Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Sam Weiner who was Rosh Atzmaym Kayitz 2018 and 2019. Sam has been at Ramah since he was in Rishonim and has spent his summers on Tzevet working as a madrich for Tikvah and Atzmayim. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Communication Sciences and Disorders and is currently working as a paraeducator at Keshet.
Wrestling with Spirituality at Camp: Reflections on Parasha Vayishlach
by Sam Weiner
In the beginning of this week’s parashah, Vayishlach, Jacob hears that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, possibly on hostile terms. Jacob is incredibly anxious and spends the night on his own. Suddenly an angel appears and instinctively Jacob decides to wrestle with it until the break of dawn. The angel is impressed with Jacob’s resilience and rewards him with a new name.
(וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃ (בראשית לב:כט
Said the angel, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29)
The next morning Jacob, now named Israel, is transformed into a different person. He is calm, confident, and prepared to face Esau instead of running away from his problems as he did so many years ago. Similar to when he had his dream with angels walking up and down the ladders, Jacob is awakened with a new sense of urgency and more willing to embrace the struggles that he will have throughout the rest of his life.
Having a divine experience in the Torah is not a unique occurrence. Whether it is Abraham testing his faith during the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) or Moses seeing the burning bush, there are several memorable moments in the Torah that significantly affect the lives of people experiencing them. What makes this particular moment of Jacob’s life unique is the way he chose to engage with the angel. Who else upon seeing an angel would instinctively choose to fight it? He could have just as easily invited him into his tent as Abraham would and I’m sure they could have had a nice conversation. Ultimately, Jacob engaged with the divine in a way that made sense to him in the moment and his decision to struggle inspired his new identity as Israel.
Jacob’s decision about how to uniquely engage with an angel inspires me to think about how we all go about making decisions in different ways. A different text from the Tanakh says:
(חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֖נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכּ֑וֹ גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֜זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה: (משלי כ”ב,ו
Educate the youth according to his path so when he grows up he won’t swerve from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
This text emphasizes that everyone has their own passions and interests along with different ways to explore them. Someone may be really into history and immerse themselves in books about that subject. Alternatively, someone else may find their passion in humanitarian work and feels the most joy when they are doing something tangible like volunteering at a soup kitchen. We are all unique individuals with different approaches to how we live and learn.
Our camp community helps chanichim (campers) discover their own passions and learn experientially in a safe and exploratory space. Whether it is learning to read Hebrew by taking part in the camp musical or using art to better engage with a prayer text, Ramah provides a uniquely fun and creative Jewish setting for personal growth. Madrichim (counselors) invest tremendous energy and talent in creating fun and memorable programming that inspires their chanichim to try new things and find their own passions. Just as Jacob was transformed after his night of wrestling with an angel, each chanich is transformed in some way after spending even just one kayitz (summer) at camp. I know from experience that a Ramah experience can guide a person on a path of curiosity and learning about Jewish life long after their camper years are over.