Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Jonah Harris. Jonah is a structural engineer at Thornton Tomasetti. Before that, he spent 18 summers at Ramah, including time as a Rosh Eidah and Rosh Nagarut (woodworking). Jonah earned a BS degree from Tufts University and an MS degree from Columbia University.
Judaism’s Rulebook: Reflections on Parashat Ki Teitsei
There are so many rules in baseball. Most people don’t care about the rule addressing a fielder who throws his mitt at a batted ball (it’s an automatic triple) – they’d rather see big home runs or nasty strikeouts. But as a die-hard baseball fan, roughly around my Shoafim summer, I bought a Major League Baseball rulebook to understand everything I could about the game. During that same summer, when I wasn’t thinking about baseball or hanging out with my friends at camp, I was studying Ki Teitsei for my bar mitzvah. I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out I was learning excerpts from the closest thing to Judaism’s rulebook.
At first glance, Ki Teitsei, this week’s parashah, makes for dry reading and a boring week in synagogue. There’s no narrative; it’s entirely a guide to Jewish law and practice, delivered through Moses. If it’s read like a novel, it will disappoint. But when each law is seen in the context of society, countless insights emerge on how to tangibly fulfill last parashah’s quote of the week: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” Anyone can find meaning in some of the 27 positive and 47 negative commandments found in this week’s text, with enough variation to suit myriad interests.
The first law that struck me was to build a parapet around your roof, so no one will fall from it. Much ink has been spilled on this law, but I find it interesting as a structural engineer because it would fit right into a modern building code. This might be the earliest recorded mention of a safety factor, something engineers use every day: to design a structure stronger than it needs to be, in case the original assumptions were not conservative enough. The Torah already knows what the American Society for Civil Engineers demands: it’s worth spending extra money on materials to ensure public safety.
There are other laws sprinkled within Ki Teitsei addressing urgent and noble human rights causes: to fight inequality (22:4), to help asylum seekers (23:16-17), not to abuse migrant workers (24:15). Each of these verses deserves its own d’var Torah, and since we read these mitzvot every year, a future writer in this space can take these on. I’d rather focus on the verse most notable to camp:
“Since the LORD your God moves in closeness within your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.” (23:15)
From learning on the kikar on Shabbat, to a new friendship created in the tzrif (cabin), we see God moving in closeness within our camp every day during a normal kayitz (summer). A sense of holiness is felt every year as chanichim (campers) rush off the buses on the first day of the summer. But in order for our camp to become and remain holy, it requires work. It requires the chanichim and madrichim (counselors) to do nikayon (clean-up) every morning so their tzrif is a liveable space. It requires madrichim to plan great pe’ulot (activities) so each day can flow and have a purpose. For our camp to protect us and not become unseemly, it requires hard work from our brilliant year-round maintenance staff. Most chanichim see the maintenance staff during the summer unclogging toilets and fetching shoes from roofs, but they are also – and more importantly – the talented construction workers who have built most of the buildings around camp, creating a beautiful space for us to enjoy.
Finally, none of the magic of camp would be possible without local Jewish communities raising funds and sending their children to Camp Ramah. Following a rule book may seem bland, but if done well, and done well by all, it sustains what we love most.