Talking to Our Campers About Being Activists: The Lessons of Vayikra

I believe one of the primary roles of Camp Ramah is to foster the growth of individuals and leaders who are committed to justice, social action, and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Not only that, but I want our young people to understand that active engagement in our communities is a Jewish mitzvah – a responsibility.

We just recently held our Tzad Bet Reunion (for our teen campers) in Palmer. We discussed this topic against the backdrop of the mass shooting in Florida and the walkouts that followed in many high schools across the United States.

Here is what we discussed:

In our world, there are many sources that purport to tell us what is right, and what we should do. Many of these sources complement each other, while some are at odds. I asked our chanichim (campers) how they decide what is right. Some cited Judaism, some their families, some said American values and some said that you can logically figure it out. I unabashedly say that Judaism provides great wisdom on this question and, combined with their family values, should be a strong guide to them.

We are now reading the book of Vayikra. Many people feel this is the most boring book of the Torah, but I think that Vayikra provides important lessons on what role we need to play as Jews.

The book begins, “And God called out to Moshe.” Moshe had his calling. All of us, I hope, have our callings – issues that we feel passionate about and are willing to fight for. Certain causes are going to call out to young people more than others. This is good. However, I also mentioned to the chanichim (campers) a peculiarity in the text. In the word “Vayikra,” the aleph at the end of the word is smaller than normal. The commentators say that Moshe, who wrote the Torah, did not want to appear arrogant about God calling to him, so he made the aleph smaller. Moshe’s humility reminds us that before we go on our crusades and believe we know what is right, we should be humble and consider other people’s points of view. We should listen and be open to the idea that others may disagree with us and are not necessarily bad or wrong.

Another major theme of the book of Vayikra is sacrifice. There is a lot of sacrificing going on. Sometimes my eyes glaze over thinking about all the sacrifices. I think it is important to note that the Israelites who brought sacrifices were committing their wealth and assets in the form of animals or grain in the service of God. It wasn’t nothing. It cost them. Many of us feel that when we stand up for what we believe in we shouldn’t have any consequences imposed on us. That would be nice. However, we know that many in history have paid heavily to advance important causes. Although I wish we could protest without consequences, it isn’t a terrible lesson to learn that sometimes we might negatively impact our grades or attendance records by standing up for what we believe in.

The final theme we discussed was that of “kadosh.” The idea of being holy connotes being separated or even elevated. Our job as Jews is to strive to be holy. Our goal is to raise ourselves so we can raise each other and to raise our world. The central theme of the book of Vayikra is that we should be a holy people. It isn’t always easy and sometimes our efforts feel futile. Yet we are told to keep working towards this goal. There is some evidence that over time people can truly impact the course of world history.

Passover represents our people’s foundational story. We were a nation of slaves who gained freedom, after which God called out to Moshe to instruct us all to remember the stranger, the slave, the orphan and the widow. That it is our responsibility. Being free and holy takes work. At our sedarim this year, let’s talk about our callings, what is important to us and what we will do to continue our Jewish heritage of doing the work to perfect our world. Chag Sameach!