There is perhaps nothing quite as beautiful and challenging as living together, with hundreds of Jews, in close quarters for a month over the course of the summer. It’s amazing to watch the chanichim (campers) play together, support one another, and grow throughout their time at Machaneh Ramah. Yet, after the initial excitement of camp wears off and chanichim and madrichim (counselors) enter into their daily routine, something happens that disrupts the excitement and joy that we experience here at camp. There are the occasional disagreements in the tzrif (bunk), the struggles of overcoming obstacles on a tiyul (camp trip), and the challenges of both chanichim and madrichim learning how to work together as a part of the larger edah (unit) or tzevet (staff). The more time we spend together, the easier it is to get on each other’s nerves and to push buttons. Yet, one of the greatest blessings of Ramah is that in being surrounded by Jewish values while being embraced by a kehillah kedosha (a sacred community), we are able to nurture the individual and collective during the most difficult moments of the summer.
Parashat Korach is one of the more challenging texts of the Torah. Korach comes before Moses with what seems like a legitimate claim, ki kol ha’edah k’doshim u’vtocham hashem, that the whole community is holy. Essentially, Korach protests: Why should Moses and Aaron, Korah’s Levitical first cousins, get all the fame and glory? What about me? While it’s true that Korach has a point, and may even be justified in challenging Moses’ authority and leadership style, Korach’s approach lacks the humility and compassion that we’d want from someone aspiring to guide the Israelites. Despite arguing that everyone in the community is holy and that others should be permitted to take the mantle, Korach seems to miss the mark in how he works through his own grievances.
JTS Bible professor Benjamin Sommer notes that Korach is in fact right. Everyone is holy. Even the Torah as a whole supports this claim in numerous places, citing that we should be holy because God is holy. Yet, what Korach gets wrong is not the claim itself, but how to embody and live that ideal of holiness, and that is what ultimately angers God, causing Korach and his minions to be swallowed by the earth. So what is so wrong with what Korach says? Sommer writes, “The answer becomes clear when we read more closely the verses about Israel’s holiness elsewhere in the Torah. These verses never simply tell us, as Korach does, that all Israelites are inherently holy. Rather, they command the Israelites to become holy by observing the mitzvot that the Torah commands.”While it’s true that Korach’s complaint is compelling, Sommer highlights that Korach forgets the key part of God’s words: that the covenantal relationship is integral to holiness.
To be holy requires that we do mitzvoth, that we live ethically, that we are conscious about what we eat, and that we observe Shabbat. Perhaps it is most important that we treat one another as holy. And to bolster this point, if you go back and look at every reference in the Torah that talks about our aspiring holiness, it comes with it the condition that kedusha is not something that’s given, it’s something that’s earned through our actions and our behavior.
This is perhaps the greatest gift of Camp Ramah. Being at camp reminds us of what it means to be a part of a kehillah kedosha, a holy community, by placing high importance on middot (values) like yosher (integrity), chessed (kindness), lashon (the way we talk to one another), maasim tovim (good deeds), and hodaya v’asiyah (gratitude and action). We learn to appreciate being in nature, to include everyone in our midst, and to see one another as holy for we are all created in God’s image. Being at Camp Ramah reminds us to engage in Torah study, to rest through Shabbat observance, and to help one another grow so that we can persevere through the challenges we face during the summer and, by extension, in life. We learn exactly what Korach missed; that holiness comes through action, and that all of these lessons to be learned are at our fingertips while spending our kayitz at Ramah. For when we are able to do that, to learn and live holiness, we can discover what it means to be in true partnership with God. It means being holy and modeling holiness, with ourselves and with others.
Midah L’Edah Sollelim
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah process marks one of the most iconic transitions where our teenagers become adults in the eyes of Jewish tradition. Many, if not all, of our Sollelim chanichim (campers) are either in the midst of their Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparations or have recently finished celebrating with their friends and family. And among the many challenges of this sacred milestone is insuring that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience is not an end but rather a beginning. Perhaps that’s the reason why the midah, the value or quality, assigned to Sollelim, is chessed (kindness).
Early on in his career Rabbi author and scholar Joseph Telushkin was asked to be on a PBS program called “Moral Imagination.” At one point during the show he said to the producer that if everything else he said was forgotten, except for one lesson, it would have been enough, dayeinu. Parents should reserve the highest praise of their children when their children do kind acts, acts of chessed. Rabbi Telushkin noted that children are praised most often for one of four things or some combination if not all: their academic achievement, athletic abilities, cultural achievements (music), and for their looks. As amazing as it is to give our kids accolades and compliments for their skills and accomplishments, he worries that parental love becomes linked to those kinds of acts. Could we imagine, , if we reserved the highest appreciation and praise for when our kids did acts of kindness? We’d be able to raise a generation of people who most love themselves when they are doing kind things. Over time, years and even decades, it would be transformational, not only because there would be more kindness in the world, but perhaps more importantly, we’d love ourselves even more when we behaved kindly toward one another.
One of the most amazing things to witness at Camp Ramah are the random acts of chessed that occur on a daily basis, both intentionally and unintentionally. Chanichim (campers) lend a hand to one another, yahadut (Jewish learning) staff help engage our chanichim in thoughtful Torah study about kindness toward others, and our Tzevet (staff) makes sure that everyone is included and can share safely and openly as each person pursues his or her own Jewish journey. Perhaps most importantly, we are modeling for our chanichim the importance of everyone feeling welcome and accepted here at Machaneh Ramah, a place where kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh, where we all take care of and are responsible for one another. Not only are we modeling the value of chessed for everyone in camp, we are actually on our way to creating the next generation of Jewish adults who value kindness toward one another above all.
Rabbi Corey Helfand received his rabbinic ordination in May 2011 from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America along with a Masters in Talmud and Jewish Law and a certificate in pastoral care. As a Gladstein Fellow in Entrepreneurial Rabbinics, Rabbi Helfand served as the rabbinic intern at the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel in Riverdale under the mentorship of Rabbi Barry Dov Katz and as the rabbi of Beth Shalom of Lake Norman in Davidson, North Carolina.