(This is a transcript (more or less) of the story I shared at the Riverdale Y pre-Shavuot Story Slam)
My first summer at Ramah Darom was the camp's inaugural summer - 1997. An eager junior counselor excited to join the venture of a new summer camp, I arrived at the hotel DoubleTree for staff week because much of the camp was an active construction site. During our preparation and training, we heard about mud roads, scaffolding on some of the primary buildings, and unfinished cabins that needed their ceiling fans and dryers. When we arrived to camp, the campgrounds were replete with natural beauty and the facilities - filling with campers and staff - were full of promise and possibility.
During that first summer at camp, I got to know the omanut lady – the camp art director or artist-in-residence. One of my campers was her nephew and, during a subsequent summer when I was a rosh edah - division head - another one of her nephews was in my edah. I must have made a lasting impression on them because, at the conclusion of that summer as rosh, Dafna (omanut lady) gave me a yad - a Torah pointer. To this day, the yad is one of my favorite pieces of Judaica. Constructed entirely from wood - coccobollo and olive wood to be specific - the yad was delivered in a box with a maple lid and Australian mahogany in the base. The note with the yad said it requires no further care other than for me to read from and study Torah for many years to come with it.
Inscribed on the box is a verse from Pirkei Avot that for many years now has been one of my favorite teachings and comes to mind when I think about my Jewish vision. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." (Ben Bag Bag) “Hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba…” The notion of returning and constantly engaging in something with meaning and purpose was a big part of why I attended Ramah for many summers beyond that as a camper and into my young adult years to most recently as a parent and rabbi/educator. The verse and the yad together are what I love about Jewish living, and I derive great benefit from Torah study - reading and writing when I give myself the chance.
Albeit a gift from someone else, the yad represents the gifts that I strive to give to others through Torah study. More than pointing at words on a page (or scroll), I enjoy the nuance and additional meaning that exists in the space between the words - the ambiguity even - of some texts. The yad symbolizes my quest for meaning and has instilled in me the value of learning a text again and again - Hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba…”
Some summers after those initial ones at Ramah Darom, I returned with my family for a Family Camp. Within minutes of getting out of the car, I watched my son (probably two or three years old at the time) begin to gently kick rocks in the parking lot seeing what would happen. Maybe he thought he was testing gravity and we thought he was testing our patience, yet I reflect on the time that he experimented in a new space - just as we tried to do - wondering what he was doing there, who he might see and, of course what he would bring home with him. He may not have recognized at his young age the magic of camp. I knew then and appreciate even more today, the mountains of possibility when we immerse ourselves in a community dedicated to Jewish learning, Jewish living, and Jewish experimentation.
With the recent celebration of Shavuot, I looked back on these camp experiences and felt like I've been here before; that somehow I am, as I was then, working remotely toward something waiting for it to happen. I am on the outside looking in, like so many of us, beginning to see summer stare us in the face and wondering what will happen. Just as I trained and planned for camp at the Double Tree hotel during the summer of 1997, I am again living in one reality preparing (hoping maybe) for another. However this summer will be different, I believe that we'll have opportunities to kick rocks and explore new spaces. With my yad as my inspiration to keep studying and Shavuot as a reminder of the mountain of possibilities when we "turn it and turn it" in study, I anticipate a summer that may not be worth repeating but will instill in all of us something new that we can take with us as we move forward out of this pandemic.
When I was a kid, my family moved to Kansas City so my father could be the new senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. There are indeed Jews in Kansas and, when it comes to professional football, most root for the Kansas City Chiefs. I have fond memories of attending many games with my father thanks in large part to the generosity of some of his congregants. Many of these individuals became lifelong family friends and I enjoyed kosher tailgating (BBQ and more!) with some of them on more than one occasion. During one Chiefs game my father and I had the privilege of visiting the Chiefs press box and meeting HOF QB Len Dawson and former radio play by play announcer Kevin Harlan who now works for Fox and will likely be part of today's telecast. On another occasion, we dined at Royals stadium restaurant followed by a MNF Chiefs game next door.
One of my most memorable experiences occurred off the field when I attended a local radio station's meet and greet with Chiefs' players and personnel. I got a football autographed by Dave Krieg, Willie Davis, Dale Carter, Tim Barnett, Dan Saleamua, GM Carl Peterson, and more. I share this not to brag, rather to illustrate how a love of KC sports was instilled in me as a young man. Needless to say, I became a huge KC fan. While some of the autographs are illegible or faded, my love for the Chiefs is quite apparent.
My enthusiasm for the teams - instilled in me in different ways - is why I easily and often share my love of KC teams with my family. It does help that the Chiefs are coached by Andy Reid who used to coach the Eagles, the team my wife grew up cheering. In our family, we have Chiefs pennants, hats, and shirts. I also have socks and a coffee mug, and one of our boys received a Chiefs fleece throw blanket as a birthday present from some of his friends.
To see the KC Chiefs reach Super Bowl LIV is just emotionally uplifting While I will be watching on TV with my family and friends instead of attending live, I expect it will be as exciting as ever. The Chiefs play with an energy and spirit that I find unique, and I applaud the way they play together and believe in themselves when others might not. Just like any sports team, they have overcome adversity, and have found ways to win when at times it seemed unlikely. More than anything, these players have demonstrated a commitment to the greater KC area and causes bigger than themselves with as much tenacity as they give to the game itself.
Regardless of the game's outcome, this is already a big win for me, the city where I grew up, and the entire kingdom of Chiefs fans.
Waking up on Sunday morning knowing that I am heading to a yearly tradition of joining a community as their rabbi for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is exhilarating and daunting. I'll admit, because I haven't had my first cup of coffee yet, that my nerves are in full effect. This year it's a new community for me, one that I can get to by car and, therefore, I will approach without the anxiety of hurricane weather patterns, flight delays, and water damage. And, because of the news that arrived to my email inbox last night motzei Shabbat from Dunkin Donuts (yes, I too have sinned) I will drive comforted and excited that today is national coffee day.
That's right! It is exciting to map out the service and set out on a course with (or without) a GPS for our souls. Today in particular my cup overflows with something sweet (thank you Trader Joe's), a hint of Splenda and a splash of Lactaid milk. While I am partially awakened by the aromas leftover from Shabbat and Havdallah, I really look forward to the sounds of my coffee maker (pre-set of course) that will help usher me into a beautiful fall day and a drive toward Pennsylvania. This new year is going to be great because erev yontif is also national coffee day. The year may also be one of the best because it is finally a three-letter acronym
Wishing everyone a year of health, happiness, and really good coffee!
My kids are back in school (chances are, so are yours), and I have been reflecting on a comment my older son made earlier in the summer. I had picked him up at the end of day camp that he and his brother were attending in nearby Inwood park. Most of the daily programming occurred outside, but there were some days because of weather or simply as part of the program took place in the church across the park entrance. At the end of this day in particular, he shared that it felt weird being inside a church.
Rabbi Rafi Cohen ©
My family and I were at an overnight camp for two weeks this summer – Ramah Sports Academy, located in close-by Fairfield, CT – where I worked as a rabbi/educator, my wife worked in the office, and my children were enrolled as campers. It was by my count my 18th summer with a Ramah camp including summers spent as a camper and staff member. No matter the camp I have attended in my lifetime or how many summers – as a camper or staff member – it continues to be the case that camp can be intense. Relationships are intense; games and activities can be intense and are often competitive. Time at camp has its way of intensifying and concurrently we can feel disassociated with the world outside of camp. One day can feel like a few days, one week like a month, and if you go to camp for two months…an eternity.
I also discovered during my years at camp that as scenarios play out in the social spheres, it’s best to respond carefully and, when possible, calmly and rationally. Handling situations otherwise can have disastrous consequences. From young junior counselors to seasoned veterans and program directors, if you are at a summer camp, it’s always best to have all of the facts of any situation before addressing the circumstances head on. This is not how Pinhas handled things at his summer camp. He killed two people – one Israelite and one foreign woman – recorded in the previous week's Torah reading, and Parashat Pinchas tells of his reward from God.
How is it that the vengeance that Pinchas carrie out earned him such a reward? A story is told of a wealthy man, R’ Zev, known for his compassion toward others. Although he was a tough businessman, he always found a place in his heart for the less fortunate who often called upon him for help. One day, Shimon, a man who had reneged on many obligations in the past, called R. Zev asking for a large loan. Knowing that no one else would lend him any money, R’ Zev decided to help him. He hoped that Shimon would appreciate the fact that he had helped him when no one else would, and later show that appreciation by paying back the loan on time. That unfortunately was not the case. The due date came and went without even a word from Shimon. After more than two years passed, even R’ Zev’s inexhaustible patience finally reached its limit, and he approached Shimon to ask for his money. Needless to say, R’ Zev was completely shocked when Shimon denied ever having received any loan from him. “How dare you deny the loan! I helped you when no one else would! This is how you ‘repay’ me?” R’ Zev demanded angrily. Shimon remained steadfast in his calm denial, leaving R’ Zev no recourse besides summoning Shimon to a Rabbinical court. The judges ruled that in the absence of any document or witnesses, Shimon had the option to swear that he hadn’t received any money from R’ Zev and could thus be exonerated. R’ Zev was confident that even Shimon wouldn’t have the audacity to swear falsely but he once again miscalculated. Shimon calmly swore that he hadn’t borrowed any money. At this point R’ Zev lost it… “I don’t care about the money but how can you swear falsely! Don’t even the Ten Commandments mean anything to you? You are a disgrace to yourself and to all Jews!” With that, R’ Zev stormed out of the room. For months R’ Zev was still furious. “I don’t care about the money but how could he swear falsely?” he would say time and time again.
Years passed, and the incident was forgotten. One Shabbat afternoon, R’ Zev went to the front of the synagogue and shared a startling announcement. “A number of years ago, I had an incident with Shimon. Following the ruling of the judges I criticized Shimon publicly. Just as I defamed him publicly, I am now asking for his forgiveness.” Stunned, immediately following the service, people ran to R’ Zev, to ask what prompted this apology after so many years. He then told the following story. “This past week I was traveling on business through a far-away town. I had some extra time to myself, so I sat in on the Rabbinical court which was then convening. As I sat and listened, I realized that they were judging an almost identical case to the one that I had brought against Shimon a few years ago. A man who had admitted to other people that he had borrowed money from a certain wealthy individual was now denying it. The judges ruled that he could swear and be free from any obligation. No one thought he would swear but he did. I watched it all happen and it didn’t faze me.” “As I was traveling home a thought occurred to me. This man had also violated the same commandments that had upset me so much years ago but now it didn’t really bother me. Why had it upset me so much with Shimon but not at all with him? I realized that it really was my money that was infuriating me all along. I kept saying that it was the false swearing and the desecration of Hashem’s name but I now see that it really was simply the fact that it was my money. For that I had no right to speak so harshly against him.”
Pinchas, the verse states, was “kano et kinati.” He avenged God’s honor. There wasn’t even a hint of his own personal interests in mind. He rose above the confused mixture of good and evil that possesses many of us. Most of us must learn to set aside our personal affairs and be attentive to what is at times a desecration of God’s name (or other human beings) that results from some of today’s affairs. We must be “kano et kinati," jealous for God without involving our own petty dealings and concerns.
Rabbi Moses Coucy was onto something and this type of critical commentary occurring within the text shows the value of patience and not rushing to decisions rather to be careful and thoughtful in our actions. Taking time in one’s actions and not rushing to deliver a reward is a positive outcome and works in some settings such as camp.
What of the reward Pinchas received? It wasn't necessarily the perfect prize for today's campers. The phrase briti shalom (my covenant of peace; Numbers 25:12) is written in every Torah scroll in a most careful and unusual fashion. Containing four Hebrew letters: shin, lamed, vuv, and (final) mem, the word shalom is written with a broken vuv – a straight line broken in half; there are two discrete sections. The Rabbis in the 8th and 9th centuries codified that the letter vuv in the word shalom be written this way as two half stokes, unconnected. By writing the word shalom with a broken vuv the message is conveyed that peace created by zealots and acts of violence will never be whole and complete. True peace is not created through violence and fanaticism. The text would have us understand that true peace, wholeness - shlemut - is achieved in a more peaceful and patient (sorry, lacking a better word at the moment) manner. Taking one's time, not too long, to respond in a thoughtful manner is likely the more peaceful and productive approach.
Parent, Partner, Teacher and Coffee Enthusiast, Rafi is a rabbinic and educational consultant who loves helping individual students and families find Jewish meaning in their lives.