Author Archives: Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow

About Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow

Rabbi Avi Orlow is the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). Before joining FJC in 2008, Avi was the Campus Rabbi and Assistant Director of the St. Louis Hillel at Washington University and has held numerous positions as rabbi, educator, and youth leader. He spent 17 years as a camper and then educator at Ramah Camps in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and YUSSR camps in the Former Soviet Union. Avi has a B.A. in religious studies from Columbia University and was ordained in the charter class at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the open Orthodox rabbinical school. He lives in White Plains with his wife, Cantor Adina Frydman, and their children, Yadid, Yishama, and Emunah.

Revealing Passover

Camp_0306We come together for Passover to celebrate our ongoing liberation from slavery. During the seder we will speak at length about the exodus from Egypt, but how did we, the descendants of Jacob, get there? Before we ask how did we end up as slaves we need to ask how did we end up in Egypt?

This story starts with Joseph and his brothers. Annoyed by his being different, they sell him into slavery. Through a turn of events Joseph ends up in a position of power in Egypt. Forced by the famine in the land of Canaan, his brothers unwittingly come before Joseph seeking sustenance. Sitting before them, he is faced with a choice as to whether or not he will keep his identity closeted. The text reads:

Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, “Cause every man to go out from me.” And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in tears; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard” (Genesis 45:1-2).

When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, his voice knows no limits, and everyone in Egypt finds out about his identity. Through Joseph’s coming-out they were all witness to the unfolding of God’s plan.  What started off as a family tragedy was transformed into a divine national comedy.

In modern times we can hear resonance of the Passover cry for justice in the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  He wrote that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963). I believe that we can hear a corollary to this in the sound of Joseph’s tears. There is an inextricable connection between personal and national revelation. While Moses led us out of Egypt we were not truly free until we experienced God’s revelation at Sinai. Joseph’s personal revelation to his brothers was a precursor to God’s coming out to the nation at Sinai. While we need to seek justice for everyone, we should rise to the challenge of realizing that we will not understand the collective revelation until we are all free to express all of who we are as individuals.

A few months ago I went to a benefit hosted by Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the camp at which I grew up. There were some people there who I had not seen for 20 years. Stepping into that room it was as if we were all back at camp. One hug later it was as if no time had passed. We were family. For a moment there I had a sense of what Joseph and his brothers must have felt so many years ago. Camp avails us of the opportunity to expand our idea of family. There in the presence of our camp family we can give voice to hidden parts of ourselves. There we can start to articulate what we aspire to become in our lives. How can we provide our children with that safe place to reveal all of who they are and who they might become?

At your seder, as the Jewish world sits as equals sharing food, I hope that more of us find safe space to share ourselves with the collective. May you have a very revealing and meaningful Passover.

 

Posted on April 13, 2014

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Hidden Ingredient

copy 110707.CampJRF.-207Teachers, curricula, grades, rulers, pencils, erasers, chalk, markers, handouts, hands up, heads up, mouths shut, black boards, white boards, smart boards, and (all too often bored) students: the ingredients of formal education. If we were to reject these in the name of awaking our children to the joy and splendor of Jewish life, we would be relegated to the realm of informal education. But calling it informal seems too limiting. By calling it informal we are defining this mode of education by what it is not, as compared to defining it by what it is. That is why I prefer to call it experiential education. But, what is experiential education?  In general the core of excellent experiential education is plainly put: excellent education. But if experiential education does not follow the recipe of formal education, what is its secret in ingredient?

So even before I get started I want to say that I believe assessment, evaluation, and accountability are crucial to the educational project, but here I want to explore what positive things happen in the educational kitchen when we take away the grades and remove the perception of judgment. With this move away from presumptive hierarchy, the weight of the education needs to be born out on the shoulders of the relationships. It is only when the educators meet the students’ basic needs and achieve a mutual trust that we get cooking. In an environment where we are giving grades we need to be transparent, otherwise we run the risk of being unethical. How can a student be held accountable for something that they did not know that they were going to be tested on? In experiential education, the deepest learning often happens when educators help students get out of their own way in the service of their learning. We often need to use obfuscation and trickery. Being transparent often destroys that magic. Obviously this manipulation can be misused, but if we maintain that trust, the process will yield future revelations and breakthroughs in learning.

It is interesting to think about this aspect of education in the larger context of revelation. When the People of Israel were about to receive the Torah at Sinai, the Torah says, “And Moshe brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood under the mountain.”(Exodus 19:17) What does it mean “under the Mountain?” On this, in the Talmud Shabbat 88a, Rabbi Avidimi ben Hama ben Hasa said that this teaches us that the Holy One raised the mountain above them like an inverted cask and said, “If you accept the Torah, good; if not, this will be your burial.” So our experience at Sinai was less an intimate moment under the chupah, and more, a carjacking. Rabbi Aha ben Yaakov noted that accepting the Torah under duress presents a strong challenge to the obligatory nature of Jewish law. How can we be held liable for a contract that we were forced into? But Raba said that they accepted it again in the days of Purim, as it says in Megilat Esther, “The Jews fulfilled and they accepted.” (Esther 9:27) Why the doubling of language? This means: they fulfilled what they had already accepted. The fulfillment of the added laws of Purim demonstrated that they accepted the laws of Sinai from thousands of years earlier. The difference being that this time there was no duress. It was not only that there was no God to push them into it, in the entire book of Esther there is no reference to God. God is hidden.

The story, and the holiday of Purim, seems to be a theater in which we are exploring what is hidden and what will be revealed. Esther’s name and identity are hidden. When will they be revealed? We explore this with all of our customs of costumes. The fate of the Jewish people is unknown. When will that be revealed? We explore this with our community gatherings and of course our eating. There would be no story of Purim if all we had was transparency. Purim seems to be a holiday of delayed revelation.

I am not arguing that formal education is bad. I happen to love it and it has a huge role to play in education, but it is clearly not the only way. We need different ingredients to meet the needs of different learners. The delayed revelation of Purim points to a secret ingredient of experiential education. What does the world look like without a judge or judgment? The absence of God made it possible for Esther to be a true heroine. If there was transparency, Esther would have never learned the nature of her commitment to her community. We see many aspects in camping where it is a child centered institution free of judgment because the adults are hidden and there are no grades. The joyous Judaism and the freedom of camp hide the highly organized and intentional program. If we had to be transparent about our intention to make another generation committed to our future we would not be successful. As we read in Megilah, “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16) It is only at the end of the story of Purim that the hidden became clear, but boy were they glad.

Posted on March 13, 2014

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A Meaningful Thanksgivukkah

aviOn their surfaces, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are simple holidays.  We see the themes of light breaking through the darkness, a few banding together to beat the elements, and the power of having faith in community.  We camp folk know that nothing is ever as simple as it seems.  So let’s look deeper into the three miracles of Hanukkah.  One miracle is that small group of zealots were able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple.  When they recaptured the Temple they found one small jar of oil for the menorah in the Temple.  The second miracle was that despite the fact that this small jar only had enough oil for one day it lasted for eight days.  This story about the miraculous Hanukkah oil has allowed us to look past focusing solely on the military victory.  This is important in that the war was not a black and white fight between the Jews and the Greeks.  Rather, it was a civil war between a small group of religious zealots and a larger group of their Hellenized Jewish brethren.  The third miracle of Hanukkah is that the story of the second miracle of the oil overshadows the first miracle of a civil war.

Now we turn our attention to Thanksgiving.  It is a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and the preceding year.  This is traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts.  We retell the story of the first settlers to America who found salvation when they reached Plymouth Rock.

But is that the real story of Thanksgiving?  On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the national holiday of Thanksgiving. There we read:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. 

Like the third miracle of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving is not really a story about the Pilgrims, but rather the constitution of a ritual of reconciliation post-civil war.  Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving represent the recreation of national mythologies for the sake of mending the wounds of fighting between brothers.

We in camping appreciate the impact of a good story regardless of its true origins.  Camp in its essence is a self-made community built on rituals, traditions, and history that is created by its members and need not be based solely on fact.  It is here in this miraculous fabricated narrative that we create enduring memories of brotherhood.  So while the story might not be true, the community could not be any more real. I hope you have a very meaningful Thanksgivukkah.  Happy holidays.

Posted on November 27, 2013

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Falling in Love with Myself

0243_130813-FJC_x_xHe was bubbling over with excitement. He had heard so much about this place. This was his first time away from home. And somehow he knew that his life was going to be different after coming here. While he knew that he was going to miss his family, he was excited to make new friends, and yes he was excited to possibly meet a special someone. As they arrived he could not stay in his seat.

I am sure that this story rings true for you if you remember going to camp for the first time. All of the excitement, all of those expectations of what that summer has in store. As the bus lurched forward you felt yourself opening up to the people on the bus. You were hardly able to sit in your seat as the bus pulled off the main road and you saw that first sign for your camp. You had never been there before, but as you pulled in you knew that you were home.

While this is my story of going to camp for the first time, this definitely echoes what I heard from my eldest son after his first summer at camp, or at least what I got out of him. Similarly, the story of Rebecca that we read in last week’s Torah portion says:

Then Rebecca and her maids got ready and mounted their camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebecca and left. Now Isaac had come from Be’er Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she fell off the camel. (Genesis 24:61- 64)

Rebecca was that first happy camper coming “home.” She fell in love at first sight. Just as I fell in love as a camper. It was not with a person – those crushes and relationships came and went. It was not with that place, even though it will endure in my memory as a place filled with kiddusha, holiness. I fell in love with who I was at camp.

Many years ago my camp supervisor mailed me the following story:

Once there was a Rebbe who had a Yeshiva. His son studied in the Yeshiva. One day the son took off the afternoon to go walking in the forest. The father said nothing. But over time the son took to taking off every afternoon to walk in the forest. At this point the father realized that he needed to confront his son. The Rebbe said to his son, “I hear that you are walking in the forest every afternoon. Why are you doing this?” The son replied that he was looking for God. The Rebbe was puzzled and asked, “Did I not teach you that God is the same everywhere?” The son replied, “Abba, I know that God is the same everywhere, but I am not.”

When and where in my life was I more open to being all of whom I aspired to become? It was when I got off that bus for the first time, and it was at camp.

While I love the place and I love that time in my life, I realize that I owe a lot to my counselors. More than what I saw in them as role models, it was what my role models saw in me when I tumbled off that bus. They shared with me a glimpse of the person that I am still working on becoming. And that is why I fell in love with camp.

Posted on October 24, 2013

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Seeking Shelter

Camp_0225This past Sunday I convinced my sons to join me out back to put up our Sukkah, ritual dwelling for Sukkot, arguing that it was just a really big Lego set. They were happy to build and play until we got to the s’chach, the cut organic material used as the roof of the sukkah. The boys just did not understand it. The s’chach, as compared to all of the other Lego pieces, did not click or tie into place. So I went on to explain that while it needs to be porous enough so that we can see the stars, minimally the s’chach must be thick enough so that it provides more shade then sun light in the Sukkah. Of course they asked why?

Just five days after the solemn day of Yom Kippur, we are off to one of the most joyous holidays of the year. Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, is commonly referred to in our liturgy and literature as Zman Simchateinu, the time of our happiness. I began thinking and questioning the so-called happiness of Sukkot. Traditionally on this holiday we read the book of Kohelet. The author of this book retells his investigation of the meaning of life and the best way to live your life. Kohelet proclaims all the actions of humanity to be inherently fleeting, futile, empty, meaningless, temporary, and done in vain. This sentiment is well-said in the most quoted line from Kohelet which reads:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. (Kohelet 1:9)

Learning that life is senseless seems like a real downer for a holiday of happiness. This juxtaposition is only highlighted in that we read this just after Yom Kippur, a day during which we appealed that mercy would win out over justice. If Kohelet is correct, we will never be able to change. Despite our best efforts to repent and atone, we are stuck and should be judged in light of the fact that will never be able to renew ourselves.

Then it all came together for me.

Kohelet is right; nothing is new under the sun. The difference is that just after Yom Kippur we escape the sun under the shade of the Sukkah. There we find shelter from the harsh judgment of the world. If we spend a serious amount of time practicing being the people we aspire to be, we might be able to achieve it throughout the rest of the year. We see a similar dynamic in the shelter of summer camp. There we are able to immerse ourselves in an Eden of our own design. Is there any greater joy then the promise of a better future?

Posted on September 18, 2013

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Room For Improvement

Camp_0309A couple of years ago I was walking to synagogue with my two boys on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and I wanted to engage them in a discussion about the holiday. At the time Yadid was seven and Yishama was five. To get the ball rolling I simply said, “Another name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaDin. So besides celebrating a new year, it is also the time when we reflect on how we might want to improve ourselves in the coming year.” At this point I felt a huge urge to just tell the boys how I wanted them to improve. I know that I am not alone. I want my children to be the best they can be so if I love my children so much, how could I stay silent and not tell them how to improve? It seems so clear to me what they need to change to be the mensches I so desperately what them to become, so of course I should just give them a list, right? I decided that instead of going in that direction, I would shift the conversation and said, “So since today is the day we work on our improving ourselves, let’s start. Tell me what you think I need to be working on to be a better abba (father).”

Wow, what a difference! Not only did they give me amazing feedback that I use until this day, but without any additional prompting they started giving each other feedback. What a blessing to be part of this conversation. Holding back my own voice at this moment created room for us all to grow and improve. I know that this internal voice of the overbearing parent is coming from a good place, but I also know that it does not always get the desired results. So, where did I learn this?

Upon reflection, I realized that I learned this technique as a junior counselor at Jewish overnight camp. It was there in the context of managing a bunk of children that I learned how to create an ideal learning environment. It was there that I learned how I might get more bees with honey then vinegar (another important message for Rosh Hashanah). I also learned the important difference between being authoritarian and authoritative. Seeding power actually creates space for other voices. So years later as a father I knew that suspending my own need to share my love created space for us all to share our love with each other. I cannot say I got it right that year as a JC, but I deeply appreciate the space of camp and what it taught me. Someone else who was more experienced could have done it better, but in the spirit of Jewish camp, they got out of the way to make room for an 18-year-old to find his voice. I in turn learned how to make room for my campers and eventually my own children. Jewish camp is magical. Yesterday’s campers are today’s counselors and tomorrow’s parents. If it was not for camp I am not sure I would have been blessed with the loving, powerful, and thoughtful critique from a five-year old. Jewish camp has cultivated in me the desire, skills, and confidence to be a more accessible and loving parent.

Shanah Tova -May we all be blessed to make more space for more loving voices this year.

Posted on September 4, 2013

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Revealing Jewish Camp

It is interesting that as we are in the final countdown to Shavuot we start the reading the Book of Numbers.  In Hebrew, the book is called Bamidbar, the wilderness. With Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah, what is the significance of our “entering the wilderness?”

In the Midrash we learn, “There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). This 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). Shavuot coming means that the end of school is close at hand. And with the end of school, the camp season is around the corner. This Midrash seems to be lived out at Jewish camp.

1001_110811-FJC_x46Camp is an amazing place where our children will make s’mores and memories by a camp fire (the fire), take the deep water test (the water), and go on a physically challenging hike (in the wilderness). Jewish camp is amazing on another level though. There, our children will be led by extraordinary role models who will ignite our children’s passion (the fire). There they will be part of building their own immersive purpose-driven Jewish community (the water). And there, we hope their experience will set them on their life journey to have a community of people to travel with along life’s path (the wilderness). As we are getting ready for Bamidbar and Shavuot I hope we are all also getting ready for camp, they are all profoundly revealing and edifying.

Chag Shavuot Sameakh – have a great holiday and enjoy packing for camp!

Posted on May 14, 2013

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Model Lessons

According to Jewish Law it’s the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). It is recorded that this custom serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi AkivaTanna of the middle of the 2nd century, who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?

We can start to answer these questions by looking at the Gemara in Yevamot. There we learn:

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.”  (Yevamot 62b)

0579_110811-FJC_x46It seems strange that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did “not treat each other with respect.” Rabbi Akiva taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is the great underlying principle in the entire Torah (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4). It would be surprising that even just one student of this great Tanna did not learn such a basic lesson. So what is the additional significance of the quantity of students who died?

It might be helpful to learn some more about who Rabbi Akiva was as a teacher. Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd, Rabbi Akiva became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). There is no doubt that Rabbi Akiva loved his wife Rachel dearly. He gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned during his time away from her. When his students first met his wife he told them explicitly that they were all indebted to her. But here is the issue: while living apart from his wife for all of those years, Rabbi Akiva did not show his students the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiva did not model this for them?

On Lag B’Omer we should take a moment and try to learn the lesson that evaded Rabbi Akiva’s students. How should we treat each other with respect? It is clearly not enough to just talk about it. If we want to teach respect, we need to model it.

It is in light of this that we see the real power of Jewish camp as an educational institution. As the adage goes, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” In school we are told a lot of things, but in camp the staff members model the most important lessons. And on the highest level we are all asked to get involved in creating the community.

Posted on April 28, 2013

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Independence Thinking

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

Unlike many parents who send their children to overnight camp, I have seen many camps.  As the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp I spend my summers on the road visiting various types of Jewish camps across North America. This summer my wife and I are sending our eldest child on his first overnight camping experience. Despite all of my experience, I have anxiety about sending our child away. Just like every other parent, there is no doubt that part of this anxiety is the irrational fear of sending our baby away. But, there is another part of this anxiety which is realizing that while he will always be our baby, when he returns he will have grown up so much. At camp he will experience being included in a community of his own. There he will make deep friendships of his own design. There he will make his own connections to his heritage. There he will have a new sense of independence. And all of this will happen because we will not be there. We have chosen a camp that has role models who manifest our family’s highest values, but in the end he will need to buy into these values for himself. The trick seems to be in the fact that these role models are not telling him who to be, but rather inspiring him to make choices based on their profound example.

aviIt is interesting to reflect on the fact that many of the camps that we all send our children to are not so new. Actually, many of them got their start in the late 1940’s or 1950’s. This was a profound period of growth for institutions in the North American Jewish community as it was in the newly founded State of Israel. This is not coincidental. After the cataclysm of the Holocaust we needed a place to call our own.  Both Israel and camps speak to a renaissance of Jewish life. In so much of history we found ourselves defined by those around us. In a land or a camp of our own we found, and continue to find, a unique opportunity to define ourselves on our own terms.

This week we will celebrate the 65th anniversary of Israel’s Independence. Israel is an amazing place and I am excited to introduce my children to our homeland. It represents the hope of two thousand years. But for now I am excited for our 9-year-old getting his first taste of independence at camp.

Posted on April 15, 2013

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Timely Growth

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

I am excited. Tonight we will begin celebrating Chag Ha Aviv Passover, our spring holiday – also named Chag HaMatzot the holiday of unleavened bread. But why do we eat unleavened bread – matzah –  on Passover? We read in the Haggadah:

Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of the kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, revealed God’s self to them and redeemed them. Thus it is said: “They baked Matzah-cakes from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, because it was not leavened; for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, and they had also not prepared any [other] provisions.” (DIY Haggadah)

aviSo yes, as the Haggadah says, when the time came for the Jews to finally leave, they did not delay. Yet, the final plague was not the first time they heard of their pending exodus.  Moses came and told the slaves long in advance that they would be leaving. While they did not have Ziplocs and Tupperware to pack provisions for the trip, I still think they could have done a better job preparing for this arduous journey. They weathered the elements so well before that you’d assume they would have prepared some bagels for the trip.  Now wouldn’t a holiday where we just needed to eat a lot of bagels be a great one? So,why matzah?

It is understandable that the slaves would be reticent to leave the only world they knew, could it be that was not the only reason that they were not well prepared for their trip? We all run late, waiting until the last-minute to get things done. Even when  we are told that something is going to happen, or that we have an assignment, we can be surprised and unprepared when it comes to pass or be due. While completely natural and common place, this procrastination comes from an interesting lapse of faith. Maybe Pharaoh was not alone in doubting the God of the Israelites. While we call matzah “the bread of affliction,” it appears that the affliction itself is procrastination.

So we have Chag HaMatzot a holiday that you cannot do last-minute. We actually start to prepare for Passover a month in advance. As we eat this “bread of procrastination” it is a time to reflect on our faith. When I am running late or procrastinating, I assume that other people will understand because I am doing God’s work, but God forbid someone wastes my time… We all have ways we can grow; matzah is there to flatten us out and remind us that this growth might not fit neatly into our schedule.  Which is why I am excited, because after spring comes summer and with summer comes … camp a time for growth for so many of our children!

Posted on March 25, 2013

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