This week’s parashahVayera, contains three of the most famous, profound, and important God-human interactions in all of the Torah. At the outset of the parashah, God appears to Abraham as the latter is visited by three mysterious men who bring surprising news; this story is held up and revered by rabbinic literature as the source of the importance of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, in Jewish tradition. Shortly thereafter, Abraham and God engage in the classic debate about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as Abraham argues that the innocent should not be punished for the sins of the wicked. Near the end of the parashah, in what is often seen as the ultimate test of faith and is clearly one of the most troubling and problematic episodes in the entire Hebrew Bible, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

On face value, reading these stories through the cultural lens of our own worldview, Abraham’s behavior seems shocking. In the first two stories, Abraham first abandons God to tend to human guests and then argues incessantly with God to avert the destruction of innocent human beings. Commentators throughout the millennia have justifiably questioned Abraham’s great chutzpah to treat God in these ways. Yet only a few chapters later, these same commentators ask the opposite question of Abraham at the Akeidah: Why did Abraham not challenge God? How does a father so calmly follow orders to sacrifice his beloved son?

There are answers to these questions, both within a reading of each story on its own and in an attempt to provide a coherent understanding for Abraham’s relationship with God over his lifetime. And those answers, in this context, are not as important to me as the questions they raise for us who are interested in fostering the development and education of young people, for they all speak to relationships between individuals and authority figures.

One of the components of the “magic of summer camp” often described in articles attempting to categorize and document what happens in transformative educational settings like Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is the upending of classic hierarchical structures. At camp, we learn how to live with peers in a cabin, sharing shelves, bathrooms, and play areas in a way most of our campers do not at home. At camp, our counselors are college students, learning how to serve as mentors, role models, and authority figures for our campers at the time in their life when many most struggle with notions of authority.  

At camp, the future lay and professional leaders of our Jewish, American, and Israeli communities are able to blur hierarchical boundaries: a recent college graduate helps make a decision about which eminent teacher currently in camp should give a D’var Torah to the eidah; a professional artist has a conversation with a twelve year old on a spiritual journey; parents  watch as children morph into young adults, managing  their own needs, friendships and wants that seemed impossible a few weeks earlier back at home.

The God depicted in the words of the Torah is far more complicated and nuanced than we often imagine, and the God of Abraham, at least, may best be described as a madrich, a counselor helping guide our ancestor down the derech, the path of his emerging life.  

Maybe, then, the setting of summer camp does not so much upend hierarchical structures but reestablish them, bringing a little bit of the wonder, interactivity, and possibility of Abraham’s relationship with God back into our world.