January 17, 2019

The Core of Judaism

Each year, Rabbi Leib Saras made a pilgrimage to see Rebbe Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich. When asked what Torah he went to learn, Leib Saras answered: “I do not go to learn interpretations of Torah. I go to watch the way he ties his shoes.”

Try this experiment: Put your hands in your pockets and try to explain to someone — verbally — how to tie shoes. It’s an exercise in frustration, because there are certain things you can learn by description, and there are others that can only be learned in the doing — learned not by words and concepts, but by involving fingers, hands and heart. Theory is important. But there is a knowing through practice and participation that cannot be replaced by theoretical description.

That kind of knowing has its own special character.

In the Torah this week, each of the Levitical families receives a part of the responsibility for transporting the mishkan (the shrine of God’s dwelling). Two of the families receive oxen and carts to carry their burden of holy instruments and accouterments. But to the third, no oxen and/or carts were distributed. That family was assigned the responsibility for the Ark, itself, and they were required to carry it upon their shoulders — bakatef yesau (Numbers 7:9).

There is much of our tradition that can be conveyed through description. One can learn about the history, about the philosophy, about the culture of Judaism. But the core of holiness, the experience of God’s presence, cannot be learned about; it cannot be done for us by others; it cannot be made lighter, easier, more convenient. It requires the intensity of full personal involvement and investment. It requires the whole self — bakatef yesau.

This month, thousands of youngsters will depart the comforts of home and family to share the experience of Jewish summer camps. A month or so from now, those same kids will tumble off buses, sleepy and soiled and transformed. They will take home crafts, new friends and a profound sense of having touched the core of Jewish life. They will bear vivid memories of Friday night sunsets, Havdalah beneath the stars, new Hebrew songs and a sense of belonging. They will learn little about Judaism. They will have lived Judaism personally and intensely.

Centuries from now, when the definitive history of American Judaism is written, scholars will note the contribution of synagogues and seminaries to American Jewish life. But they will single out the summer camp as the most unique American Jewish institution. No institution changes young lives as powerfully as does camp. No other institution offers the chance to come so close to the core of holiness and feel the joy of carrying Judaism oneself — bakatef yesau.

The Midrash connects our verse with another, Psalms 81:3, siu zimrah, “Take up the song! Sound the timbrel, the melodious lyre and harp!”

Carrying the Ark upon their shoulders gave the Levites the power to sing. This is true of every person who serves God, concludes the sefat emet (language of truth). True service fills a person with light and with joy.

And so, too, our kids. Returning from camp, they evince a thirst for Jewish learning and a new joy in Jewish living. Having touched the core of holiness, they take up an ancient song. Do yourself a favor this summer — you who are tired of the depressing pessimism that attends so much Jewish life — go and visit a Jewish summer camp and breathe in its joyful spirit.

Years ago, I staffed a Jewish summer camp. Each summer we opened the camp for a visitors’ day, which was inevitably the hottest day of the summer. Late in the afternoon on one visitors’ day, I trudged back to my cabin for a cold drink. On the way, I encountered an elderly man, sitting alone and obviously upset. I stopped to see if I could help him, but he waved me away.

“Can I help you find your family?”

“Leave me alone, young man, I’m fine.”

“How about a cold drink?”

“I’m fine, don’t bother.”

“Well, you’re obviously upset, so let me sit with you,” I persisted.

We sat a few moments, and finally he turned to me and I saw the tears in his eyes.

“I’m a survivor. Do you know what that means?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m a survivor, and an old man, and I didn’t want to shlep up here today. But my daughter made me come because my granddaughter is here. She’s one of your campers. When I left Europe, years ago, I never thought I’d ever see Jewish children happy again. How can Jewish children be happy, being Jewish, after what Hitler did? But I look here and I see young people dancing, singing, with yarmulkes, speaking Hebrew. Young man, you, your friends, this place has given me back something Hitler took away.”

In tears, the two of us sat on the bench together.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.