Parshat Vaetchanah – The Now of Camp | Camp Ramah Northern California

Parshat Vaetchanah – The Now of Camp

by Rabbi Nathan Roller
This week’s parsha, Vaetchanan, continues Moses’ final discourse to the people, reviewing and repeating God’s laws for a new generation as they prepare to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. One of the important repetitions we read this week is the 10 commandments, originally found in Exodus 20. Here, Moses prefaces the 10 Commandments with a line that has perplexed commentators for generations. Deuteronomy 5:3 states: “It was not with our ancestors that Adonai made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.” The problem is that 40 years have passed from the time they were first given until this moment when Moses repeats them here. For the most part, those listening to Moses’s words here were not present at Sinai.
Rashi and most of the other classic commentators make sense of this verse by adding a word. “It was not with our ancestors alone that Adonai made this covenant…” Of course, G-d gave the covenant not only to our ancestors, but to us as well. Still, if this is what Moses had intended to say I wonder why he didn’t say so explicitly? Why does Moses emphasize the people in front of him and downplay those who came before? 

My experience at camp this year has led me to a new understanding of this verse. Every summer that Ramah Galim has been open I have had the opportunity to help kasher the kitchen before most of the tzevet (staff) and the chanichim (campers) arrive. Between firing up the blowtorch and boiling huge kettles of water, I walked the beautiful grounds, and listened to the waves on the beach and the wind through tree branches. This summer, for the first time, I have been able to return to camp while it is in session as a rabbi in residence. In addition to the wind in the trees, I now hear the singing of Birkat Hamazon. Along with the crashing of the ocean waves, I hear children laughing at the beach. Camp has come alive — here — today.

Camp is an opportunity to leave distractions behind and live in the ever present now, a place where we can live our Judaism in all we do. In this week’s parsha, we also read (Deuteronomy 4:4) “and you who hold fast to Adonai your G-d, are all alive today.” We recite this verse during the Torah service, after the first person is called for their aliyah. When we hold fast to our G-d, to our Torah, to our tradition, to each other we truly come alive. When we do this we are transformed. It is as if we are the ones who have received the Torah at Sinai, not our ancestors long ago. Torah and Judaism are refreshed, as are we. It is my prayer that all of us can take these camp lessons and truly be alive this day and all our days.

Rabbi Nathan Roller is a spiritual leader at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga.