These are my remarks from this Shabbat Parashat Devarim - Shabbat Chazon - that I shared at the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale. A little longer than usual for my Friday Night Lights, but feeling like they belong here.
In my adult life, I have visited and worked at several of the Ramah camps including most recently Ramah Sports Academy. For the first of the summer’s two-week sessions I was a visiting educator. I was also there – though it was far from being my focus – as a parent. Tal was an overnight camper. He had a great time and in another couple of weeks will go to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires for the second session. I imagine that his excitement and nerves are matched only by his parents.
As I reflect on the past couple of weeks that I got to spend at RSA and the other camps I’ve been to, I remember one of the more challenging and possibly terrifying moments that I experienced at a Ramah when I visited Ramah Darom in Georgia with a number of families while serving as the rabbi of a congregation in Dallas. We took part in Family Camp with 3-4 other families from the synagogue. The retreat was a taste of Ramah so that we could have a Shabbat friendly encounter enjoying the amenities that camp offers while also – for some of us – going beyond our comfort zone.
There was one evening – while our children slept in the room and shmira (Night Watch – sorry Game of Thrones!) looked out for their wellbeing while we participated in the ropes course that at Ramah Darom is called “the Odyssey.” The Odyssey was lit up for our amusement and safety. Like most ropes’ courses, this challenge was set up for team building and individual development consisting of both high and low elements. Low elements take place on or a few feet above the ground, and the high elements are set on wooden beams, ropes and platforms often in between trees and utility poles. Each of us who participated wore a helmet, harness, and special climbing gear – essentially meaning that there was someone on the ground who had secondary control of our equipment to ensure our safety.
In my case, the low part of the course began with my feet on the ground before climbing a rope bridge to the top and embarking upon the main part of the course. As Michele reminded me the other day when we were talking about being at Darom, I thought it would be a good idea to be the first to start up the course. Boy was I wrong! Without giving too much thought to what I was doing and the type of physical (and moral) support that I might need, I plowed ahead and began ascending a large rope ladder braided like an enormous hallah. One at a time, everyone else followed until ultimately a couple of us were at the same stage of the course standing nearly side by side. Imagine American Ninja Warriors only we are neither ninjas nor warriors.
The Odyssey was a challenge to my fear of heights and, I suppose, to our individual desire to traverse all four stages of the course as quickly as possible. A zip-line awaited us near the very end to return us to the ground. The turning point in the course for me was when I stopped focusing on the space between one point and the next. My fear of heights subsided a little. At that moment I calmed my breathing and focused on how I would move forward with Michele panicking a few feet behind me, and others standing parallel to me.
Our success took vision – not only the superpower kind of seeing in the dark – the means to look anywhere else but the ground beneath our feet and pick up on the needs of others engaged in the same or different stages of the overall task. Completing the different stages was tense, at times difficult, and continually depended on our ability to work together. Balancing and moving together across the course may have been our objectives, collaboration and coordination were our goals. When one individual pulled a rope or stepped in a certain way, it affected someone somewhere else and you quickly had to recalibrate. Recognizing each individual step and pause helped us through the exercise. And we increasingly found ourselves talking to one another and truly listening to another say, “You can do it.”
This was egalitarian in the most profound sense because each of us was helped or constrained by our own individual abilities. We all made it to the end of the course, stepped one foot over a cable and pulled ourselves and each other onto various platforms where we ultimately experienced the fun of the zip-line to return us to the ground below. That moment when you lean forward and move toward the ground on the zip-line is as much a personal accomplishment as it is the culmination of great teamwork.
Every contribution is essential!
There’s a story about a new project manager who is hired to revive the stalled construction of a cathedral. The new manager asks each worker what their task is, and the manager receives a variety of replies: One says, “I lay bricks”; another responds, “I mix mortar” or “I paint balusters.” Within a week of the manager’s arrival, the construction project is alive again and soon thereafter a visitor asks the manager the secret of their success. The manager invites the visitor to ask any worker about their task. One at a time, each person answers the same, “I build cathedrals.”
Chazon Yishayahu, in the haftarah that is signature to this Shabbat, warns us of being too individually focused. Our actions and talents as unique as they may be, must be deliberate and cohesive; our steps calculated to achieve not just personal balance but also to bring stability and to those around us. In the language of mitzvah, we look for our actions to be seen by the other – God even – and be performed with kavanah. We mustn’t simply go through the motions as Israel is accused of doing in the haftarah reading.
We can see the various ropes’ courses, projects, and dreams that we wish to build, and recognize that how we complete them is as important as the finished product. And with each personal milestone and satisfaction that comes with it there is a higher and more meaningful goal of making sure that we don’t just go through the motions.
When the Israelites are stopped at Sinai, they are praised for their accomplishments in fulfillment of God’s commands. “רב לכם שבת בהר הזה.” (Deuteronomy 1:6) God spoke to the people at Sinai, saying, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” Rabbi Lewis Warshauer writes that word rav – meaning many or much – refers to the Israelites’ deeds rather than their length of time at Sinai. With all the things the Israelites did they were intentional and therefore seen by God. They took a giant collective step toward a partnership with God. As a result, God saw them and spoke to them.
This summer Ramah Sports Academy took up residence on the campus of Cheshire Academy in Cheshire, CT. Cheshire Academy is one of the oldest boarding schools in the country founded in 1794. While we at RSA were the primary residents on campus, some of the school faculty live there year-round and I got to know one of them whose apartment was next to the dorms that many of us lived in. Matt teaches high school English literature, and he asked me lots of interesting questions about Judaism, specifically prayer. From his apartment he could often see and hear our campers and staff davening together. We didn’t have to spend too much time to be noticed by Matt and others. In fact, it was the collective noise and spirit with which some of the groups davened that Matt noticed. In addition to being a teacher, Matt also went to Seminary, studying at the same seminary in Saint Louis that both his father and grandfather attended.
During one of our conversations, he shared with me the idea that the early Church Fathers used the term perichoresis – meaning “the divine dance” – to describe “the unity of mutual blessing that exists when individuals are invited into communion.” Matt and I spoke about the notion of mitzvah and kavanah, how we enter a similar dance or unity with God when can perform mitzvot with the proper intention. And we invite others in when we include them in our acts of devotion and deeds of compassion.
The betterment of the community happens when as a unit we come together. The cathedral workers created something majestic when they realized they were all in it together. Like them and the Israelites long before them, our campers and staff at Ramah were encouraged to learn and hone their skills along with the value of teamwork. We spoke with campers about lifting others and how to strengthen a team. We talked last Shabbat at camp about the concept of lashon ha’ra – evil speech – and the damage that baseless hatred ultimately according to rabbinic tradition brought to the Jewish people with the demise of the Temple. Our speech and steps, sometimes divine in nature and in the clouds, and at other times grounded and supported and connected to others like knots of a rope course are what we need to pull together as a strong and cohesive community.
In Judaism, each day begins at sundown of the previous day. Shabbat, being no different, begins Friday evening. I love those moments - as rushed as they may be or as serene as we strive to make them - that escort us into Shabbat. We begin Shabbat by lighting candles (2 in our home) and by doing so we add a measure of spirit that I believe comes from God and those around us. I hope these words help you as they have helped me.