The following sermon was delivered on August 6, 2005 at Midway Jewish Center. I was 18 and a few months when I delivered this, and I thank my father for having helped me write this. (These days, I tend to write my sermons on my own. And I’m glad that my homiletic style has improved over the years!)
I have retyped this now as I am cleaning the house up a little bit. The camp BIMA, discussed below, has evolved over the years and is now located at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
In this morning’s parashah, מסעי, we come to the last parashah of Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, which, according to many scholars, was the last book of the Torah until Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, was added in to our Torah. So, when we read this parashah today, it makes sense that the narrative sounds as if it was written as a summary. In this parashah, we find shortened versions of snippets from stories that were discussed more thoroughly in earlier parts of the Torah. In fact, most of what we read today doesn’t exactly sound like much of a story in itself because there are so few details given in most of the stories brought up here. But, we shouldn’t discount that as a negative feature of this parashah. This is essentially a quick way to review what has been going on in B’nei Yisrael’s journey. If we want details of the journey, we can read the remainder of the Torah. Had the parashah included more details than it does include, Torah reading would be longer. In that sense, it is wise to see the brevity of this Parashah’s narrative as a positive feature.
Having said that, this Parashah reminds us that this is a good way to reflect upon journeys. Part of what makes a journey unique is that the experience of a journey is often ineffable—it is unable to be articulate, especially in brief. Most descriptions of any journey could leave one wondering even more details of the journey because it is impossible to produce a perfect description of a journey. Maybe it’s fair to note that one reason though that this good brief way to reflect upon a journey comes out sounding a little bit boring is because it is a summary of stories we already are familiar with. Before we get to reading a synopsis of journeys that most of us might find boring, I’d like to take this opportunity of being on the bimah to talk about other journeys that other Jews have taken. These actually are stories from a very new Jewish camp which I had the pleasure of attending this past summer. This camp is BIMA, an acronym for the Berkshire Institute of Music and Art[s].
This past summer was BIMA’s second summer of being in session. BIMA is located at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, not too far from Upstate New York. I could tell you that going from my home in Syosset to school in Glen Cove on the Thursday morning of June 23, returning home to Syosset and traveling West and then North and then East to get to Massachusetts was a journey or that driving on July 21 from Williamstown to Syosset was a journey, but, for me, the biggest journey at BIMA was everything between June 23 and July 21, which, for me, was BIMA. BIMA is the only serious Jewish camp which is also a serious music and arts camp. All the meals at BIMA are kosher, there is nothing required during Shabbat which would ask for any camper to have to break any law of Shabbat, and, being a pluralistic Jewish camp rather than, for example, a Reform or Orthodox Jewish camp, BIMA also makes the effort to provide for the needs of the Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, cultural, and secular Jews who attend the camp. The teachers who conduct the Arts Major Classes for the writers, the dancers, the painters, the singers, and the jazz or chamber instrumentalists are Jews who are professionals with very strong backgrounds in their arts.
During the weekdays, the day would begin with optional minyanim and a breakfast following that. During the next 4 and a half hours, we would have our Arts Major classes to go to, lunch, and Limmud, a study session which was always conducted in a new style. This past summer, the major theme of the Limmud sessions was dualities. That means that we artistic Jews would look at how relationships between light and dark, sound and silence, and stillness and movement played various roles in Judaism: in Jewish texts that focused on or even briefly touched upon dualities or in the daily rituals that Jews engage in or wherever else there was to look inside Judaism. After that, we would have meetings for our Shabbat Va’adot, our committees that would meet to make plans for making the coming Shabbat always different from the previous Shabbat, we would have meetings for Athletics (which was very popular to cut) or Electives (which ranged from pursuing more art studies or more Jewish studies), and we would have some free time and some more time to focus on our Arts Majors. After that, there would be a dinner and then an evening program which would generally be an arts presentation from professional artists, and after that, there would be time for sleeping, which some kids believed to be optional.
Shabbat was a quieter part of camp. On Friday nights, there were multiple service options: the Progressive Liberal Minyan which was essentially a Reform service, the Traditional Egalitarian Minyan which was essentially a Conservative service, and a Mechitzah Minyan which was essentially an Orthodox service. After services, there would be dinner, and, after dinner, singing. In the morning, there were multiple options again: most often a meditative service followed by a discussion, an essentially Conservative service, and an essentially Orthodox service. After the Shabbat morning options, the whole camp would gather for what we called a “Debate Midrash” which was a study session of orts where we would either respond to the situation by doing A or doing B. If we would do A, we would have to have a seat towards the entrance of the room, and, if we would do B, then we would have to have a seat towards the far end of the room. Each side had to be able to support its decision by having one speaker at a time address the whole BIMA community and explain that person’s own rationale for choosing that side, and whoever volunteered to speak would speak and would even be allowed to respond to a speaker from the other side of the Debate Midrash. The first question we were asked was: “Your orchestra will hold a concert in Berlin and, at the concert, will perform some recently discovered compositions written by a composer who was financially supported by the Nazi party. Will you perform that night or will you refuse to perform that night?” After the second Shabbat, the campers were allowed to bei n charge of the Debate Midrash, and the question that the Debate Midrash Committee asked the rest of the campers was: “Your dance company is having a charity benefit performance on the evening of Yom Kippur day. During Yom Kippur, you will take a flight to the rehearsals for the show. The rehearsals will be going on all day. This is your debut performance as a dancer, and your dance company will fire you from the dance company if you refuse to perform that evening and take part in all of the rehearsals. Will you quit your job, or will you stay with the dance company?” I was personally very impressed with the intelligence that the campers were able to use to come up with an answer. Campers would argue for A or B with a Jewish viewpoint or a rational viewpoint or a theological viewpoint or an artistic viewpoint or another viewpoint or some combination of viewpoints. Questions like these alone were journeys in themselves. Campers often found themselves switching sides in the middle of the Debate Midrash sometimes more than once and sometimes even more than twice. The Debate Midrash was just one of the many intellectual and spiritual and even physical journeys that many BIMA campers ended up taking this summer.
I found for myself that one of the most interesting intellectual journeys for me was hearing where everybody had physically journeyed from in order to go BIMA. As a growing new camp, BIMA had about 60 campers this past summer. About 5/6 of the campers lived in the United States, and I personally was expecting most people who would be interested in a little Jewish music arts camp in Massachusetts to be from the North Eastern United States, but less than 30 campers were actually from the North Eastern United States. Kids came in from California, Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Alabama, and other states. Not all the kids living in the United States were necessarily purely American even. There were a number of Americans with at least one Israeli parent, and ther was even one American camper who had within the past few months moved to the United States from Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, there were often a number of languages going on at once at camp. Stass Shpanin, who had lived most of his life in Azerbaijan, was among a group of a few Americans and Israelis who would converse with each other in Russian. When the Israelis would talk to other people who spoke Hebrew really well, such as the other Israelis, most conversations would be in Hebrew. And, of course, there was a lot of English at BIMA. However, not everybody who attended BIMA necessarily spoke English fluently. The Israeli community educator, Amitai Lev, would often translate into Hebrew the directions that were given in English or would help other people translate what they wanted to say. For example, Amitai often would help translate into English what my good friend Baranu Mekonen, who lived in Ethiopia until he was an early teen and spoke five languages fluently (but none of them English) wanted to say when Baranu would want to address the BIMA community. You could say that in a sense Baranu didn’t only travel from Israel to go to BIMA, but he really had traveled from Ethiopia and then to Israel to get to BIMA. Perhaps, the most fascinating journey I heard though wile I was at camp was that of my friend Mikhail Makarevich who played drums in jazz workshop. Mikhail grew up in Russia, and, when he was 16, he was given the options of moving to the United States, Canada, or Israel or just staying in Russia. Mikhail chose to move to Israel. But he didn’t move with his family. Instead he moved on his own and moved to a place where many Russian and Ethiopian immigrants (including Baranu) lived together, and he essentially lived at his school. Perhaps what I find most fascinating about Mikhail though is that, given his options to go to two other free countries where no military service is mandatory, Mikhail chose to go to Israel, and, last week, on Monday, living on his own in a foreign country that is now his home, Mikhail joined the Israeli army.
I also found it interesting that for, almost all of the Israelis, their summer at BIMA was the first time being in the United States. What was interesting was that almost every Israeli said that they felt that they would never live in the United States permanently. They often said that they couldn’t live in any other country other than Israel. For them, it was nice to make the journey to the United States, but it was often more important to make the journey back to Israel rather than end the journey in Exile.
Personally, I found my experience at BIMA to be full of journeys of all different types and by no single strict definitions. And, I think that if there is anything that this parashah can teach us, perhaps it can teach us that journeys are something that our people is quite accustomed to. And, in fact, maybe it’s something that each Jew needs. And, I’d just like to say that if you know someone who is an artist and a Jew, this parashah, Mas’ei, would approve of BIMA being for them because BIMA, from what I saw, is full of what Jews need: journeys.