Tuesday afternoon, June 24, 1992, I stepped off the bus by the pine trees that used to flank the Beit Am, and was greeted by Rabbi Soloff. It was drizzling, or raining; it rained so much that summer that we only had swimming on three or four days. I do not remember meeting my counselors, or what happened with my heavy steamer trunk and military-issue duffel bag. I remember quite clearly trudging up the hill to what was then Tzrif Bet (Cabin 2) through the mud, removing my mud-caked and soaked shoes in my new home, placing them in a since-removed shallow closet along the wall, and forgetting about them for the next four weeks.
That was my first day at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, twenty years ago.
This week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo, holds within it one of the most powerful rituals in all of Judaism, a ritual that has not been actually performed in nearly two thousand years. And yet, year after year, Jews around the world in significant numbers retell the story of the ritual at our Passover Seders: linking ourselves as individuals to the collective whole of the Jewish people, linking the moment of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt with the giving of the Torah, linking the first sprouts of early spring with the first fruits of early summer, linking the present to the mythic past, linking the generation about to freely possess the Land of Israel for the first time with their parents and grandparents who were slaves.
In the first eleven verses of the parashah (Deuteronomy 26:1-11), we read of the ritual act of taking the first fruits of the ground, placing them in a basket and going to the Temple, walking up to a kohen (priest), and the kohen taking the basket, setting it down before the altar. And then, the basket and the fruits having been placed before the altar, do we begin to recount: “ארמי אבד אבי, וירד מצרימה, ויגר שם במתי מעט… – My father was a wandering Aramean, who went down to Egypt to sojourn there, few in number …” (26:4). The speech, familiar to us from the exegetical heart of the Magid (telling) section of the Passover Seder, recounts the history of the Children of Israel from the progenitor of the tribes to the culminating festive act of reaping the harvest in the land long promised to Abraham. As my wife, Tamar, reminded me this morning, one of the powerful aspects of the history is that it is recounted not in the first person singular, which we would expect for the singular farmer bringing his first fruits as an offering to God, but in the first person plural, recounting not one person’s history but a collective nation’s.
I have been thinking a great deal about history and journeys this week, as I assume the position of Director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. The outpouring of congratulatory e-mail messages, phone calls, and text messages (and, word has it, buzz on Facebook) has been overwhelming, and over the course of the coming weeks I look forward to responding to many of those messages and articulating feelings of deep gratitude to the many, many individuals who have supported me along this journey these twenty years and who will, I hope, continue to do so into the future.
We know that our own personal stories about Ramah last long beyond our time in camp. What are our collective stories that would make up a Ramah version of the first-fruit/Seder ritual in today’s world? What are the Jewish people’s stories in the intervening three thousand years since Joshua led the people over the Jordan River that could reinvest the ritual with renewed power and myth?
They are stories of things that happened, and those that didn’t, of programs that went swimmingly, and those that failed miserably. They are stories of lives – collections of snippets of biographies – of counselors, friends, crushes, mentors, students, legends, and partners. They are stories of people with whom we are still close and those with whom we have lost touch. They are stories of those we lost too soon.
In addition to that first afternoon at camp, I have been flooded with memories: of a conversation on the Kikar that changed my life, a moderated discussion on a picnic bench that saved a friendship, a course in college that gave an impossible dream substance and a nurturing guide, watching my son Sam dance to the first songs he learned during t’filot (prayers) at Ramah, gazing on in awe as legends are born during musicals in the Beit Am and on the basketball courts and baseball fields, listening to philosophies of camp the last Friday evening by the waterfront and (just once in nineteen summers) in the Beit Am, hugging and crying near the parking lot as the first few buses depart. And, of course, many many more.
This weekend, we transition again from the month of Elul into the formal period of Selichot, penitential prayers we will say leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As we do so, the liturgy demands of us that we take stock of where we have been and where we are today, to recount our stories and to remember from where we come. As the final line of the great liturgical poem reminds us: כי אנו מאמיריך, ואתה מאמירינו – for we, God, are your utterances, the stories you tell about us, and you, God, are our utterance, a supernatural being captured not by sculptures and pictures but by the sheer power of your name.
I have no idea what shoes I wore during my Chalutzim summer, only that I somehow remembered to place the shoes I had worn that first afternoon, caked with mud and unworn for the intervening month, back in my trunk or duffel bag while I was packing on the last day. This story, at least, highlights one of the powerful truths about camp: we can be different people while at camp, and we can experience profound things during those magical weeks of the summer, but we must inevitably always return again, changed and altered, as we leave.
And if we question and wonder what the value of stories really is, and what could possibly be the import of merely recounting every year on Passover a ritual that was meant to be actually performed: by a farmer on a journey, holding a tangible basket and fresh fruit from a plot of land he cultivated with his own hands, in dialogue with a real priest, near an altar in the Temple in Jerusalem, let us remember the haunting and powerful Chassidic tale:
When the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer—and what he had set out to perform was done.
When, a generation later, the Maggid of Meseritz was faced with the same task, he would go into the woods, to the same place and say: “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers”—and what he wanted done was done. A generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform a task. He too went into the woods and said: “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it belongs, and that must be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.
But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: “We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done.” “And, “the story teller adds, “The story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.”