Friday, August 22, 2014

Parashat Re'eh: See the choice

This past Shabbat I witnessed a miracle, the kind of miracle that only happens at Jewish camp.

This past Shabbat, the 10th graders were leading services at Camp Harlam. The first torah reader stepped up, a tall girl with short shaggy hair and glasses, and a hush went over the congregation. This girl, we learned, has one Jewish parent, one non-Jewish parent. She was raised with nothing. She had never celebrated bat mitzvah. As a teenager, she took an interest in Judaism on her own. She found a synagogue and started attending by herself. She found out about camp Harlam and went for the first time ever this summer. And when her unit was called upon to lead services, she volunteered to read Torah. Some of her friends taught her Hebrew in thirty hours. The others ran to the art shack to make her a tallit—her first, made with spare fabric and yarn of white and blue. The Israeli staff helped her pick out a Hebrew name for herself. And on a clear sunny day, standing in the woods, with a stick as her yad and a giant stone as her shulchan, she recited the blessings and read three verses of torah for the first time in her life, trembling the entire time. There were tears, oh, how there were tears! How could you not cry with this young woman who chose to make Judaism and Torah a part of her life?

Was it the best torah reading ever, or the most beautiful tallit? Could it have been ‘better’ with more time and practice? Honestly, who cares? In that moment that girl, that young woman, affirmed a choice and linked herself to Israel in the most profound way. To quote one of my favorite movies, she took her first step into a larger world. Surrounded by her community—her Jewish community—she made it clear who she was and what it meant to her, and in doing so inspired an entire camp community, with ripple effects that continue to resonate.  For it wasn’t just her choice—in her choosing, she inspired those around her to lift her up, to act in a holy and sacred and supportive way, to be with her lovingly.

We all have choices: every day presents us with a myriad of them, and it’s up to us to decide—consciously or unconsciously—what we’re going to choose, blessing or curse. That’s how our portion begins this week: See, I give you the choice: blessing and curse. Sometimes it’s not clear in the moment which is which; sometimes our worst instincts or our woundedness lead us astray. But as Yehuda Leib of Ger writes: “Goodness exists within the Jewish people by their very nature; sin is only incidental. Each day, they are given the choice anew.” Our intentions, our efforts, our choices give us the opportunity to live as if every moment of every day is a miracle, if we but open ourselves to the possibility.

We look around the world right now, from Missouri to Europe to Israel, and we see people making the darkest of choices, acting as if they are compelled to do evil. They are not, we are not. We are not powerless, but are given the choice: to exert power and violence over others, to instill mistrust and fear, or to lift up blessing, to reaffirm our commitment to one another. You see, the choice is ours. How do you choose? 

1 comment:

  1. Yes, this is a very impressive story; especially since the young lady's fellow campers supported her and did what they could to make the experience meaningful. It is fortunate that she did not try to do this within the context of a synagogue because there she would probably not been permitted to read Torah without proper preparation and education and would likely be mocked or criticized for her heartfelt but not quite authentic attempt.

    Many years ago, I also had a student who made the courageous choice of becoming a bat mitzvah. At age 12 she started her Jewish studies with me and by age 13 was able to masterfully conduct a service, leading prayers in Hebrew. There was not a dry eye during her d'var because her words and the understanding of Judaism they demonstrated were so touching and inspiring. I will never forget, Wendy, this young lady who made the choice to be Jewish all by herself.