel at the behest of the Moabite King Balak, he blesses them. How strange is it that the Torah implicitly acknowledges the existence and validity of magic? What are Balaam’s magical powers, and why is the sight of the tents of the Israelites enough for his magic powers to not just be nullified, but to be reversed entirely?
This parshah presents magic as Balaam’s ability to manipulate the world around him for his own agenda. Balaam’s magic is more than just coercion – he uses his will, in conjunction with ceremony and ritual, in order to break the laws of the natural world for personal gain. Yet, after his encounter with an angel and seeing the tents of Israel, Balaam’s magic fails miserably. Why? The holiness of the community of Israel, with its beautiful tents and networks of lives lived in holy relationship with one another, is something which could not be touched or manipulated by Balaam. This magic – the palpable experience of the sacred – causes Balaam to not curse, but bless, “מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ – How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!”
The story of the meraglim (scouts) who are sent by Moses to scout the Land of Israel is an intriguing and complicated tale of espionage. All the scouts are impressed by the quality of the land and its bounty. When they return from their 40-day mission, two of them, Calev and Joshua, say that the people would be able to overcome the challenge of entering and inhabiting the land. But the other 10 scouts are not as sure. They spread fear and anxiety among the people. They say in the presence of Moses and all the people, “It is a land that eats up its inhabitants and all the people we saw there are of great stature. We were in our own sight as grasshoppers compared to giants.” God becomes angry and seems to punish those who could not believe that it was the destiny of the Jewish nation to inhabit the land. Moses finally persuades God to forgive the people. The whole episode turns out to be a catastrophe for nearly everyone involved.