Jacob’s Reflections on the “Garbage Trail”: The Circle at the Center of Ramah

The “Garbage Trail”: The Circle at the Center of Ramah
by Jacob Cytryn, Director

In spite of what I learned in geometry, my twenty-five summers at Ramah have taught me that, indeed, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.  Well, at least not the best distance.

We are the descendants of nomads, shepherds who followed their flocks through the desert from well to well.  At the end of Genesis our nomadic ways transform into a sedentary lifestyle, dwelling in Egypt, tied to the fertile delta of the Nile River.  And yet this week’s parashahB’shallach, makes clear that the Israelite nation will return to its nomadic ways, even if we didn’t know it quite yet.

In the opening verses of the parashah the Torah tell us:

.וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים פֶּן יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה.  וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף

Vay’hi b’shallach paroh et ha’am v’lo nacham elohim derech eretz p’lishtim ki karov hu, ki amar elohim pen yinacheim ha’am birotam milchamah v’shavu mitzray’mah.  Vayaseiv elohim et ha’am derech hamidbar yam suf

When Pharaoh sent the people away, God did not lead them towards the land of the Philistines, though it was shorter.  For God said, “If they face war [there], they might change their minds and return to Egypt.”  So God led the nation on a circuitous route through the desert to the Sea of Reeds. (Exodus 13:17-18)

The circuitous route through the desert, indeed the wandering that, thanks to the episode about the spies we read near the beginning of every summer, will actually take forty years, is not the most direct path to the land of Israel.  But didn’t God take the Israelites out of Egypt to bring them to Israel?  Why the delay?

An answer can be found in last week’s parashah, where God makes five promises to Moses.  The fifth promise – I will bring you into the land (6:8) – is preceded by the fourth – I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God (6:7).  Before God can take the newly freed slaves into Israel, their relationship with God must be cemented.  To use perhaps the favorite rabbinic metaphor for this process, the lusting and fiercely romantic relationship that irrupts to free the slaves and protect them from Pharaoh’s armies must mature into the nuanced relationship of a stable partnership, less about the heady whims of the moment and more about a deep and abiding love.  Only time can do that.

At camp, time matters, for sure.  Even more, direction matters; form follows function.  For many campers and staff, the most precious place at camp is the “garbage trail,” the path around camp that is walked and run thousands of times each summer.  At the beginning, middle, and end of the summer, the garbage trail is where campers take walks with counselors to check-in, state goals, share dreams and begin, cultivate, and conclude (for now) the mentoring relationship and deep friendship they so often form with each other.  On those Shabbatot, watching the garbage trail from a picnic bench or a cabin porch can feel like watching the magic of camp transpire in front of one’s eyes.

I have vivid memories of walking along the garbage trail with counselors and friends, campers and colleagues.  That ground is trodden with the powerful effects of time on transforming lives.  That asphalt and dirt is one small slice, a thousand times diminished, of the wilderness through which our ancestors sojourned for two generations, the rocky terrain that transformed lives through the stories we will read about between this week’s Torah reading and the ones that conclude the Torah next October.

Thanks to a fire safety initiative on behalf of our partners in Vilas County, this summer the garbage trail will get a new name, one fitting of the essential role it plays in catalyzing our work at camp.  It will now be known as Ramah Circle, and each of our camp buildings will have their own numbers along the circle itself.  For generations of Ramah campers and staff, the phrase “garbage trail” evokes magical memories, and I am sure that legacy will live on for years.  For the new generations to come, it will be a little clearer to identify the peripheral road that is at the center of our camp.

In the next few weeks we’ll be rolling out a variety of information about the name change.  In the meantime, I ask current camper and staff families, and those of alumni, to spend some time this Shabbat telling your stories about the garbage trail and remembering the moments you’ve had there.

Shabbat Shalom.