D’var Torah: by David Offit
Kabbalat Shabbat D’var Torah
Friday, August 4, 2017
Camp Ramah in New England
I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life.
I’m surrounded by the whole camp – chanichim, madrichim, madrichim who used to be my chanichim, colleagues, board members, friends.
I’m in one of my favorite places in the entire world – the chorsha. I can see the forest, once dense with trees as far back as the eye could see, now with a huge, beautiful, camp-changing chadar ochel right in the middle of it.
And I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do – give the Kabbalat Shabbat d’var Torah. So thank you to Rabbi Gelb for your generosity in letting me check this off of my personal camp bucket list.
Whenever I daven Kabbalat Shabbat when I’m NOT at camp, this is the exact scene I remember. I close my eyes and I picture the chorsha, I hear our camp Kabbalat Shabbat tunes, I feel the embrace of friends around me, and I long to be back in Palmer. It’s that memory, that intense, emotional, strong memory, that connects me to camp, and ultimately connects me to my Judaism all year long.
I’m not the only one like this, of course. I imagine many of you have your own strong camp memories, your own favorite places, and things, that you draw upon throughout the year.
In this week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, which contains both the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma, among many other things, Moshe begins his long speech to the people of Israel by pleading with them to remember. D’varim chapter 4 verse 9 reads, “Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes, and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.” What follows next is rules, laws, values, commandments. It’s all important stuff, that ultimately guides the way the Israelites live in the land of Israel. So why then does Moses start by pleading with the Israelites to remember the things that happened to them?
Rules and values are important, and it’s critical that the Israelites follow the word of God. But imagine for a second that the Israelites just received the 10 commandments and didn’t remember anything they had gone through or anything that God had done for them. The commandments would have had no context. The Israelites need to remember the extraordinary experiences they’ve had and the gifts God has given them – the splitting of the red sea and getting out of Egypt, manna from the sky, water from a rock, and the giving of the Ten Commandments themselves. So when the Israelites think back to all of these amazing experiences, they’re wowed by God, in awe of what they’ve been through, and have much more of a reason to follow what God and Moses said. These memories are vivid reminders of why they do what they do.
And the same thing goes for camp – it’s all about the memories.
Think for a second about all of the things you’ve learned and done at camp so far this summer: maybe you’ve gained independence, you’ve learned a new skill, you’ve read Torah or spoken Hebrew, or made a whole new set of friends. After the summer, you’ll know that you’ve done and accomplished all of those things. You’ll also be leaving camp with values of things that are important to you – like friendship, inclusion, trying new things, and more. And it’s great to remember those new skills and values, but I think that in order for those things to REALLY impact you in your life, in the way the 10 commandments impacted the Jewish people, you have to remember the moments, big and small, that accompanied those values.
So, I make to you now the same plea that Moses gave in his last days as a leader of the people Israel: do not forget the things that you have seen, and done, and experienced here at Camp Ramah. Lucky for all of us, Camp is a memory machine. We make memories here like it’s nobody’s business.
Here’s a moment worth remembering that keep I seeing, and love every time: a chanicha, who has already been in the ropes chug for a few days, has unsuccessfully made it to the top of the Alpine Tower, getting a little bit further each time, but never quite getting to the top. But today, she’s gotten higher than she’s ever gotten before. Her friends in the chug, who have watched her progress, start to yell, and cheer, and proclaim “you can do it!” The madrichim belaying her give her guidance on where to grab on to and where to push up with her foot. She triumphantly gets to the top of the tower, and rings the bell, while other chanichim chant her name below. What an extraordinary feeling. It’s an incredible moment – but the memory of that moment is just as important. Why? Because the memory actually teaches us a lesson that we can recall in future instances – “at camp, I was able to get to the top of the Alpine Tower even when it was hard, so now I know I can do anything I put my mind to.”
Here’s another strong memory: Seudah Shlishit singing on Tzad Bet. I love walking around the O”CH, seeing tzrifim arm in arm, or pinky in pinkys oulfully belting out all of the words by heart. As great as Friday night shira is, it’s really Saturday night shira, with the sun setting in the background, ice cream sandwiches in hand, eyes closed and tears flowing, that sticks out in my mind. It wouldn’t be enough, however, to just enjoy this moment in the present. Instead, it’s the memory that truly impacts me – because when I’m not at camp, I get to look back on this moment, and know that Judaism resonates deeply with people of all ages, through song and through community. It’s a message that has resonated with thousands of people at Ramah camps for nearly 70 years, and has propelled people to live committed Jewish lives – all because of seemingly small moments like these.
I want to share a personal memory I’ve hardly ever shared with anyone – when I was in Shoafim, now 14 years ago, we played a game of Family Feud as an edah with various questions about camp, like “what is the best food in the chadar ochel?” One of the final questions was “where is the best place in camp?” For some reason, and I’ll never understand why, the #1 answer my madrichim picked to put on that board was: “Anywhere with David Offit.” I was 12 years old, in only my second year at camp, and I felt like a total rockstar. When the answer was announced, my bunk-mates started chanting “Da-vid Of-fit.” The rest of my edah soon joined in. That’s when that chant started, by the way. At the time, it was a cool, though very embarrassing experience, but the memory of that moment is one of the most powerful of my life. Why? Because it was the first time at camp that I truly felt like I mattered. When I felt like I meant something to people. When I felt like I had a place in such a huge, and often overwhelming community. I can draw a direct line between that memory, from many years ago, and this moment right now. That memory has always taught me that camp is a place where people can come to feel like they matter and they belong. And I have spent these past years of my life working as hard as I can to help others feel the same way.
So, what are your camp memories? What are the memories that not only feel good, but teach you about yourself, your connection to Judaism, and your values? What are the memories that remind you of the extraordinary, holy relationships that you’ve built with other people? When we say that at camp you “create memories that last a lifetime,” it’s not just a cute tagline – it is, in my opinion, the absolute truest expression of why we even come to camp in the first place – to create memories. As Moses pleaded with our ancestors, may we all take care to never forget the things we’ve seen here with our own eyes.