dvar torah

HaMirpeset Shelanu 183: From Aviva Schwartz

Posted on May 9, 2014
Let me be honest, when I first sat down to read this week’s Torah portion, I was less than motivated. After all, I don’t live in the land of Israel and I definitely do not own my own plot of land. I struggled – at first – to determine how it relates to my life and the lives of those around me. The presence of mathematical equations further worried me. Parashat Behar begins by explaining the Sh’mitah (Sabbatical) and Yovel (Juiblee) years. Every seven years, a Jewish landowner in Israel is forbidden to work on his/her land. Every seven sabbaticals (meaning every 49 years for those of us doing the math) is considered a Jubilee year. Jubilee years are structured similarly to Sabbatical years when one is forbidden from working the land. In addition, during a Jubilee year, slaves must be set free and land rights shift back to the original owners. The Parasha continues to teach ethical business practices, taking into account being fair with regards to the Jubilee year. Business deals must take into account the proximity to the Jubilee year, as the land will go back to the original owner anyways. The price drops if the Jubilee year is near, and rises if it has just past. We are further reminded to continue helping someone in need, even if the Yovel year is coming soon.

On first (and second) glance, these teachings only apply to modern day farmers and gardeners in the Land of Israel. However, upon further exploration, this Parasha is about so much more. The message that the land must lie fallow every seven years teaches us to respect the earth and our resources. We are reminded that while we receive so much from the earth, it is not really ours. Our tradition tells us that we must care for the earth. During the six years we can work the land to reap its benefits, yet on the seventh we must leave it be. This seventh year, the sh’mitah year, serves as a reminder that it is our duty to protect and appreciate the land for what it provides us. We cannot take advantage of the land and forget its fragility.

Every Friday night, (weather permitting), the entire camp gathers together for Kabbalat Shabbat services in front of the lake. Watching the sun set amidst a community of over 600 singing beautifully together to welcome the Shabbat is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It is often a favorite part of the summer for each camper (and staff member). Like the Sabbatical year, this is our chance to appreciate the nature around us and remember the role we play in caring for the environment. But what most people do not realize (I myself forget all too often) is that the lake is also there the other six days of the week. And the sun sets on those days as well! Reading about the Sh’mitah year in Parashat Behar serves as a yearly reminder to recognize the role nature plays in our life and our responsibility to protect it. The fact that we learn this teaching each year, and not just during a Sh’mitah year, demonstrates that nature and the environment must always be on our mind, not just every seven years.

I like to make goals for myself before each summer. This year, one of my goals is to try to appreciate the sunsets each day of the week as well as the nature that surrounds us each and every moment we spend at camp. Just as there is Sh’mitah every seven years, I will still use Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evenings to heighten my awareness of the world that surrounds us and my continued responsibilities in it.

Let us appreciate the last few weeks of the nature that surrounds us before camp. That way we will be totally prepared to soak in all of the beauty that surrounds us next to Lake Buckatabon in Conover, Wisconsin.

Shabbat Shalom!

HaMirpeset Shelanu 183: From Jacob Cytryn, Director

Posted on May 2, 2014
The most familiar part of this week’s parashahEmor, is the listing and explanation of מקראי קדש, mikra’ei kodesh (“Holy Happenings”) that outline the Jewish holiday year.  At the outset of this listing (Leviticus 23:2) and at its conclusion (23:44), a different word is used – מועד, mo’ed, a period of time often translated as “season.”  These are not just any seasons, however, they are rendered as either מועדי ה’, mo’adei adonai (“God’s seasons”) or, meaning the same thing when spoken by God, מועדיי, mo’adai (“my seasons”).  This section of the Torah is so familiar because we read it three additional times a year – on the first two days of Sukkot and on the second day of Passover; the specific verses that use the word mo’ed are recited on every Yom Tov (Festival Holiday) both during ma’ariv (Evening Service) and again as part of Kiddush on the day itself.

This year, at least, the timing of reading this section of Emor is auspicious, as we sit here in the midst of what we might call מועדי אדם, moa’dei b’nei adam – “The seasons of Man.”  This past week we commemorated the horrors of the Holocaust and the heroism of those who stood up to the Nazis during Yom haShoah; next week we conclude this Modern High Holiday Season with the commemoration of those who died defending the State of Israel from the pre-state paramilitary brigades through today and Israel’s victims of terrorism on Yom haZikaron and then the celebration that is Israel’s 66th birthday on Yom ha’Atzmaut.  The observance of these days, something of a reversed High Holidays (with the single day of intense reflection coming first, followed by the two-days of awe and joy) and also appearing as they do during the Counting of the Omer from Passover to Shavuot, calls out for interpreting our modern experience of humanity’s faults and potentials within the broader context of the Jewish calendar.

The text of Leviticus, though it ostensibly speaks to a nation of newly redeemed slaves mere weeks or months after their liberation from Egypt, seems to be speaking of a well-established, divinely ordained holiday cycle.  There is no mention of any human agency in these days.  And though the Torah itself does depict a real-time, first Passover (called Pesach Mitzrayim – the Egyptian Passover, by the Rabbis), there is no parallel description of celebrations of Sukkot, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, or Yom Kippur from the Torah.  The historical events we now associate with the different holidays are only realized by the Rabbinic imagination a millennium or more after the Torah’s narrative takes place.  These are truly “Seasons of God,” a divinely ordained ordering of the year to recognize the eternal natural cycles of the year.

Less than seventy years after the final liberation of Dachau, Auschwitz, and the rest of the camps by the Allied Forces, our modern High Holiday days are too new, their historical impetuses too fresh, to be similarly categorized.  Even more so, the human fingerprints are still too apparent for these commemorations to have crystallized into the powerful symbolism and ritual that makes religion such an effective force in our lives.  And so, our communities, in Israel, North America, and around the world, struggle to figure out what, exactly, we should do to give honor to the mix of pain, relief, and joy that characterizes this week on our calendar.  Many, including myself, have lamented the lack of systemic efforts to ritualize, and movements to observe, these crucial days to our identity.  We are left with a fundamental question:  How can we turn these “Seasons of Man,” the horrific and miraculous events perpetrated and experienced by human beings many of us know (or, alas, knew) personally, into modern versions of mo’adei adonai?

Our experiences at Ramah over the summer, I think, are instructive here.  One of the most magical aspects of camp is their reaction to the implicit demand we place on our campers to create and sustain their own Jewish community.  Where else do incoming 7th graders lead practically every part of a daily minyan for two months?  Where else do our children set and clear their tables, fold their clothing onto shelves, and sweep their cabin and porch?  Where else do they experience the transformative impact – on their identities, self esteem, and on us, the adults who know and love them – of developing and sustaining a supportive community of their peers?

At camp our children play “grown up” as Jews and human beings.  In doing so, celebrations of Shabbat, the wisdom of the Torah, and the mechanics and spirituality of daily prayer are shifted from being distant and removed into the eager hands of a new generation.  God’s work, as it were, becomes their work, human to its core.  And in doing so, they refresh for a new generation what it means to be Jewish.

Similarly, I suggest, the work of transforming the newest guests to our feast of Jewish holidays into permanent and revered ones, is to do the same work:  to try, to make an effort, and to know that our ultimate success at transforming these days into recognitions of the Divine actually lies in our own fragile humanity.  It is our job to keep these commemorations alive, to allow them to grow, to provide them the emotional and physical fuel they need to last long enough for different generations, removed by time, to interpret them anew and shape them into the emphatic testaments to human tragedy and bravery we want them to be.

Shabbat Shalom.

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