Returning to Camp

As we will see in VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Jacob splits his family and live stock into shnei machanot– two camps- as a defensive measure in preparation for confronting his long estranged brother Esav. Under the cover of darkness Jacob sends the two camps over the river and then returns back over the river. As we all know too well. There is where faces an angel by himself and wrestles till day break. There we read:

Vayivater Yaakov Livado vaYe’avek Ish imo ad  olot haShachar. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. (Genesis 32:25)

Rashi explains that the verb vaYe’avek is connected to the word avak– dust. As to say that they wrestled and got all dusty.

As well as we know the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, we often forget where it all happened. As we learned in VaYetzei, last week’s Torah portion, this happened in  Machanaim. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob resolved to return home. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob realized his fear of Esav. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob split his family into two Machanot- camps. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob realized the value of small things ( See Rashi). It was there in Machanaim that Jacob wrestled with the angel. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob stopped running or could not run any more ( see hip injury). It was there in Machanaim that Jacob realized who he was. It was there in Machanaim his name was changed from Jacob to Israel. It was there in Machanaim that we became Israel. Surely that place was Machaneh Elokim- God’s camp.

I work for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. I have been a camp person since 1983 when my parents sent me off to my first summer at Camp Ramah in the Poconos.  It was there in Machane where I felt most at home. It was in Machane where I felt like I was building a community. It was in Machane where I learned to daven, despite  going to day school my whole life. It was in Machane that I first connected to the people, land, and Torah of Israel. It was in Machane where I wrestled with who I wanted to be. It was in Machane where I realize who I was.  It was in Machane that I no longer felt that I needed to live a bifurcated life.  There in camp I did not have to separate into different parts. It was in Machane that I first experienced being a complete person. It was in Machane where I realized the eternal value of small acts. Is it strange to say at 36-years- old with three children that I miss those paper plate awards? It was in Machane as a staff member where I first earned a name for myself as a Jewish Educator.  It was there in Machane that I first met an Israeli who was not related to me. And for many of us camp people it was in Machane that we became Israel. We are all blessed to have discovered Machane. Surely that place is  Machaneh Elokim- God’s camp.

I feel so fortunate to be able to return to Machanaim. I can tell you as clear as day that camp is under my skin. Camp people do not need to be in camp to have camp in us. We will never brush the dust of camp off. That is what makes us Israel.

I often ask myself what does it mean to me to return to camp as an Adult. Years ago I read  Rabbi Neil Gillman’s  Sacred Fragments. It was there that I was introduced to Paul Ricoeur’s 2nd Naïveté. Ricoeur wrote “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.” (SE, p. 349) In this second naïveté, scripture, religious concepts, and camp itself are seen as symbols, (i.e. metaphorical constructs) that we now interpret “in the full responsibility of autonomous thought.” (SE, p. 350) This means we accept that the myths we held as truth in the first naïveté are in fact myths, but having passed through the critical distance, we begin to reengage these concepts at a different level. We no longer accept them at face value, as presented by religious authorities, but rather interpret them for ourselves, in the light of having assumed personal responsibility for our beliefs. (Source of these quotes)

At first for Jacob Machanaim was a place for him to celebrate his return home from years with Lavan. He escaped years are hard labor with a a large family and a large mass of wealth. His first Naïveté was a great story. Jacob was a regular Horatio Alger. But then with the chips on the table when he was about to confront his brother, Jacob returns to Machanaim. This time he does not have his family or his wealth. Now in his return to Machanaim he is as alone as the day he fled home. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob wrestled with his identity. It was there in Machanaim that Jacob rewrote his own narrative. Machanaim was his 2nd Naïveté.

What does it mean for me to return to Machane a second time to relook at the myth of camp? That story I am still rewriting. What I can say as of now is that I have learned is that camp is still magical, but it is not magic. And still after all of these years I can still say that place is  Machaneh Elokim- God’s camp. Now I am trying to figure out how to share it.

 

— This is the product of a conversation I had last week with Jeremy Fingerman, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, in preparation for his visit to Toronto to celebrate  Ramah Canada turning  50. It also served as an introduction to a talk I gave this past week to the  Rabbinical School Student Association at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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