Friday, August 13, 2010

Thoughts for Nivonim 2010 on Their Last Shabbat as Campers.

This Shabbat, it is my privilege to share with you the d'var Torah of Benjy Forester, a camper in Nivonim 2010 who delivered these words on the last Shabbat for Nivonim 2010 as campers. Benjy provides an articulate statement for what Camp Ramah in Wisconsin represents. Moreover, if anyone asks why children are sent to this heaven on earth in the Northwoods for EIGHT WEEKS, Benjy gives us the answer in his depth, thought, content, and passion for Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
Shabbat Shalom, thank you Benjy and thank you Nivonim 2010 for an outstanding summer,
Rabbi Loren Sykes
Shabbat Shalom. I would first like to thank all of you for even considering me to deliver this D’var Torah to you today. It is an honor and a privilege to speak before all of my peers whom I have the utmost respect for. I would also like to thank Josh Warshawsky for assisting me in writing this D’var Torah.

     In this week’s parasha, Moses speaks to בני ישראל, (the children of Israel) as is the case with most of the book of דברים (Deuteronomy). The forty-year journey through the desert draws closer to its culmination, and the time has arrived for Moses to insure that בני ישראל, B'nai Yisrael,continue to protect, preserve, and abide by the laws and values with which God has entrusted them. When they enter Israel, the responsibility to continue observing the מצוות - the Commandments - falls upon them, because Moses can no longer remind them of their responsibility as they disperse throughout the land. Moses recognizes the potential threat that settling the land poses, as they can disregard all of the laws that he invested his whole life instilling in them on behalf of God. Acknowledging the importance of making sure Israel will continue to observe the מצוות - Mitzvot - when they enter Israel, Moshe repeats a list of laws in this parasha.

     The journey through the desert serves as a venue for God to deliver the מצוות - The Commandments - to בני ישראל - The Israelites - but more importantly it serves as a way for them to grow as a nation and obtain values and a high degree of holiness. In order for God to feel comfortable entrusting בני ישראל with the great responsibility of following the מצוות, God needs to know that they have reached this prodigious level of holiness. Through בני ישראל’s communal experience in the desert, they reach a satisfactory state to protect their title as “The Chosen People,” and live according to the מצוות that God gave them.

     Like בני ישראל, we have arrived at a critical point in our journey, one that will test how closely we have embraced our experiences here at camp. Every experience here has helped us grow as individuals, and has assisted in the unification and strengthening of our aidah. We have reached the end of OUR journey and we have protected OUR title: Nivonim

We are about to be released into the world outside camp. To allow what was created here to live on, we must remember the values that our experiences and this place have taught us. Camp Ramah stands for much more than just a place to have fun and enjoy our summers. Here, we foster an environment that trains kids just like us to be leaders both as Jews and as human beings. Some values that camp has instilled in us seem obvious, and many have become second nature and we forget how fortunate we are to have them. Through living in close proximity to other kids our age for the past six summers, we have learned how to work with, compromise with, respect, and lead others. These skills should not be taken for granted, because few kids our age truly understand the importance of compatibility with our peers, and as we move on to the next stages of our lives, these will be valuable skills that we will surely utilize.

     Additionally, the level of holiness obtained by בני ישראל is not only for observing the מצוות; rather, holiness is a treasure that בני ישראל obtains only through their efforts TOGETHER. They must observe the מצוות if they hope to insure that this intense holiness that they hold so dearly is protected.

     As an aidah, we have worked tirelessly over the course of our time here to obtain our own level of holiness. When we snuck out as an aidah in Solelim and watched the sunrise over the lake for the first time, we were elevating our aidah’s holiness. When we raced around camp uncontrollably after the zimriyah in Bogrim driven by adrenaline and aidah spirit, we added to our aidah’s holiness. When we stormed the givah on the last Shabbat in Machon and used the opportunity to come together at the end of the summer, we were elevating our aidah’s holiness. Every time we fire it up, we add barrels of holiness to our bank. From our Shalom to NES, to our play, to the Rick Recht concert, to our Banim and Banot bonding experiences, we have added more and more holiness. After all of our experiences over 6 summers, we have accumulated unfathomable amounts of holiness. This feat makes me proud and joyous, because the process has been strenuous and at times difficult. Our theme for the summer has been, “  קדושים תהיו,” “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19.2). This has guided us all summer, and indeed we have become holy. Now, we have a tremendous responsibility and obligation to ourselves and to each other: to work to preserve our aidah’s holiness, even as our time here together expires.

     The first group of laws addresses religious practices, including sanctuaries and sacrifice. These laws seek to obtain holiness through differentiating from the surrounding pagan nations.  The differentiation between our cultures is appropriately exploited here, because the nation will soon enter a new land, and they will be subject to the pressures of assimilation that have plagued our people for ages. The cultures of the surrounding nations clearly do not satisfy what God envisions God's Chosen People to be like, and God designs Judaism in its origination to be different from the surrounding nations in order to insure that they maintain a strict code of holiness unreachable by the other nations. More sets of laws are introduced, all with a common goal. As Moses lists laws regarding mourning, diet, taxation, and more, it becomes increasingly clear why these laws exist in the first place, and why Moses chooses to repeat and emphasize them here. By establishing new religious practices and enforcing them to the nation, we protect our unique position as the “treasured” nation that God chose to live by the מצוות.  

Deuteronomy, Chapter 14:2 says:
כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; וּבְךָ בָּחַר יְהוָה, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
“For You are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be Adonai's treasured people.” 

Here, בני ישראל is referred to as “עם סגולה,” or “treasured people.” In parashat ואתחנן, a very similar pasuk or verse appears, also referring to Israel as “עם סגולה” in a context of differentiating Israel from the surrounding nations. Later in parashat כי תבוא, Israel is referred to as “עם סגולה” during instructions to observe the commandments. Rambam, a famous commentator born in 12th century Spain, and S’forno, a 15th-16th century commentator in Italy, both explain that by giving Israel the מצוות, the nation receives an honor and a responsibility. They have the incredible opportunity to become an עם סגולה, a “treasured nation”, just as we this summer have had the opportunity to become Nivonim, the “treasured aidah” in camp. Referring to בני ישראל as עם סגולה carries with it the tremendous responsibility בני ישראל has to God for thinking so highly of them and trusting them with such a tremendous task.     

Parashat Re'eh begins with a clear message:
רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם--הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה,” 
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: / blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; / and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God…” God tells the people through Moses that they essentially have two doors in front of them. Each leads to a long path, one being the path of God and מצוות and the other being the path of neglecting both God and the מצוות. One is a blessing and one is a curse, but בני ישראל is given the responsibility to make a choice. Deciding to continue going in the path of God will not only be satisfactory for the sake of God, but also for the sake of the people. After all of the experiences that they shared, the holiness that they obtained is a treasured entity that they should not be willing to give up. If they do want to continue to cherish these things, then the choice is theirs to do so by following the מצוות and remembering the values instilled in them by Moses and God.

Nivonim, I set before you all today a blessing and a curse: A blessing if you choose to continue to preserve this aidah’s holiness through the way that you live your lives following our time here as campers. A curse if we forget all that we have done here together and lose interest in preserving our legacy. The effort that we invested in this aidah has paid off, but it will go to waste if we forget our legacy once our time here ends. Our aidah’s legacy should live on through every one of us, and this is no easy task. As Moshe was concerned about whether the people would continue to live by the מצוות once they entered the land, so we should be concerned by the possibility that what we have created here might not exist beyond the confines of this wonderful place in the Northwoods of Wisconsin that we have grown to love and call home. However, as we disperse throughout the globe, returning home and continuing our lives, we must remember what we created here everyday, and allow Nivo 2010 to survive through our thoughts and actions. We owe Ramah and more specifically each other a great debt for making us who we are today, and one way of demonstrating how truly you appreciate the experiences you have had with one another is by demonstrating to yourself and others that you understand what the effects of camp have been on you.

My dad told me in a letter he wrote to me a few weeks ago, “Here you are-at the end of one path, ready to start new paths.” This pivotal point in our journey brings tremendous pain and sorrow to all of us, but we must understand that this is not the end. This realization will help mitigate the pain of this time, but also help insure that we actively continue the legacy of Nivonim 2010 outside of this place. Although this particular point in time represents the culmination of our years as campers here, the end of that journey transitions directly into our next journey. Hopefully, our Ramah experiences continue both in Israel on Ramah Seminar and as staff members here. More importantly, though, the journey that I am anticipating most eagerly is the continuation of my journey with all of you. Our aidah will live on in all of us, both in what we feel and how we act. As we bring this aidah’s legacy into our own lives and remember the values instilled in us in this place, we allow Nivo 2010 to live on through all of us. Nivo 2010 will not end in two days. Our journey continues, both together and on our separate paths. And this journey is one that I eagerly anticipate, because it brings me great joy to recognize how important this experience has been for me, and how important it will continue to be in my life.

Shabbat Shalom.

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