The Magic of Machaneh by Avram Ellner | Camp Ramah Northern California

The Magic of Machaneh by Avram Ellner

My inner geek loves this week’s Torah portion, Balak, because it seems like something out of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. We read the story of sorcerer-extraordinaire, Balaam, and his foiled attempt to curse the Children of Israel. Instead of using his powers to curse Israel at the behest of the Moabite King Balak, he blesses them. How strange is it that the Torah implicitly acknowledges the existence and validity of magic? What are Balaam’s magical powers, and why is the sight of the tents of the Israelites enough for his magic powers to not just be nullified, but to be reversed entirely?

This parshah presents magic as Balaam’s ability to manipulate the world around him for his own agenda. Balaam’s magic is more than just coercion – he uses his will, in conjunction with ceremony and ritual, in order to break the laws of the natural world for personal gain. Yet, after his encounter with an angel and seeing the tents of Israel, Balaam’s magic fails miserably. Why? The holiness of the community of Israel, with its beautiful tents and networks of lives lived in holy relationship with one another, is something which could not be touched or manipulated by Balaam. This magic – the palpable experience of the sacred – causes Balaam to not curse, but bless, “מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ – How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!”

When we talk about “the magic of camp,” we are talking about this magic, the magic of the palpable experience of the sacred. Camp is magical because we are enmeshed in a community which allows the sacred, and the holy, to emerge in our daily lives. The magic that exists at Ramah Galim is that very same magic of the tents of Israel which turned Balaam’s curses into blessings. This magic is the magic of the chanichim’s smiles after a morning of surfing, of a camper’s first aliyah, of standing on the starlit beach as an entire camp for havdallah. We see this magic when our children form meaningful friendships with their edah-mates, when they seek out tzevet (staff) not just as distributors of nishnoosh (snack), but as mentors and confidants. The magic of camp is not to manipulate for personal gain, but to coax out the holy and the sacred within each and every member of our community to create our kehillah kedosha (holy community).

Throughout this summer as Rosh Nachshonim, I have been fortunate to help facilitate and experience this magic in Nachshonim. Our chanichim in Nachshonim have flourished as leaders in camp. Whether they are helping plan Yom Sport, leading Friday night zmirot (songs) in the chadar (dining hall), or engaging with the younger chanichim during C.I.T. days, they continue to use their gifts and abilities to not only experience the magic of camp, but to help create that magic for others. They are helping transform our community for the better, and in the process, they are transforming themselves. I cannot wait to see what magic they help bring forth in the coming weeks. May all of us see the magic in our own lives, in moments big and small, and in the relationships we hold dear. Shabbat Shalom.