HaMirpeset Shelanu 264: From Benjy Forester
Please enjoy a D'var Torah this week from Benjy Forester. Benjy graduated from Washington University in St. Louis last spring with a degree in Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology (PNP). A longtime Ramah Wisconsin camper and staff member, Benjy served last summer as Rosh Tikvah. This year, Benjy is living in Budapest, Hungary, as a JDC Jewish Service Corps Fellow, working specifically with BBYO-Hungary on teenage programming and engagement. Reflections on Parashat Lech Lecha by Benjy Forester
The plot of our parashah (weekly Torah reading) finally advances into the “Jewish story” this week, with Lech Lecha’s introduction of Abram and his covenant with God. Despite frequent assurances from God promising abundant blessings to Abram’s offspring, our patriarch's journey often proves complex and strained. In one instance in the parashah, Abram mounts a military offensive to free his nephew Lot from foreign captors. Abram successfully rescues Lot and retreats, and soon meets King Malchizedek of Shalem, described as a כהן לאל עליון (kohein l’eil elyon / “God on most high”), who blesses Abram and God, saying, ברוך אל עליון אשר מגן צריך בידך (baruch eil elyon asher magein tzarich b’yadechah) or “blessed is God on most high who delivered your foes into your hands.”
Interestingly, despite Malchizedek’s blessing, and despite God’s frequent reminders to Abram about their covenant in the surrounding passages, the narrative about Abram’s rescuing Lot does not mention God at all. The text does not include any attempt by God to advise Abram’s judgement, to assist him in battle, or to praise or acknowledge Abram’s success. Instead, a strange character who appears once in the entire Hebrew Bible (Malchizedek), about whom we know almost nothing, welcomes divine providence and protection into the narrative.
Our liturgists seem to find particular meaning in Malchizedek’s insertion of God into this somewhat strange episode. The Amidah, established by the Rabbis as the central prayer in our liturgy, opens with a blessing that uses Abraham and his story as an exemplar of divine protection and might. In fact, the liturgists insert the epithet used by Malchizedek (and by him alone!) of אל עליון (eil elyon) into the first blessing of the Amidah, and conclude that blessing by praising God who shields Abraham, מגן אברהם (magein Avraham). These allusions to our text are striking and explicit. Of all the examples of God’s might and protection in the Bible, the liturgists elect Abram and this peculiar scene devoid of mention of God as their exemplar of God’s loving shield over Israel.
What can we make of this strange scene and its prominent role in our liturgy? Of central importance, God’s omnipresent shield presents powerful and comforting imagery. Not only did God protect Abram, according to Malchizedek, but God protected Abram as Abram tried making a judicious and righteous decision to redeem his kin from danger and war. Perhaps God felt that He could trust Abram’s judgment and provide implicit backing for the decisions and actions of His chosen partner, and perhaps Abram already understood this connection and felt empowered by God to navigate a complex situation.
I believe that the Bible and the siddur would praise the approach and work of Camp Ramah counselors and staff. Abraham’s story shows what an ideal relationship between God and human looks like, backed by trust and constant support. At Ramah, our madrichim (“counselors”) develop deep relationships with their chanichim (“campers”), and they build communal spaces in which everyone has room to express themselves and feel safe. From our structured programs and activities to the more casual and informal moments of the day, madrichim are attentive and present. As chanichim return to camp summer after summer and develop confidence and skills through the Ramah experience, our staff learns how to let their chanichim lead by example, channel their best judgment, and learn how to recover from mishaps.
At camp, our community is aspirational. As our campers develop their leadership capacities over the years, madrichim entrust them with the choice to create respectful and powerful experiences for themselves and for their peers. While trial and error sometimes accompanies the progress, our madrichim and broader staff never abandon the process; in fact, they work even harder to encourage reflection, improvement, and independence. God’s covenant with Abram is eternal and unconditional, and so is Ramah’s commitment to the growth and success of all of its campers.