D’var Torah: Matot-Masei – Why where we start matters
This Friday night I intend to sing one of my favorite songs to start my D’var Torah to the camp. I hope to sing it with my children.
The song begins with the Hebrew prayer that we say at the Ma’ariv service:
הַשְׁכִּיבֵנוּ ה’ אֱלהֵינוּ לְשָׁלום וְהַעֲמִידֵנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ לְחַיִּים וּפְרוש עָלֵינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלומֶךָ
Which means: “Cause us to lie down in peace O Lord our God, stand us up to life our King, and spread over us your shelter of peace.”
The song continues in English, “Shelter us beneath your wings, oh Adonai, Guard us from all harmful things, Oh Adonai, Keep us safe throughout the night, till we wake with morning light, teach us Eili wrong from right, oh Adonai. Amen.”
This song captures the starting point I wanted for my children as they began their life’s journey. It is the song I sang to them when they went to bed at night. I see it as the starting point for two reasons. First, the actual words express what I want, and what I think every parent wants, for their children. We want them to feel secure in going to bed at night and the optimism and strength to get up in the morning and take on life. We want to provide them a safe place to grow up, to be spared harmful, though not necessarily difficult, things, and to learn to do right in the world. Second, I learned this song at Camp Alonim, where I was director for five years. Alonim, though different than Ramah, was a very special community that embraced me and my family. I wanted my children to be embraced by a loving camp community that would help guide them on their journeys.
In the second of this week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, Moshe records the journeys of the Israelites through the desert. I noticed when reading it this week that the Torah says that “Moshe recorded the starting points of their various marches” – not their destinations. The Torah suggests it isn’t necessarily about where journeys end so much as where and how they begin. What is it that we need to have when we head out on our journeys to make sure that we are prepared for what lies ahead? I was thinking of the things that my parents taught me as I started my journey and how they have stuck with me and actually can be found in my Ramah life.
If you were to ask me to identify my family’s number one mitzvah when I growing up, it would undoubtedly be hachnassat orchim – welcoming guests. Our home, Shabbat and holiday table welcomed so many different types of people. My parents welcomed Soviet Jewish refugees into our home and they lived with us until they found their footing in America. This idea of inclusion is a pillar of Ramah. We are welcoming and include everyone at camp. Some of these people we will really like and they may even be our best friends. Others may annoy us sometimes, do things we don’t understand, or may be more or less talented than we are at things like sports, arts or any of a thousand things. Finding ways to welcome and include everyone is what makes Ramah unique. For fifty years, Ramah Palmer has led the way in expanding the circles of who is included.
I can still hear my mom saying, “Just be the best Ed Gelb you can be.” Over and over again, I would hear my parents emphasize that I should be the best version of myself. It was always about my potential, not about others. I have five older very accomplished siblings who were great role models for me, but I never felt I had to be them. At camp we talk a lot about being the best versions of ourselves possible. The only way to do that is to be open to new ideas, activities and people. That is why we celebrate when people step out of their comfort zones and try something new like singing in public, climbing the Alpine Tower, leading Shabbat services or learning to make jewelry.
My parents taught me to find a community to be a part of and to build that community if it doesn’t already exist. When I was nine years old, we moved to Laramie, WY. The Jewish population was very small. My parents helped establish the Laramie Jewish Community Center and I am proud to say that our big family helped Judaism come alive for people who might have just disappeared from our people. At camp we build our community each summer. How we treat one another, how we celebrate, how we play, and even how we argue are reflections of our values and how we care for one other.
It is important to have fun and feel joy together. One of my first memories is watching the Boston Celtics win a triple overtime game in a hotel room in Philadelphia. We were all jumping up and down on the beds. I remember my dad waking us up on a weekend morning and saying, “we’re leaving in fifteen minutes for Boston, get ready!” We had New Year’s eve parties with themes and ridiculous talent shows; we shared so many laughs. Joy is critical at camp. There are moments that I just want to dance and sing because I am so happy being here. Joy comes in hanging out with friends, making silly jokes with campers, deep-frying Oreos, and in so many other moments. Often I want to bottle the joy at camp so I can take it with me for the winter. It is important to remember that camp is fun.
We need a safe place to learn, grow and have fun. We pray God shelters us beneath Her wings. We need strength to stand up and embrace life. Let’s remember where we started from and take those lessons forward with us. Shabbat Shalom.