Reflections on Parashat Bemidbar by Jacob Cytryn, Director
Nearly every year, on the Shabbat before Shavuot, we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, literally: “In the wilderness.” A traditional understanding of this juxtaposition is that the giving of the Torah, which we celebrate on Shavuot, occurred in the wilderness. In Hebrew, the sentence “In the wilderness, God speaks,” highlights the similarity of the words: במדבר, ה’ מדבר – bemidbar, hashem m’daber. The other Abrahamic faiths share this motif – Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed all encounter God, for the first time and regularly, in the wilderness.
Perhaps, however, the wilderness itself is not essentially crucial to this paradigm. Rather, the wilderness represents something unfamiliar and dangerous, a place that evokes anxiety and fear. Psychologically, spending time in the wilderness may allow us to express greater vulnerability, on the one hand, and, simultaneously, to give us the metaphorical space to reinvent ourselves and develop into fuller versions of the people we dream to be.
The anthropologist Victor Turner developed a theory of the generative power of “liminal space,” settings “betwixt and between” that are neither here nor there. In a variety of cultures, adolescent rituals rely on liminal spaces for their power to help mark transitions into adulthood. The wilderness is one such liminal space, as is a summer camp.
Professor Ben Sommer, a Bible scholar at JTS and one of our scholars-in-residence this summer, helps us see that the broader idea of liminality is crucial in his work on how the Torah complicates notions of home for some of its major characters. Specifically, the narratives about Adam, Abraham, Joseph, and Moses all force us to consider, if not accept, that places which at first seem like “home” and “exile” may actually be flipped. Adam’s relationship with the Garden of Eden, Abraham’s with his homeland of Ur in Mesopotamia, Joseph’s with his family in Canaan, and Moses’ with the Egyptian royal palace of his youth, do not turn out as we would expect. In these narratives, it takes leaving home for each individual to truly discover his role in our communal store and to find comfort in doing it. Noting this phenomenon allows us to reevaluate some of our presumptions about the Torah: the expulsion from the Garden of Eden enabled our ancestors to become fully human; Abraham, the quintessential nomad, is only comfortable when he is on the move; Joseph’s journey into the darkness of Egypt was the best outcome he could hope for, even before being elevated to Pharaoh’s court; and the tragedy of Moses’ life is not that he never made it into the Promised Land but that the people he led could not live in the wilderness that was his only home in perpetuity.
This framework helps open up for us the Torah readings we will encounter over the next weeks and months, as well as the Revelation at Sinai that we recall by staying up all night learning Torah on the first night of Shavuot. (The middle of the night: another classic liminal space.) It also helps explain the power of camp. Our time at camp is an extended visit into a liminal space, one with the raw potential to help profoundly impact the campers and young staff poised to experience it. The friendships forged at camp are fundamentally different because of this liminality; the independence, identity formation, and different types of learning our campers leave with are more powerful due to it.
For some staff members, the stories of their reluctance to leave home before their first summer is the beginning of their own story about how Ramah has become their “second home.” For others, camp is a place to express vulnerability in a safe and productive educational environment that is “betwixt and between,” not quite here or there.
If our readers this week have veteran campers or alumni in their families, I encourage you to reflect on this idea of liminal space and how it may (or may not) help to unpack the lasting influence of one’s summers at Ramah. If, on the other hand, you have a camper who will be joining us for the first time in Conover this summer (for Kochavim or for one of our 4- or 8-week sessions), consider beginning a conversation with your first-time camper about his or her goals for the summer.
Over Shavuot, our liturgy makes clear that we are not celebrating a holiday for receiving God’s Torah; rather, it is the giving of our Torah (matan torateinu). May we all embrace and be ready to receive anew the teachings of the Torah which we need to hear, which we need to help us grow.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach.