At camp and other educational institutions, we have become accustomed to relying on a rhetoric of empowerment: we strive to help our students, campers, and staff “take ownership,” “be empowered,” and “feel at home.” While I’m certainly all for teaching a person to learn to fish, as we say, and empowering the next generation of leaders with inspiring ideas and relevant skills, I think we may at times overemphasize the language of ownership to the detriment of the equally important counter-rhetoric of “it’s mine.”
The Torah and Rabbinic texts teach us that the earth does not in fact belong to us humans, and in doing so, presents a strong countercultural message about the power of being a guest in another’s world. In this week’s Torah portion, amidst Pharaoh’s plees to Moses to stop the Plagues in Egypt, Moses tells Pharaoh: “The thunder will cease and the hail will fall no more, so that you may know that the earth is God’s” (Exodus 9:29). How might we act differently in a place that we feel blessed to be in, but do not own?
In a seemingly ironic way, I have found in my years as a Camp Director and Jewish Educator that it is actually quite empowering for kids to view camp, and the earth itself, as holy places that they do NOT own. “My daughter talks constantly about how camp is the place she loves most, a home away from home,” a camper parent shared with me just this week. Having an opportunity to view ourselves as guests — whether in our bunks or before the vastness of the sea — rather than as owners of a place can make every moment, every resource, and every encounter feel precious.
This appreciation for things beyond ourselves, it turns out, is the very root of faith.
It gives me a sense of hope for the future of our people and our planet when I witness young people light up with excitement and reverence when discussing their place in a world to which they feel connected and responsible, but not necessarily entitled. “We have been given the gift of using the earth,” a seventh grade student at Congregation Beth Jacob commented to me this week, “but with the responsibility to take care of it.”
I had the pleasure of posing the following question to this student and her classmates in a religious school class in Redwood City on Wednesday on Jewish environmental perspectives:
Which of these 4 types of Shomrim, or Guards, from the Talmud best describes your relationship with the earth?
Almost unanimously, the students resonated with the Sho’el, the sacred borrower. “We are part of a larger ecosystem,” another student explained, “and one thing depends on the other. It’s up to us to figure out how to take care of this place we live in from now forward.” I look forward to having the opportunity to watch these young people and others like them at camp this summer lead and inspire the rest of us in transcending ownership of space with ownership of time – a sense of responsibility to love and leave our communities in better shape than we received them.
Rabbi Sarah Shulman
Director, Camp Ramah in Northern California