D’var Torah: Parshat Mishpatim by Howard Blas, Director-National Ramah Tikvah Network | Camp Ramah Northern California

D’var Torah: Parshat Mishpatim by Howard Blas, Director-National Ramah Tikvah Network

On the first day of camp each summer, counselors and division heads sometimes give their campers the task of coming up with room and edah (division) rules which all will agree to follow.  Many start with the obvious—like no fighting, and no touching or taking others’ possessions without permission. These “basics” are easily observable and measurable. Campers doing this exercise quickly realize that it is impossible to list every single rule and behavioral expectation, and that there are often gray areas and need for interpretation and good judgement.  They ultimately arrive at basic principles like “be nice,” “be kind” and “show respect to all.”

Our Jewish tradition offers some useful general principles and reminders on how to behave. The Torah teaches “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 9:17), and Rabbi Hillel reminds us (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a), “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

Sometimes, we need specific “dos and don’ts.”  In my 25 years working with National Ramah’s Tikvah inclusion programs for people with disabilities, I have learned that most people with autism, and perhaps most people in general, rely on rules and routines to keep their environment predictable and to feel safe.  Rules keep the community running smoothly and they attempt to eliminate doubt as to what is permitted and what is forbidden.

The Jewish religion is filled with all types of laws, known at the Taryag Mitzvot, or 613 Commandments.  Last week in Parshat Yitro, the people receive the Ten Commandments, considered the most basic of laws. This week, in Parshat Mishpatim, the Jewish People receive 53 additional mitzvot—23 positive commandments, and 30 prohibitions.  Many laws in Mishpatim pertain to real life situations the people will soon encounter, including damages caused by animals, and laws applicable to borrowers and loans, the sabbatical year and the three harvest holidays. Other laws in Parshat Mishpatim–like “do not taunt or oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”–govern the interpersonal and tell us how to behave.

Our Jewish tradition and our Ramah camps are filled with written and implied rules, traditions, and expectations, and they teach us about performance of ritual (birkat hamazon, tefillin, Shabbat observance), and expected behavior in the chadar ochel, bayit and in our relations with others.  Clear cut rules are always easier to enforce than ones which are vague, implied, or left to good judgment. What if the Torah left certain things to our “good judgment? “ What if the Torah didn’t tell us how to treat strangers and others who are different from us? What if we in the camp world didn’t explicitly tell our campers to “be nice” to everyone in the community?  Would they? I think they would, and they do! I have witnessed this first hand by how naturally welcoming and inclusive campers and staff from throughout the Ramah in Northern California community and throughout the Ramah Camping Movement are towards members of the Tikvah Program, and through members of their own edot who may be “different” in some way. This happens through camp wide activities like havdalah, Shabbat davening, dancing, and shared peulot, it takes place at buddy programs, in the pool and in the gym during elective time, and it happens during informal socializing times.

In my role as director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network, I have had the opportunity and privilege to visit every Ramah overnight camp in the US and Canada.  I have consistently observed that no camp has ever “legislated” how campers in other edot need to “treat” the members of the Tikvah Program, and how Tikvah campers are expected to behave as they participate in camp activities.   Yet, they all seem to “get it.”

Let’s keep rules in place to assure predictability and to keep our communities running smoothly.  But let’s also trust the wonderful members of our camp communities to use good judgment and Jewish values in their relationships with others.