Facing Elul Anew by Heather Renetzky, Rosh Chinuch | Camp Ramah Northern California

Facing Elul Anew by Heather Renetzky, Rosh Chinuch

This week, I made a huge change. Instead of zooming into classes from my favorite armchair, I actually sat on the couch! Okay, perhaps it wasn’t such a huge variation. But in these days of endless Zoom calls, my routine has become so fixed that the tiniest alteration feels huge. Lately, I have found that newness and excitement are hard to come by. This feels particularly challenging while we’re in the month of Elul, and “newness” is exactly what we’re supposed to be preparing for. During Elul, we reflect on our decisions and actions in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, a brand-new year. In a time of so much sameness, I’ve been feeling a little lost. Will anything really feel new this year?In my skepticism, I turned to my experience at camp for inspiration.

Each Shabbat morning at Ramah Galim is marked by the excited shouts of “Hafoch ba! Hafoch ba! Hafoch ba!” – “Turn it and turn it and turn it again.” As we spin our “Gal gal shel Torah,” (Wheel of Torah) to explore the week’s parsha, we shout these words from Pirkei Avot 5:22, a reminder that no matter how many times we read the same stories, the Torah always has something new to offer. 

This week’s parsha, Ki Tavo, offers a similar piece of wisdom. Just as the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, Moshe reminds them of the blessings and curses contingent on their adherence to God’s commandments. He frames the list with these words: “Adonai your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul” (26:16). The commentator Rashi suggests that the words “this day” are intended to tell us that each and every day, we should treat the commandments as if we are receiving them for the very first time. Even though they are ancient, even though we strive to follow the same commandments all the time, we should find novelty in them every day.

At camp, I find it easy to find novelty in repetition. Each day, we have a set schedule, with maslulim (specialties) in the morning, chugim (electives) in the afternoon, and peulot (programs) in the evening. Yet, every single day is filled with excitement and discovery. No matter how many times we go down to the chof (the beach), we make sure to greet the waves with the same enthusiasm, to find newness in what has become routine. As we look closer, we see that the ocean – its waves, tides, and creatures –  are never exactly the same. Moreover, our routine of returning to the same sacred place actively enhances the excitement of the day. We know what to expect, and so we can come prepared with our sunscreen and gear for our maslul, ready for the next great adventure.

At home, we may not have the excitement of the ocean to keep coming back to, but we can still take this camp mindset—of novelty-in-repetition—to heart. Perhaps the familiar comfort of our couch can enable us to do the difficult, soul-searching work of Elul. Maybe we find wonder in the reliability of a consistent pancake breakfast. Each morning, we can work to live this day as if it is itself unique. The spiritual motion of turning and returning again, of trying to find something new in the everyday, might just be enough to get us through. As we enter the new year, may our routine enhance our exploring rather than detracting from it, may we make new discoveries in familiar places, and may we find joy in the tiny shift of switching seats.