Mah Tov How Great is the Tent of Camp-Parashat Balk by Rabbi Corey Helfand | Camp Ramah Northern California

Mah Tov How Great is the Tent of Camp-Parashat Balk by Rabbi Corey Helfand

Words cannot truly express how amazing it is to be back at Ramah Galim. After one of the most intense years of our lives, filled with challenges and losses, including not being able to go to camp last summer, “Mah Tov”, how great it is to finally be together again. So many little things with such profound impact. Listening to laughter shared by our kids. Watching them climb the rock wall, do Israeli dancing on the kikar (field), and of course, boogie board and surf at our very own private ocean front. “Mah Tov,” how awesome it truly is.

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the king of Moab, having heard the news of Israel’s triumphant defeats over neighboring enemies, perceives Israel as a threat. Balak hires Bilaam, a sorcerer of sorts, to curse the Israelites. God, however, makes it clear to Bilaam that he is not to curse Israel under any circumstance. Bilaam, despite God’s warning, is tempted by an offer of riches in exchange for cursing our ancestors. In the end, God warns Bilaam that no matter what his intention, he will ultimately have no control over the words that come out of his own mouth. Instead of offering the curse as demanded by Balak, Bilaam instead offers a beautiful, legendary blessing: “Mah Tovu O’halekha Ya’akov Mishk’notekha Yisrael—How great are your dwellings, people of Jacob, your sanctuaries, descendants of Israel.” So profound were these words that they have since become a fixed part of our daily prayers, recited upon first entering a synagogue. Or for me, this year, upon reentering the sacred sanctuary of Ramah Galim.

The 16th century Italian commentator Ovadiah S’forno asks, why do the words uttered by Bilaam focus on the greatness of “O’halekha—Your Dwelling Places”?  Couldn’t God have come up with something more creative for Bilaam to bless aside from the tents of the Israelites?  S’forno teaches that these were no ordinary tents. Rather, they were in fact batei midrash, houses of study. For S’forno, a beit midrash is incredibly valuable for two reasons. First, it is a place where people can grow and learn both individually and collectively in community. In a beit midrash, we are able to find new ways to study and make Torah relevant in our lives. Our sacred traditions become accessible to everyone. Secondly, a beit midrash is eternally open to the entire community. It is a place where people can come at any time in search of meaning, study, and connection. Moreover, a beit midrash is portable, like a tent. This means that we can find a connection to our Judaism wherever we go, be it in the synagogue, in our homes, at camp, in nature, and even on the beach staring out at the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

Despite his best efforts to curse the people, Bilaam instead offered a perpetual blessing. One that lasts eternally. This is a blessing that is present even amidst the greatest struggles. As Ramah Galim reopened this year, our kids found themselves living in two different dwelling places: the tent of the bayit (their inside home) and the bigger tent of Machaneh Ramah. Brought together, these spaces created a space where transformation becomes possible when you enter and emerge from a sacred dwelling. It is within the “ohel”, the camp tent, that the magic happens. Friendships are created and renewed. Learning and laughter fill the air. People come together once again to sing and dance, to explore and go on adventures in community. S’forno’s interpretation of the Ohalim, the tents of Israel, remind me that Judaism can exist in every moment of our lives wherever we are. Judaism, that portable tent, has been the fabric of what’s kept us together during the toughest moments and has helped us sustain our connections to our Jewish heritage and community once again.

As we prepare for our first Shabbat back at camp, not to mention the first Havdalah back on the beach (and in our onesies), may we once again reflect on the “mah tov”, how great is the blessing of being back together in the Ramah Galim Tent, in a warm and welcoming community. May Ramah Galim be the source of blessing that allows us to enter and emerge from our tents, those places of study, growth and Jewish connection, together and in community. And no matter the struggles we have or might continue to face, may we always be blessed to feel “mah tov” how great it is to be a part of the “big tent” of our tradition and our Ramah Galim family for years, and many summers, to come.