HaMirpeset Shelanu 268: From Josh Warshawsky

Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Josh Warshawsky, 2016 Rosh Shira/Tefillah and Artist in Residence.  Josh is currently in the Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles, studying in Israel this year. His second CD, “Mah Rabu,” features many of our favorite camp songs such as “Kol B’Ramah,” “Mah Rabu” and “V’ahavta.” You can check it out on iTunes or at www.joshwarshawsky.com

Reflections on Parashat Vayishlach
by Josh Warshawsky

As we approach Ramah in Wisconsin’s 70th year, I’ve begun to reflect on all of the gifts I’ve received from Camp Ramah. The friendships, the knowledge, the leadership training and experience, the tefillah (prayer) skills, song lyrics, and dance moves.  As the list of gifts grows, I continue to be humbled and amazed by how much I have grown at camp and how much I have learned from being a part of this place.

In this week’s parashah (Vayishlach), Jacob has many of the same feelings. He stands on the bank of the Jordan River, about to see his brother for the first time since he ran away over twenty years ago. He has a lot of pent-up emotions (which he might take out on an angel with whom he wrestles later on in the chapter). But for now, he sits down to pray and reflect on the gifts he has received.  In Breishit 32:11 he says,

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ:  כִּי בְמַקְלִי, עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה, וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי, לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת

Katonti mikol hachasidim, umikol ha’emet, asher asita, et avdecha.  Ki v’makli, avarti et hayarden hazeh, v’atah hayiti, lishnei machanot.

I am not worthy of all the lovingkindness, and all the steadfastness, that you have done for me, your servant.  For only with my staff did I cross this river Jordan, and now I possess [enough] for two camps.

Rashi understands the word “Katonti” as “I have been diminished.” “I have been diminished by all of the kindnesses and by all of the truth that You have done for me, and that is why I am afraid.” I am afraid that since You blessed me so long ago, I may have sinned in the meantime and I am no longer worthy of Your blessing. Or, there are only so many kindnesses which can be bestowed upon one person, and since You have already blessed me with so much, I am scared that my merits have run out, and that I don’t deserve another blessing. Can it be that a blessing or a gift we receive precludes us from receiving additional blessing in the future?

This didn’t sit well with me, so I turned to Ramban (Nachmanides) for another opinion.  Ramban disagrees with Rashi, and instead interprets “Katonti” to mean, “I am unworthy/humbled”.

“I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please save me! Rescue me from my brother Esau!” Jacob is humbled by all of the many gifts that God has bestowed upon him. Twenty years prior, he crossed over this very river with just his staff in his hand, and here he is now with two full camps’ worth of family, property, cattle and servants. Even so, he asks God for one more gift, one more kindness: to save him from his brother whom he wronged so many years ago.

Ramban also questions the use of “chasadim” and “emet” in the verse. Why are kindnesses and truths both mentioned here? He explains that the truths are those blessings that God has promised Jacob that have come true, such as his large family, his property and vast wealth. Chasadim are the blessings that God has bestowed upon Jacob without explicitly stating them, such as the many times his life has been saved, and the love in his life. At this crossroads, Jacob pauses to reflect, to pray, and to thank God for the many gifts, named and unnamed, that he has been given in his life.

What are the unnamed and named gifts that we have received in our lives? Ramah aims to facilitate the creation of meaningful and lifelong friendships, a deep connection to Judaism and Jewish practice, and a desire to continue to learn from and be immersed in Jewish text and ritual. In addition to these named gifts, I have received so much more. My love of music and vast repertoire of Jewish and Israeli songs came from my many summers at camp. My first job in college as a Hebrew school music teacher was only possible due to a kind and talented member of our mishlachat (Israeli staff) who taught me how to play Hebrew songs on the guitar during my Machon summer. That Hebrew school music job when I was nineteen years old was the first step on my journey towards the Rabbinate, and towards infusing Jewish music as an intrinsic part of my life.

Katonti mikol hachasadim,” I am unworthy of all of these kindnesses. Yonatan Razel, an amazing Israeli musician, wrote a beautiful melody for these words that we have been singing this week at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem in preparation for this Shabbat. As you listen to this beautiful setting, take a minute to think about the named and unnamed gifts you have received in your life, and to whom you owe gratitude for those gifts.


Shabbat Shalom.

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