Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Ralph Schwartz, Director of Special Needs Programs. A veteran Ramahnik, Ralph worked in the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah Palmer from 1977-1982. He directed the Breira Program at Ramah Berkshires from 2002-2005, and joined the Ramah Wisconsin team in 2006. A graduate of Brooklyn College with a degree in Special Education, Ralph also earned a Masters in Social Work from Hunter College.
Giving Confidence to Campers: Reflections on Parashat Shemot
by Ralph Schwartz
This Shabbat we begin the book of Shemot (Exodus). It reminds us of the end of Genesis when Joseph’s siblings and father come to Egypt with their family, 70 in number, and then notes that this generation dies and the Israelites multiply greatly.
The Torah then says a new king arose in Egypt “who knew not Joseph.” The parashah then details the beginning of the Israelites slavery, the midwives refusing to kill the firstborn male children, Moses being raised in the Egyptian palace, Moses killing the Egyptian after he witnesses him striking a Jewish slave, and Moses fleeing to Midian. There he becomes a shepherd for Yitro and marries his daughter Zipporah.
One day while Moses is tending the sheep, God appears at the burning bush and asks Moses to return to Egypt to lead his people to freedom. Moses says no to God, who listens to Moses’s concerns and tries to address each of them. At the end of the conversation, God makes what educators would call an “accommodation” to Moses. Moses says that he is not a person of words and that he is “k’vad peh” or heavy of mouth; it is difficult for him to speak. God responds by saying that his brother Aaron will do the talking when they meet Pharaoh.
God is showing us an example of how we should act when we ask someone to do something and they initially say no. We need to listen to their concerns and respond in a respectful way. We may need to be flexible about what we are asking in order to create a situation where the person can succeed. God addresses Moses’s concerns one by one, finally by telling him that his brother Aaron will go with him and be his mouthpiece. In the end, we can observe the confidence and skills that Moses gains as is evident in his lengthy speeches in the book of D’varim (words).
At camp we are frequently asking our campers to do things, both in the cabin and for the eidah. Often times, they hesitate to say yes and give an excuse. Before we answer the camper, staff members are careful to listen to their words and tone of voice as well as to observe their body language, and facial expressions, and to offer an idea that might ease their trepidation. We build campers’ abilities and confidence by addressing those concerns that the camper shares with us. We can hold firm in our request only after we listen with our heart, avoiding power struggles or dismissive comments. Camp is a place where we can meet each camper’s needs, helping many to assume leadership roles and to stretch themselves in new ways. When we take a moment to listen to a camper’s thoughts and then respond with understanding and compassion, like God does to Moses, we assist the camper to feel they are heard and often provide just the support needed for that camper to fulfill responsibilities and to take pride in their achievement.