Reflections on Parashat Vayetze

On a Tuesday morning in July I walked through the tunnel under Buckatabon Road to take photos of campers on our challenge courses.First I came upon a group of boys on the low ropes course. Some of them were trying to balance on a platform perched on a log. The challenge was to keep the platform parallel to the ground for 10 seconds.It’s not an easy task and the boys had different ideas on how to accomplish it. “You stand over there,” “move to the left” – they tried a number of combinations without success. Slowly, patiently, they figured it out. By coming together and linking arms to form a tight group in the middle of the platform, they achieved the balance they were looking for. 

Next to them another group was standing on a long log and trying to arrange themselves by height without stepping off the log. A camper crouched down so another boy could step over him. A third boy held out his hand. This element required patience and cooperation as well. It took a while, but they too accomplished the task.

Afterwards I listened as the staff helped the campers reflect on  these two experiences. They soon realized that the teamwork and cooperation needed to succeed in the challenges can enhance their relationships as friends, as a cabin, as a camp community.

Time and time again the low ropes course experience helps campers open up to others and expand their trust. Even more so in this case – these boys were campers in the Tikvah Program together with the Machon campers in the connecting cabin. The care, respect and understanding that these boys showed for each other was deeply moving.

I continued deeper into the woods to see what was happening at the high ropes course. Two Bogrim campers were on the element called “Jacob’s Ladder.” They were climbing a 30-foot apparatus with their backs to me, so they had no idea that anyone other than their cabin mates and staff were watching.

The rungs of Jacob’s Ladder are nearly 5 feet apart, so it can only be scaled with the help of another person. One camper makes his knee into a step for his friend and when the friend gets to the higher rung he puts his hand out to help the first camper.

I don’t think it was my imagination – the rungs seemed to get farther apart as the campers scaled the ladder. One of the campers was clearly nervous about the height and the difficulty of the challenge. “I’ve never done anything like this before – I don’t think I can do this” he shouted to his friends below. But his cabin mates cheered them on and his climbing partner reassured him, “I believe in you! We’re in this together!” This brought tears to my eyes.

The climbing partner was right. They worked together and made it all the way to the top of the ladder. They radiated a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Parashat Vayetze describes Jacob’s dream of a ladder ascending to heaven. A commentary in the Hertz Humash notes that the angels on that ladder are “ascending and descending.” The angels do not start in heaven and come down the ladder to Jacob, rather they are with him from the start.

That was my sense on that day at the ropes course. Angels are around us all the time – we just need to be open to their presence.

In Jacob’s dream, God is standing beside him, promising him a blessed future. Jacob awakes and says, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!"Shaken, he said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

As I think back on that day at camp, I realize that even a tunnel under Buckatabon Road can be a gateway to God. Each step I took brought me closer to a “holy encounter” with angels that are around us all the time.