Friday, January 8, 2010

From Beginnings to Names - מבראשית לשמות

מבראשית לשמות

From Beginnings to Names

I have been thinking a lot about the transition we make this Shabbat, from the first Book of Torah to the second as the title change itself speaks volumes about where I find myself at this particular moment.  During the first few months in this new role, I experienced constant beginnings:  children starting new schools; acclimating to a new neighborhood; beginning relationships with colleagues and communities, families and staff members.  Much of my time these first few months was devoted to laying the groundwork, the transmission of customs and traditions, the downloading of foundational knowledge. 

Now, however, I too am moving into Names - camper names, staff names, parent names.  Camp is filling up! There are growing lists of names of returning campers who are enrolled and shrinking lists of veteran campers who are not.  Each and every name represents a valued, priceless soul deserving of a healthy, safe, fun and meaningful Jewish summer and each name is one that I will learn and get to know in some way in 2010.  At the same time, there are names that will soon be wait-listed as there are aidot that are filling up, aidot where some campers who want to enroll will not be able to be at camp.  And each one of those names represents a soul that will not be touched by the experience we know Ramah to be. 

There are more and more staff members, veterans and first-timers alike, applying for positions this summer.  Right now, most of them are only names on a page for me.  I had the privilege of meeting with many individuals for brief periods of time during my visits to camp but I could not spend meaningful time with every staff member.  Thus, many of the names on the staff lists start out as just that for me - names.   Fortunately, the camp benefits from the institutional wisdom and history kept by our senior leadership team and they are beginning to reveal the people behind the names, the outstanding souls that nourish the Jewish neshamot of our campers each summer. 

As winter deepens, as the snow falls not just in Conover, but outside my window here in Chicago and, it seems, all over the Midwest, I dream of the summer - not for the temperature improvement - but for the opportunity to meet the souls that lie behind the names on all of the various lists that float around my office, to see camp filled with the magnificent neshamot of campers and staff members, to see the Jewish future today.

דבר אחר

Another Thought on Names

When Rebecca and I were married, Rabbi Soloff co-officiated at our wedding.  Under the Chuppah, he read a famous poem by Zelda, a Hebrew Poet, titled, "לכל איש יש שם"  "For Every Person There is a Name."  It is a powerful poem and I highly recommend it to you as Shabbat reading.  One particular segment of the poem has been on my mind these days:

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

There is incredible meaning in a name, whether that name is given out of love or out of hate.  Naming something imbues the name-giver with a power that can be used for good or for hurt, for honor or for disgrace.  While there are names that we earn, there are also names that others sometimes give us.  Of these, there are names that we want and names that we don't want.

The power of names is on my mind in light of teaching  I did at the recent International Convention of USY, held here in Chicago (where I had the privilege of meeting many CRW campers). The theme of the convention dealt with making healthy friendship and relationship choices.  One entire session was devoted to the issue of healthy choices related to the internet and social networking sites and our group spent much of the session dealing with the emerging phenomenon of cyber-bullying.  I was impressed by the sincerity of the USYers and their desire to make good choices.

What saddened me was that each USYer could identify a situation where they had either been cyber-bullied, were the bully themselves, or knew about serious incidents in school, committed by or against peers and friends.  And in so many cases, the bullying was about attaching denigrating names to people, or commenting on photos of them in ways that "gave them a bad name" or were, in terms of Jewish law, "Motzi Shem Ra."  And, just like in the famous hasidic story, once something is set loose on the internet, there is no way that it can be taken back.  Moreover, the person who puts it out there has no idea where the damage to the person can lead.  Sometimes, the act is just thoughtless.  Worse, however, are the times where it is intentional.

Jewish law prohibits embarrassing (causing to go white or להלבין את פני חברו ברבים) another person in the public arena.  Today, the internet is the equivalent of the water cooler of old or the chatzer or square of the ancient world of the Mishnah.  Not only is it prohibited to publicly embarrass somebody but, according to חז"ל, our Sages, the end result of shaming another person in public is equated with killing them.  Once an embarrassing photo is put up on a facebook page or a nasty text message is sent about another person, a part of that person's soul is deadened, their dignity lost.  And why?  For what purpose, for what gain?  Rather than talk directly with a person who has caused hurt, it is easier to shame them publicly.  And in more cases than not, there is no hurt - the person doing the shaming does it for personal entertainment or out of their own lack of self-esteem.

After listening to stories of USYers, of reading about the damage that is done to people via social networking sites, after hearing stories from the entire Jewish camp community, and Ramah is not excepted, it is clear both that cyber-bullying is a more public humiliation than old fashioned bullying was and that it is a violation of the spirit and, I believe, letter of the law regarding the prohibition against giving someone a bad name.  Which raises the question:  What are we going to do about it? 

First, we need to return to teaching about the sanctity and power of names and of giving names, from the Sacred Names of God to the naming power given to the First Human.  Moreover, we should emphasize to our children, our campers, the responsibility they have when speaking about their friends both in cyberspace and in the real world, be it directly to others or through general postings on sites. 

Second, we should not shy away from teaching the rabbinic position that shaming another person in public is the equivalent to killing some part of them.

We should be talking with our children, our campers, our staff about the awesome responsibility they have in the public sphere to be proactive in their own choices while also reminding them that they are "the keeper" for their fellow human being and that when they see friends committing acts of cyber-bullying or thoughtless embarrassment they are obligated to work to lead that person in a different, positive direction and to do it in a discreet fashion so as not to cause further embarrassment to either party. 

Finally, we should constantly remind our children that every member of the community deserves the right to their good name, to have it protected and maintained as Sacred, by our own deeds, our own actions, and our own postings.

The consequences of not addressing the issues head on is the killing of part of a soul, public embarrassment and humiliation, pain and suffering.  Unaddressed, the community that stresses Sacred values, the uniqueness of each person, the safety of the environment is undermined - be it a Jewish overnight camp, a day school, a synagogue, or a neighborhood.  Addressed directly and properly, with the force of conviction and the reinforcement of modeling, the sacred community is preserved, more room is made for God's Divine Presence, and everyone can stay within the Camp.

Shabbat Shalom.

You can find the full version of Zelda's Poem in English and Hebrew at:

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