Reflections on Parashat Vayakhel
by Rabbi David Soloff, Chief Executive Officer
At the beginning of Parashat VaYakhel, Moses gathers the Israelite community to relay G-d’s command to build the tabernacle and frames his presentation with these words about observing Shabbat:
לא תבערו אש בכל משבתכם ביום השבת
Lo t’va’aru eish – b’chol mosh’voteichem, b’yom hashabbat.
“You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3)
Reading the narrative of this parashah (Torah reading), it can be striking to start off with this exhortation about Shabbat observance. Over the many years of reading this parashah and being enchanted by the stories of the communal gifts and the introduction of the master craftsman Bezalel, I often pause at the introductory reference to Shabbat.
Several years ago I had an opportunity to team-teach a session for first year counselors, high school graduates, who were preparing to become staff at several of the Jewish camps serving our Midwest communities. I asked those in my group to share a Jewish memory from their camper years that stood out as a highlight. One enthusiastic young man had very fond memories of Friday night campfires. He described the powerful and spiritual experience of singing songs, including some that conveyed overt Jewish themes.
This presented an opportunity to discuss cultural boundaries. Without dictating what his camp should or should not be doing I raised questions about what frames behavior as Jewish. What is a cultural heritage? Once one is aware of Jewish culture and the richness of Jewish heritage how might he – as a camp counselor – choose to bring Jewish experiences to his camp’s setting?
In the formation stories about building Jewish communal institutions at the very beginning of our life as a people, Moses frames his teaching with a reference to Shabbat observance. Three thousand years later, as Jewish educators, we are challenged by constantly refreshing each new generation that wants to do Jewish but does not yet have the tools nor the depth of Jewish experience to comfortably be self-aware about what “doing Jewish” means and looks like in their contemporary reality.
The power and beauty of the Ramah experience is reflected in the fact that campers and staff comfortably engage with Jewish sources. Jewish life and camp life are one and the same.
I recall one summer a young camper found me one Friday night at dinner and complained, “Rabbi, why can’t we ever have a traditional Friday night dinner?” I was a bit nonplussed but quietly asked what was traditional in his home. He quickly answered, “Pizza!”
Another powerful dimension of the Ramah experience is that it brings together young people from many corners of the Jewish world to form a vibrant Jewish community of peers.
For me the image of Moshe reminding the Israelites in the desert about Shabbat at the same time that he unfurls the building campaign for the Tabernacle stands out.
What we do at Ramah Day Camp and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is engage our young people in genuine Jewish living. When we build new facilities, enhance programming, and provide scholarships it is all toward building stronger Jewish lives.
ויקהל משה את כל עדת בני ישראל
Vayakheil moshe et kol adat b’nei yisrael
“Moses gathered the congregation of the Israelites” (Exodus 35:1)
And now a question for you – which traditional song (zemer) that we sing on Shabbat is influenced by a great controversy in Jewish life about lighting fire on Shabbat ? (It’s not about sitting around a campfire but it could well have come very close!) Please send me an email with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.