Parshat D’varim | Camp Ramah Northern California

Parshat D’varim

by Rabbi Aaron Lerner
“Can I be mean to someone who’s being mean to my friend?”

That question was the most popular ethical dilemma in a Ramah Galim class this week in which we analyzed some of the Bogrimcampers’ thoughts about how they choose between right and wrong.

I was slow to answer, encouraging the campers to tease out various moral and ethical implications. Perhaps shaming a bully will get them to stop. That’s good, right? Justice is served.

So then why does the Talmud compare embarrassing another person to murdering them? That seems little extreme! And why doesn’t Jewish law give an exception for embarrassing a “bad” person?

Our discussion naturally led into the story of Kamtza/Bar Kamtza, in which someone who had been publicly shamed winds up manipulating the Romans into destroying Jerusalem and exiling the Jewish people for the next 2,000 years. It’s a disturbing tale in which the Talmudic-era rabbis are implicitly blamed for sitting idly by and watching one person publicly humiliate another.

These discussions and so many others influence my wife and me to send our kids to Jewish summer camp every year. We’re both Jewish educators ourselves, but there’s something about the magic of camp that enables our kids to learn with peers and from people who aren’t their parents that has been incredibly powerful for our own children.

As we continue to navigate a time in our world in which people, especially adults, are having a hard time with civility, I pray that we take the time to truly consider the power of our words (D’varim, this week’s Torah portion). We are often compelled through a sense of righteousness to strike down those whom we perceive as “being mean.” Not only do we have little to show for such behavior (we often simply push them deeper into their positions), we’re also violating Jewish values in the process.

The campers in the session learned to pause, take a breath, think about how they want to respond, and only do so after they’re done being angry. May it be so for the rest of us well.

Rabbi Aaron Lerner is the Executive Director of the UCLA Hillel.