Monthly Archives: May 2013

Lessons from A Spy Story

This week’s parasha contains what is, by far, my favorite narrative in the entire Torah. The story of the scouts sent out by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan is a great story in and of itself but the Rabbinic midrashim on the story turn it into a morality tale about self image, faith in God or lack thereof, optimism, courage and the willingness to stand up for what one believes. The commentaries are truly fantastic and elevate this story to one of great significance for all of us.

A few years ago, though, I noticed something a bit less serious about the parasha and decided to approach it a bit playfully from the bima. It seemed to me that this parasha gives some very good advice about how to enjoy a good family vacation. We are reading this parasha quite a bit earlier in terms of the civil calendar than we reading it that year and so the timing worked out a bit better as it was closer to summer vacation but given that most of us are always ready for a good vacation, I’ll share the idea here.

If you’re unfamiliar with the portion, you might want to read it before continuing. But, in honor of the reading of Parashat Shelach L’cha, here are the rules for a successful summer vacation:

First, the Rabbis interpret the word Shelach L’cha, “you send” scouts as implying that sending the scouts was for Moses and the people’s benefit. So, before anything else, recognize that taking trips are for your benefit: take time for them, enjoy them, delight in them.

Second, Moses tells the scouts to go up through the Negev together and they do but then the text says vayavo (in the singular), “he went to Hevron”. While the singular might be intended to imply that the scouts went as a group, the Rabbis claim that Caleb, one of the loyal scouts took a side trip to Hevron to pray at the grave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to be saved from the evil plans of the 10 disloyal scouts. Lesson: make a good plan but be willing to take a spontaneous side trip when the spirit moves you to do so. Being unwilling to break away from your carefully planned itinerary robs you of the opportunity to truly enjoy a significant experience.

Without going into detail concerning the midrashic source for my next teaching, suffice it to say that the Rabbis teach that God said: “I meant something to be positive and you took it as a negative”. The lesson to be drawn from this is that the occasional disruption in travel or detour can lead to great results if you keep a positive attitude and look for the good that can come out of an unexpected change in plans. When we were visiting Juneau, Alaska, one of the members of our family needed to find a bathroom. It took several minutes and a walk a couple of  blocks out of our way to handle the situation. But, if we hadn’t done so, we would have never actually entered the Alaska State Capitol building (the closest rest rooms) and if we hadn’t taken that side trip,  we would have missed one of the great coincidences in my traveling life. Coming out of the capitol building a few minutes later, we turned a corner and bumped into the only people we knew who lived in Alaska as they were just arriving back at their house. That gave us an opportunity to see old friends and they took us for a personal tour of the city which we never would have received had we not had to make that bathroom stop. Even the unexpected delays and detours can lead to fantastic opportunities if you take them as positives instead of negatives.

Next, one of the great moments of the story of the scouts is when they bring back a huge bunch of grapes to show the productivity of the land. The scene of two scouts having to share in the carrying of one bunch of grapes is so famous that it became the symbol for the Israel Ministry of Tourism. That leads to the simple lesson: Bring back souvenirs and the simpler, the better. We have a separate box in our basement for every trip we have ever taken as a family. Each one contains receipts, menus, newspapers, you name it. When winter sets in, nothing is as refreshing as reliving one of our great vacation experiences.

And finally, take  a lesson from what the scouts should have done. When you get back, don’t gather everyone you know and give them all of the details of your trip. Inevitably, someone will get mad at you. Instead, just tell them exactly what the scouts should have said and had they done so, 40 years of wandering in the desert would have been avoided. Just tell them: “We had a great time. You ought to see it for yourself”.


Happy travels!






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Camp Ramah in New England- In Appreciation

When I began to write this blog almost two years ago, I did not envision that I would write about the past as often as I have. I have written my share of comments on current events and shared some material from classes I have taught or sermons I have delivered but I have found that more often than not, my blog has become an opportunity to share reminiscences and nostalgia about events, people and places from my past.

This posting is no exception.

In June of 1977, a few weeks after my graduation from Brandeis University and two months away from beginning Rabbinical School, I was sitting at home in Boston frustrated that I hadn’t found a job for the summer and looking desperately for something to occupy my time. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, I received a phone call from a good friend, Debby Cantor (now Rabbi Debby Cantor) whom I knew from Brandeis. She asked me what I was doing that summer and I admitted that I wasn’t doing much. She told me to pack a suitcase and come up to Camp Ramah in New England as they desperately needed counselors.

I recall hesitating for a moment but with no other options, took her up on her offer.

I was familiar with Ramah, the camps sponsored by the Conservative Movement because my brother had been a staff member for several years, first at Ramah in New England and later at Ramah in Wisconsin. I had never wanted to go to camp, either as a camper or a staff member. But,this seemed to be the right time.

I spent that first summer working as a counselor with 12 and 13 year old campers and when the summer was over, I told myself I would never do it again. It was just not my style, it was too hard, the pay wasn’t sufficient etc. etc. But, two days after I returned home from the summer, it dawned on me that I had learned more, experienced more and grown more in two months at Camp than I had in any other experience in my life and I couldn’t wait to return.

I went back to camp for 13 consecutive summers, first as a counselor, then as a Rosh Edah, a Division Head, then for my first 8 summers after ordination as an advisor, teacher, occasional camp driver, baseball umpire and whatever else was needed.  I, like most of the kids, waited an entire year just for the opportunity to spend all or part of the summer at camp.

I know that what I did at Ramah influenced a lot of kids. I’ve heard from many of them over the years and they’re grown now with careers and families of their own. I know some of my campers who became Rabbis or Jewish professionals were inspired by what we taught them at Camp. I know that the experiences at Ramah helped develop a generation of Jewish adults who are guided by sensitivity and emotion and love for Judaism.

But, whatever the kids got from what I and others gave at Ramah, I received just as much if not more.

It was at Ramah that I learned how to talk with kids, how to teach, how to find Jewish lessons in everyday experiences and how to transmit them. It was at Ramah that I learned what the word “community” really meant as all of us, staff and campers, had to learn to co-exist in an environment that required cooperation and sensitivity. It was at Ramah that I was able to reach beyond my comfort zone and paddle a canoe for the first time, sleep out in the woods, climb a mountain and do any number of other things that a city kid just never had to do.

This weekend, Ramah in New England is celebrating its 60th birthday with a reunion weekend at Camp. Sadly, I could not go because of prior commitments. But, I have spent quite a bit of time in the last few weeks thinking about my experiences at Camp. I have thought about my favorite images of Ramah: the small pine grove in the middle of the camp, the shore of the lake as the sun rose on a late summer morning, the row of trees behind the basketball court where we had Friday night services silhouetted against a blue sky as the sun began to set, the porch of building 32 where I ran staff meetings for my counselors when I was a Division Head, the quiet of the field near the campers’ bunks at night as the kids slept after a long day, and the noisy, raucous hadar ochel (dining hall) which, on Friday evening was set with white plastic tablecloths and filled with the joyous noise of singing and laughing. The places and the experiences all come back to me and they are all precious memories.

Working at Ramah was intense and tiring to say the least. It was not easy. But it was worth every bit of the effort because it prepared me for my life, professionally and personally, in ways that are too numerous to count.

And, it was a whole lot of fun.

So, I’ll take this opportunity as Ramah in New England celebrates its 60th birthday to say todah rabbah, thank you for all it has meant to me.

I will never forget those years.


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