After the Plague: Parshsat Pinchas by Rabbi Ben Goldberg | Camp Ramah Northern California

After the Plague: Parshsat Pinchas by Rabbi Ben Goldberg

There is a peculiar verse toward the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Pinhas. The portion begins with the aftermath of the zealous act of Pinhas, Aaron’s grandson, who violently intervenes to stop the people’s idolatrous apostasy at Baal Pe’or, ending the accompanying plague. Pinhas is granted a covenant of peace in response to his actions, and the people are commanded to “assail the Midianites” in retaliation.

We then get our curious half verse: “When the plague was over…God said to Moses and to Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community” (Numbers 25:19-26:2). The ellipsis here represents that the verse abruptly ends there; there is even a paragraph break in the text of the Torah before resuming with the new topic of the census of the people.

Critical Bible scholars suggest that perhaps this is an indication that the census and what follows was inserted here into the Torah, which would have otherwise continued with the story of the war with Midian, which we finally do read in chapter 31.

But this year, and after my wonderful time at Ramah Galim last week, I am more interested in the spiritual implications of the Torah inserting a pause “when the plague was over.” Perhaps the Torah is telling us that after experiencing the disruption, devastation, and loss of a plague (something that once happened every decade and not every century), we cannot simply move on. We need time to take stock, to reflect on lessons learned, before we simply move on to the next thing.

As I immersed myself for the first time in the Ramah Galim community last week, this is precisely what I saw. On that first morning, I led tefilot (prayers) for Solelim (the rising 6th and 7th graders) and I asked the chanichim (campers) to share something they were grateful for as we sang Modeh Ani. One offered: “I’m grateful to be at camp.”

While it would not be unusual to hear that on the first day of camp any kayitz (summer), the comment had a particular resonance this year, considering last year’s missed season and all of the difficulties and uncertainty we have experienced since March 2020.

And yet, it also felt like an “after the plague” moment. For sure, at Galim there are many protocols in place that reflect the ongoing dangers we face: masks, health screenings, meals and nearly every activity taking place outdoors. But at long last, being at camp was something that felt close to normal, a tremendous gift that this community is able to give these children and their families this summer.

For me as well, my week at Galim was an “after the plague” moment. On my last day there, I realized that I had gone a week without once being on a Zoom call. After more than a year of Zoom worship, Zoom Hebrew school and adult education, Zoom funerals and shiva and weddings, it was a great gift for me to be able to safely interact with a community in three dimensions for an extended period.

I pray that camp will continue to offer this gift to its chanichim (campers) this kayitz (summer). For me, Ramah is all about learning how to live in Jewish community with others, a skill that is more important than ever after the isolating experiences of the last year. And I also pray that this special time at camp will give these children the time and space they need to process everything they have gone through in the last 18 months, such that they will come home as better, wiser, and more mature versions of themselves.

Rabbi Ben Goldberg was a visiting rabbi at Ramah Galim this session. He is the spiritual leader of Congregation KTI in Port Chester, NY, and has spent 15 summers participating in or staffing Ramah programs.