Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Shani Abramowitz. Shani is a second-year rabbinical student at JTS and is currently studying in Jerusalem for the year. Originally from Chicago, Shani has spent one summer at camp as a Yahadut teacher, and is looking forward to returning!
Remembering Ourselves at Camp
by Shani Abramowitz
In this week’s parashah, Bo, the Jewish people finally come into their own as a community with a sense of national identity. In the beginning of the parashah, the Torah recounts the story of Moses and Aaron’s last interactions with Pharaoh, the final set of plagues, and the Exodus itself. It is in this parashah that the Jewish people truly become a nation and it seems that this is the climax of it all. But what does it mean to become a people? What does it mean to share an identity and a vision of ourselves and our future?
In the final chapter of parashat Bo, the commandment of tefillin appears for the first time:
וְהָיָה֩ לְךָ֨ לְא֜וֹת עַל־יָדְךָ֗ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן֙ בֵּ֣ין עֵינֶ֔יךָ לְמַ֗עַן תִּהְיֶ֛ה תּוֹרַ֥ת יְהוָ֖ה בְּפִ֑יךָ כִּ֚י בְּיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה הוֹצִֽאֲךָ֥ יְהֹוָ֖ה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃
V’hayah l’cha l’ot al yadcha u’lzikaron bein einecha l’maan t’hiyeh torat Adonai b’ficha, ki b’yad chazakah hotza’acha Adonai mimitzrayim
And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead – in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth – that with a mighty hand the lord freed you from Egypt (Exodus 13:9).
Camp is an incredible place where we come together to imagine our Jewish future. Over the course of the summer, we engage in a project not unlike that of the Israelites who, on their way out of Egypt, are commanded to imagine and remember their identity for the first time. At camp, we have the luxury to dream big and to think seriously about our values.
This commandment, to bind our arm and adorn our forehead with the tefillin, appears again at the end of the parashah. In fact, it is the final verse of all of parashat Bo.
וְהָיָ֤ה לְאוֹת֙ עַל־יָ֣דְכָ֔ה וּלְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֣ין עֵינֶ֑יךָ כִּ֚י בְּחֹ֣זֶק יָ֔ד הוֹצִיאָ֥נוּ יְהוָ֖ה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃
V’hayah l’ot al yadcha ul’totafot bein einecha, ki b’chozek yad hotzianu Adonai mimitzrayim
And so it shall be a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt (Exodus 13:16).
I spent my first summer at camp this year as a Yahadut (Jewish Studies) teacher, and I had the incredible opportunity to engage my students in questions of faith, observance, and philosophy. It was clear to me from the very first day that my students were so excited and proud to be Jewish, and that they were thinking seriously about what it means to be Conservative Jews in the world today. For me, camp was a two-month long exercise in remembering. Every day, as I would wrap my tefillin and daven shacharit (pray in the morning) with my campers, I was reminded of the unbelievable project that we constantly create and engage with at camp: the project of building and nourishing Jewish identity.
And, while two months flies by and feels like nothing at all, it remains a moment for everybody at camp, almost suspended in time, to become the best versions of ourselves, and to throw ourselves openly into the project of building the wonderful, joy-filled Jewish communities that we all want to be part of.