Fire, Water, & Wilderness: Acquiring Mental Health

As the old joke goes:

A congregational Rabbi invites a young to congregant to the synagogue for Havdalah. It is going to be a special Camp Shabbat. They are going to do the special camp tunes that the happy camper came to enjoy at their summers at Jewish summer camp. Despite all of the arguments the camper is just not interested in joining. When pressed by the Rabbi, the young person says, “It will just not be the same without the lake”.

This joke brings to light the significance of immersive experiences. When we come at things head-on we might try to avoid them, but camp allows us to come at things side-ways.

I was thinking about this when reading Bamidbar, this week’s Torah portion. This week we start reading the book of Numbers- Bamidbar, Hebrew for “In the Wilderness”. Like every other year I find myself pondering the Midrash where we learn, ” There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). With Shavuot only a day away you might expect us to say that the the way to acquire Torah is revelation of Torah at Sinai or learning Torah. It is interesting in that this midrash is depicting fire, water, and wilderness as alternatives to this formal or direct instruction. The midrash could be understood to mean that we acquire Torah through passion (fire), immersion (water), and through a long trek in unknown land (the wilderness), all modalities of experiential and indirect instruction.

For decades this has validated my understanding of camps and travel experiences as the best ways to acquire Torah. But with the advent of COVID-19, a war in Ukraine, gun violence, and the mental health crisis that these issues has brought to light, we find ourselves in a new unknown land. In this new situation we are all struggling with issues of uncertainty, anxiety, and too much isolation. How are we acquiring Torah in this new wilderness?

Darwin Falls Wilderness - Wikipedia

This is why I am excited about summer 2022. We are about to send our youth off to be campers or counselors at summer camp. We need to look past the campfire ( fire), lake or pool (water), or hiking trip (wilderness) of camp to make meaning where we are. All these explain how we might use camp to help our youth acquire Torah through indirect instruction, but how might we help them with their mental emotional spiritual and social health ( MESSH) needs?

I want to offer a subversive thought, maybe in this context might direct instruction regarding Torah learning would do the trick? Overt Torah learning could be the means to an end of getting to discuss what is most important. It is a Trojan Horse that gets past people’s guards to open up and to engage deeply with things that matter. And in turn, having tended to these MESSH needs, our deeper emotional connections can also bring us back to Torah. The camp setting allows this cycle of human connection, personal growth, Torah and Judaism.

Along with my friend noted psychologist Dr. Betsy Stone and some colleagues at Foundation for Jewish Camp we put together a MESSH Torah resource for camp leaders for this summer. In a camp context leaders have the opportunity to speak to their staff members and to their campers all the time. What will they say? How might they authentically support their community? What strengths might they draw upon to do this holy work? How can they elevate their strengths, so that they are using their superpowers, rather than focusing on deficits?

Our intention with this packet is to create a space of overlap between our two fields: Judaism and psychology. How does psychological thought intersect with Jewish ideas? How might we use Judaism to support personal growth? What does the wisdom of our tradition have to teach us about the very real struggles we face today?

In the immersive experience (water) of camp they will explore their passion (fire), and reconnect with nature (wilderness). As we find ourselves in this new wilderness, we should use the Torah we have acquired to support our MESSH needs. To acquire Torah we need fire, water, and wilderness. To acquire MESSH we need Torah.

This is a draft. We recognize that it is far from complete. It is part of an interactive and iterative process to provide deep, accessible, and relevant resources for the field. Please give us your feedback and other content you would like to see us put into these notes for next year. avi@jewishcamp.org

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1 Response to “Fire, Water, & Wilderness: Acquiring Mental Health”


  1. 1 betsy951 June 3, 2022 at 8:53 am

    Just wonderful. Shabbat Shalom, my friend.


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