A Special Community: Reflections on Parashat Balak
by Adina Allen, Outgoing Assistant Director
This week I have been thinking of two of my favorite camp moments that happen like clockwork every summer at the end of Yom Sport. After a long and exciting day seeing our Nivonim campers lead our entire camp community in games, cheers, and more, we gather on the lower kikar to declare a winner. We sing the Himnon Ramah (camp anthem), and then the image suddenly splits in two. Nivonim storms the lake to celebrate victory, their eidah, and their leadership. Simultaneously, the rest of camp runs towards the canteen. The sight of campers running towards a candy bar, similar to the infamous stampede in the Lion King, makes me smile. These images stay with me year after year and epitomize sunny, ruach-filled days in Conover.
It’s hard to describe the traditions that happen within our little Conover home to someone who has never experienced camp before. Upon first glance, it may be difficult to understand what you are seeing. Perhaps this is what Balaam felt when he looked upon a tribe of strangers pitching tents together beneath the mountain.
In this week’s parashah, King Balak calls upon the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. Three times Balaam looks out at the Israelites from the mountain above and is unable to do so. A blessing comes out of his lips instead. The third time we hear the famous words we say when we first enter a community to pray: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael!” “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob! Your dwelling places, Israel!” (Numbers 24:5) What is it that Balaam sees that inspires him to say these words
Right before Balaam exclaims these words, we read
.וַיִּשָּׂא בִלְעָם אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, שֹׁכֵן, לִשְׁבָטָיו; וַתְּהִי עָלָיו, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים
“Balaam looked up and saw Israel living tribe by tribe, and the spirit of God came upon him.” (Numbers 24:2). Balaam sees the intentionality and communal nature of the Israelite camp. The beauty of it all!
But that word “שכן”, “dwelling,” is more than just living together. It is שכינה, a place where God’s presence resides. It is שכונה, a neighborhood. It is ש-כונה, a place filled with intention and meaning. It is ש-כן, a place where we say “Yes” to each other and see each other as we truly are.
What would Balaam see if he showed up in our שכונה, our neighborhood, during Yom Sport? He would walk in from the parking lot towards the lower Kikar and see the whole camp lined up in four rows by team, calling out their cheers and looking anxiously towards the beach, where the Nivonim campers are busy at work building fires to burn through a string, the final event of the afternoon relay. When the first string breaks one team starts to roar. Amidst all the chaos, something miraculous happens! Balaam sees the members of the winning team rush over to the other fires, creating a barrier from the wind with their bodies in order to help the other teams finish! A team of two becomes four, four becomes eight, and suddenly the entire eidah is out on the beach helping everyone complete the task, no matter what team they started on when the day began. The entire camp shares in the joy and excitement when the final string breaks.
There is a power in orders of magnitude, in an individual joining an eidah, a team, a tribe, becoming a part of our whole camp community. Eidot often focus on this concept during the first yom meyuchad (special day of themed programming) of the summer, reflecting on ways to build a community and the values and norms they want to uphold in that space. And that order of magnitude grows even larger when we think about how our community gathers the rest of the year.
Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is a special community – and it’s not just about what happens during eight amazing weeks in Conover. At camp we feel the presence of the שכינה and that feeling transcends the summer and remains with us in our communities in the Midwest and beyond. I felt it spending Shabbatonim in Des Moines with veteran staff members, who joined me during their college semesters, eager to meet so many campers just starting their Ramah journey. I felt it gathering with campers at our fall and winter “Saturday Night Live” programs starting with Havdalah led by our Nivonim Amitei Ramah Teen fellows. I feel it on Shabbatot in Chicago at my synagogue Anshe Emet, where I run into campers and tzevet at every turn, and where I see campers from all over gather together to celebrate a camp friend’s bar or bat mitzvah. The ״שכונה״ of Ramah isn’t just a physical place, but a tangible feeling that Ramahniks carry wherever we go.
On this, my last Shabbat working for Ramah, and as I prepare for the next steps on my own journey, I am harnessing this power of ש.כ.ן and boxing it up to take with me wherever I go. This neighborhood, this Presence, this power of saying yes to the people we wish to be, will stay with me for the rest of my life, and for that I am truly grateful.