Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from JAR (Jon Adam Ross), an actor, theatre artist, and Jewish educator extraordinaire. JAR returns for his 17th consecutive summer on staff and his second as our Rosh Merkaz – director of informal education and aidah (division) programming. The Ramah Wisconsin community congratulates JAR on embarking on a three-year project to write five plays in five metropolitan areas inspired by the patriarchs and matriarchs of B’reishit\Genesis, generously funded by the Covenant Foundation. JAR begins this ambitious and exciting project the week of March 9th in Minneapolis and St. Paul – Kol haKavod!
Reflections on Parashat Tetzaveh
by Jon Adam Ross
Much is made these days of technology at camp. Cell phones, internet, email – all things that work at camp that 5 years ago didn’t so well. And 15 years ago didn’t exist, at least not in the ubiquitous way they do now. Conover, Wisconsin, used to be a place where you could get away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, from the news, and that evil ‘technology’ that kept us from appreciating the natural world around us – God’s creation.
Indeed, even in this digital age of 2015, we celebrate the ‘retreat’ of camp. We sing “Mah Rabu Ma’asecha” (How numerous are your creations!) in morning tefillot and acknowledge the beauty of the natural oasis around us. Campers are banned from bringing cell phones and counselors from using them during the day. We don’t have live TV at camp; though we did a live broadcast play by play of the US team’s World Cup games last summer on the camp radio station, WRMH 89.3 FM!
The irony, however, is that technology is not a new phenomenon, and we have made use of it at camp ever since the first day of the first summer, 68 years ago. The technology I’m referring to is the technology of Jewish ritual. Phylacteries (tefillin), the Aron Kodesh, Havdalah candles, the yad used for reading Torah: all of these are examples of Jewish ritual technology. Where did that technology originate? Some of it comes directly from the Torah! In fact, this week’s parshah, Tetzaveh, happens to describe a piece of Jewish ritual technology that might shock our campers in 2015: the world’s first smart phone!
That’s right. I said it. This week, we read about the world’s first smart phone. In the TORAH! According to Webster’s Dictionary, a smart phone is a portable device that is connected to a system that you use to [communicate with] someone who is somewhere else, while providing extra features (such as access to the information superhighway). And we can all conjure in our heads the vision of that keypad. Four rows, three columns, 12 buttons in all. Each different combination allowing us to communicate with a different voice out there in the ether, getting answers to our questions.
So what’s the connection to Parshat Tetzaveh? This week we learn of the wardrobe of the High Priest and, especially, the Ephod. The Ephod was a beautiful vest that hung down from the shoulders onto the chest of the High Priest. It was made up of twelve stones, one for each Israelite tribe and each a different color. The stones of the Ephod were arranged just like our cell phone keypads! A midrashic/rabbinic interpretation describes people coming to the High Priest with difficult questions, seeking wisdom and judgment. The High Priest would look down at the Ephod, discerning the way the sunlight bounced off the stones, and interpret messages with letters associated with each stone like they are with each button on a phone. This is how he would get his answers – communicating with God through this ‘machine’ to divine answers and knowledge. The world’s first smart phone!
We don’t use an Ephod any more, there’s no High Priest and no Temple. But camp gives us a laboratory to experiment with the technology of ritual in really cool ways. Projector screens show photography projects campers created to portray different blessings of the Amidah. Musical instruments augment the services during the week to make them boisterous celebrations. And often we explore different ways to engage our bodies, through stretching or yoga, for example. Perhaps this summer at camp, we can be creative about continuing to innovate ways to make accessing God and ritual observance inspired by the technology of the Ephod, the smart phone, and our own imaginations to come up with new ways to engage with prayer.
(P.S. Campers, you should still leave your smart phones at home! )