This Shabbat, the Camp Ramah in Wisconsin community commemorates a yahrzeit that resonates with nearly every one of us who has spent extended time at camp, but that all too often goes forgotten. We remember tomorrow, on the 45th anniversary of his death, 18 Elul 5729, Rabbi Isaac “Zicky” Bonder. I never met Zicky, who died of leukemia just after the 1969 summer, mere months after he finished Rabbinical School. His memory lives on through his beloved family members, including one named for him who was once my camper is now a dear friend; the campers, students, and staff whose lives he influenced; and in the magnificent building that bears his name, the Ohel Yitzhak synagogue nestled serenely in the woods up at camp.
The occasion of Zicky’s yahrzeit falling, as it does every year, around the reading of tomorrow’s parashah, Ki Tavo, is striking, for the great question raised by Ki Tavo, which lists, at great length, the curses to befall the Israelites if they ignore God’s will, is that of theodicy. Ki Tavo, like so much of the Torah, presents the world as a well-ordered place. Do well and you are rewarded, do poorly and you are punished, as understood through the eyes of a just God. And yet, we live in a different world, as did our ancestors, where reward and punishment are not seemingly doled out in appropriate amounts to those who deserve it. And events like Zicky’s untimely passing at the cusp of what appeared to be a promising career as a gifted educator and Rabbi, put in stark contrast that question, known to us all from Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Theodicy is the problem of reconciling the world we live in, filled with evil unfairness, with the just God in whom we believe. I have nothing to add to the intense, age-old, and well-documented philosophical attempts to find solutions to the problem.
Instead, in the spirit of Zicky Bonder’s legacy, all we attempt to do at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and the central text of the opening sections of Ki Tavo, I offer what is, at its best, the only response to theodicy in which I have found any comfort: the nearly supernatural, breathtaking power of committed, compassionate community.
The word religion comes, most likely, from the Latin root ligare, meaning “to bind, connect,” from which we also get the word “ligament.” One understanding of the etymological origins is that the individual binds themselves, through obligation and belief, to a particular deity or faith tradition. I prefer a slightly different read, that the binding here is actually social. To share a religion with someone is to feel a deep bond with them, to embody the rabbinic ideal of כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה (kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh): all Jews are responsible for each other. It is these social ties, more than the power of dogma or belief, that hold religions together, and within them is our most powerful response to the challenge of imagining a just God reigning over an unjust world.
Tomorrow morning, before we read the blessings and extended curses near the end of the parashah, we will read one of the most beautiful ritual passages in the entire Torah, the ritual of the first-fruit offering, to be offered in the Temple on the festival of Shavuot. The text here is familiar to many of us, though not from Shavuot: “My father was a wandering Aramean who went to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number. And he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians made our lives miserable and afflicted us, and laid upon us difficult service. And we cried to Adonai, the God of our fathers, and Adonai heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And Adonai took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm, and with great awe, with signs and with wonders” (Deuteronomy 26:5-8).
The Rabbis, living in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, knew that this core text attesting to the ties that bind us together as Jews would no longer serve its communal purpose. No more would Jews from around the world congregate in the Temple and recite these verses one after another on Shavuot. Almost prophetically, they built a new ritual out of these same verses, placing them into the core of the emerging Passover Seder which would come to represent the greatest communal experience of Jews for the next two thousand years. The central task of these verses was understood clearly by the Rabbis: its use in the Temple and surrounding the first fruit offering was incidental to its real purpose, a statement of shared history and communal identity.
When Zicky Bonder was struck down by leukemia as he was just about to enter a career of great promise, his friends responded to the injustice of his tragic death by doing something similar to the Rabbis’ decision with these verses. Lacking the charismatic educator who fostered such a powerful community at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, they pooled their resources to build, in Zicky’s memory, the first building in any Ramah camp dedicated exclusively to prayer and study. The Ohel Yitzhak (literally: “Isaac’s Tent”), as anyone who has regularly davenned inside can attest, is a physical embodiment of what Zicky stood for in the world. It is an imperfect replacement, for sure, but one that has faithfully connected thousands of Ramah campers whose lives, unfortunately, Zicky himself would never influence.
This is our sacred work, to reimagine and reinvent Judaism in each generation, focusing as much on the ties that hold us together as on the intricate specificity of our beliefs. Vibrant religion is the result of dynamic communities, invested in each other and in our humanity, our history and our potential. This is one of the great secrets to the success of Ramah – a place infused in each nook and cranny with Jewish tradition and knowledge but an institution whose fuel is the love our campers have for their peers, the resolutely strong bonds that connect person to person. These connective ties are religion, and they catalyze the formative work of becoming committed Jews.
It is my sincere hope that, forty-five years removed from Zicky Bonder’s last summer at Ramah, he would still recognize the magic and power of a place he loved dearly. I know that his legacy, embodied by a building and all his work as a young man, continues to contribute to that magic and power for me. May his memory be a blessing; y’hi zichro baruch.