To Give and To Take
by Rabbi Loren Sykes, Director

אדם צריך שתיהי לו מילה
קצת מקום בעולם
אהבה לא נשכחת
וקול אמיתי לתפילה
ורגע מושלם
כדי לתת ולקחת
לפחד מהפחד.

A person needs to have a word,
A little place in the world,
Unforgettable Love,
A real voice for prayer
And a moment of completeness
In order to give and to take,
And to not be afraid of fear.
Shlomo Artzi, To Give and To Take

Sitting at a picnic table in front of my house, under the bright blue sky, the bald eagle soared overhead as I listened to music with three roshei aidah. We headr the words of Shlomo Artzi’s song לתת ולקחת, To Give and To Take. The refrain lists five things a person needs – a word or voice, a place, unforgettable love, a real, prayerful voice, and a sense of completeness or integrity – in order to truly give and receive and to face fear without being afraid. We listened a second time to the refrain and then entered into a conversation about tefilah, prayer.  Among the questions raised were:

  • How do we balance individual needs in prayer with communal needs?
  • Can every text be viewed as a prayer or is there something about liturgical poetry that puts some things within the realm of prayer and some things outside that realm?
  • What is the meaning of a real or truthful voice for prayer?
  • What does it mean that a person needs a word or a voice in the context of prayer?  Is that a reference to fixed liturgy or to the need for personal prayer?

As the conversation proceeded, as we went deeper trying to answer one question, we arrived at more questions than answers.

Daniel Olson, rosh aidah for our Atzmayim program, pointed out that the five precursors for successful giving, receiving, and confronting fear are, in many ways, the same things we needed to have successful, powerful tefillot in camp and in life:

אדם צריך שתיהי לו מילה
A person needs a word…

The traditional language of the siddur provides us with words, with a language for conversation with God and with ourselves. They give us poetry and imagery that link us to our history and to the worldwide Jewish community. At the same time, each one of us needs our own words to convey wants and desires, hopes and aspirations, thoughts and feelings. As educators, we constantly struggle with the balance between the creative and the traditional, the communal and the individual, as we think about tefillah in camp and for ourselves. What words do we need? Halakhically? Personally?

קצת מקום בעולם
A little place in the world
What is the setting for prayer, individual and communal? How do we make our prayerful places, our מקדשי מעט , appropriate settings for tefillah. In camp, most davvening places are multipurpose spaces transitioning quickly from tefillot into stages for theater, into studios for dance, into practice rooms for music, etc. The atmosphere of the place can help put us in the right mood for intimate conversation with God and with self or it can convey a sense of “get this over with quickly” because someone needs the room for another activity. Our job is to insure that where we pray is conducive to prayer, that it is warm, that it inspires us to take our time in self-reflection and connection with The Divine. And then, as we learn from the beginning of this week’s parasha, Naso,  just as was the case with moving the portable Tabernacle, the Mishkan, we need to break the room down in a respectful and careful way, treating all of the ritual objects with kavod, with respect.

אהבה לא נשכחת
Unforgettable Love

I asked the shlichim to translate this phrase for me and they said that the best translation was “unforgettable love.” In the context of tefillah, I think Shlomo Artzi is talking about unconditional love or אהבה שלא תלויה בדבר, love that is not dependent on anything. In tefillah, no matter what we say in our hearts, we need to remember that we are loved, somewhere, somehow, unconditionally, be that God’s love, parental love, etc. Camp is a place where everyone needs to know that they are valued and respected. Tefillah, with its language of thanks, provides us with the opportunity to be reminded of the sources of love and hope and blessing in our lives.

וקול אמיתי לתפילה
A real voice of prayer

For many people, camp is the place where they first discover their own prayerful voice. Encountering the siddur, struggling with the literal and personal meaning of the prayers, helps us find our voice for talking with God and with our souls. From the moments when we pray with our internal voice to the times we sing out with our peers, camp can be the place where people first enter conversation with God or the place where they start to discover who they are. How do we create the atmosphere, the trust, required for campers and staff members to feel safe exploring these aspects of self? What is a real voice of prayer? Is there a difference between communal singing and prayer? If so, how do we know when we are doing one and not the other?

ורגע מושלם
A moment of completeness

A personal sense of integrity, a sense of wholeness, of authenticity helps bring people to deeply prayerful moments. Recognizing who we truly are, what we truly believe, helps motivate us to act, to give genuinely and to receive genuinely. Walking around camp with other people, you often get gifts that open up parts of your soul, that lead to deeper understanding and that lead you to be able to face challenges and moments without fear, without worry of the “if only I…” I often hear people say that camp is the only place where they can truly be themselves. Tefillah can be a time for feeling this sense of completeness, of integrity, of perfection which prepares you to give and to receive.

As the staff builds over the course of the week to come, we will continue the conversation about tefillah in camp. We will seek to build an inspiring community that is steeped in our traditional siddur. We will work to maintain the proper balance between the voice of the community and the voice of the individual in the conversations that take place at camp between us and God. At moments, our prayers and our souls will soar without fear, like the eagle, to the Heavens. At others, they will be the still small voice in our souls reminding us that we are loved. They will remind us that to give and to receive, we must be authentic in our voices, in our words, in our actions. Finally, we will be blessed to achieve all of this in our מקום בעולם, on the shores of Lake Buckatabon at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.

Shabbat Shalom.