Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Ralph Schwartz. Ralph is a veteran Ramahnik who has been involved in inclusive Jewish camping for over 25 years and has been at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin since 2006. During the year, Ralph is a school social worker and uses his camp skills to support students to be successful in an academic setting. He lives with his wife Marci Dickman in Skokie, Illinois, and they have four children, two of whom -Aviva and Hillel – were Roshei Edah at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Marci and Ralph have two grandchildren, Shai and Ziv, who live in Israel.
Criticism and Growth: Reflections on Parashat Devarim
by Ralph Schwartz
One aspect of camp that makes the summer special for many of us is how much we mature and change as people. One of the ways this growing occurs is that we hold mirrors up for each other. We help each other see ourselves more clearly. Living together 24/7 at camp, we provide each other with feedback and suggestions about what we do well (strengths), and what we can do better (challenges). A camper might share an idea with a counselor that helps nikayon (clean-up) go smoother in the tzrif (cabin) in the mornings. A rosh eidah might suggest a new way to engage a camper in an activity. Counselors have honest and direct conversations with each other about how they are working together. All these mirrors help us to see ourselves with greater clarity.
Our Torah portion, D’varim, could have been written to guide these mirrors at Ramah. We learn the importance of giving honest feedback from the first of Moses’ speeches to the Jewish people in this parashah. Moses knows he will not go into the promised land and that his days as the leader of the Jewish people are numbered.
One might think that Moses would address the Israelites with words of encouragement (you can do it!) in the hope that when they enter the promised land, they will set up a just society, follow God’s laws, and be protected by God. This direction might have been easier. Instead, Moses realizes that feedback is what’s critical. He reminds the people of their past misdeeds in the desert, the consequences that occurred, and the consequences that will occur in the future if they do not follow the laws.
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, notes in his book Encountering Torah that “Some of the greatest lessons that we learn in life are based on criticisms that we hear from our loved ones, our friends, and respected teachers.” Moses was clearly a loved and respected leader, as well as a teacher. In the first verse of the Torah portion, we read, “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel.” Traditional commentators say that “all Israel” indicates that Moses was including himself in the feedback. He was acknowledging that he also made mistakes, just like the people. A little humility from a leader — how refreshing.
At camp, the feedback is continuous and comes from everyone — campers, counselors, teachers, and roshei eidah. Feedback is an integral part of our Tikvah and Atzmayim programs. The most successful Tikvah campers and Atzmayim participants are the ones who hear the feedback, and when they are ready, make changes in their behavior. They also see this modeled by their staff who work hard to be the best counselors they can be. Feedback is given lovingly so the campers and participants feel cared for, and deep down everyone realizes that the suggestions come with a desire to benefit the individuals and the community.
This nurturing cycle happens daily in all eidot (age groups) and activity areas. The feedback is not always easy to hear but is given in respectful ways to help us be better people and not become defensive. We often see the growth in campers and staff from one summer to the next. It can take us a few months to integrate the feedback before we put it into practice. I too grow from the mirrors that are held up for me. This summer, without new mirrors, I find myself reflecting on feedback I received in the past. I imagine the Israelites doing the same after they crossed into the land. With camp closed this summer, we are left to ponder what might have been and what will be when we get back to our “promised” Ramah. Next summer in Conover!