Shavuot is a holiday often easily overlooked- many of us may not even realize that it has already passed! Shavuot commonly falls after the Hebrew School year has ended, and many of us associate it only with Confirmation ceremonies. In the most basic sense, Shavuot is the holiday that commemorates God giving the Torah to the Israelites. However, Shavuot is also ripe (pun intended) with significance for today on many other levels.
After the Land of Israel was conquered and divided, the nations of Israel established an agricultural society. In order to show gratitude to God, they were commanded to bring the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple as a sacrifice on Shavuot. Each family brought a basket of the seven species described in the Torah: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. In fact, one of the many names for Shavuot is hag ha bikkurim, The Festival of the First Fruits.
As the weather gets warmer and camp gets closer, farmers markets will likely start to pop up in your community. Depending on where in the country you live, the first fruits of your local harvest will be different. However, as a general rule, asparagus, strawberries, lettuces and peas are commonly among the first things to pop out of the soil in most of the Northeast. Consider using the concept of the first fruits of the festival of Shavuot as an inspiration for your own first fruits celebration. Make a trip to the farmers market with your kids before camp and plan a menu based on the first fruits you find in the market. Speak with one another about the benefits of local produce (hint: it’s fresher, more nutritious and better for the environment) and talk about how we can connect to our local agriculture just as the Israelites did thousands of years ago.
Here’s one recipe to get you started, but don’t feel limited- let the market speak to you and enjoy the kitchen creations that result!
Whole Wheat Linguini with Mint Pesto and 3 types of peas
1 lb whole wheat linguini
1 cup snow peas
1 cup sugar snap peas
½ cup frozen peas
¾ cup packed fresh mint leaves
¾ cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove
2 ½ tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup roasted unsalted pistachios
¼ cup shredded Parmesan
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
- Fill a large pot ¾ of the way with heavily salted water and bring to a boil. Cook linguini according to package directions
- While the water is boiling and the pasta is cooking, take the ends off the sugar snap peas and snow peas and cut them in half
- Chop the mint, basil, and garlic in food processor until finely chopped
- Add the pistachios and pulse until they are well chopped, but not powdery
- Slowly stream in the olive oil
- Set aside in a small bowl and mix in the Parmesan by hand
- 2 minutes before the pasta is done add the snow peas, sugar snap peas, and frozen peas
- Drain the pasta, reserving 3 tablespoons of the cooking water
- Combine the herb mixture with the cooked pasta and peas and reserved pasta water. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately
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.
Camp 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!
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 Akiva, Tanna 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?
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)
It 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.
For many summers, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin has had a robust theater program where, like many other Ramah camps, campers mount productions of Broadway musicals in fully translated Hebrew. The Ramah camps also happen to have a unique program called the Tikvah program, which provides opportunities for campers with intellectual, physical, and/or developmental disabilities to attend Jewish summer camp. In the summer of 2002, counselors at Ramah Wisconsin decided to try creating a platform for Tikvah campers to perform in their own, self-written Jewish play for the camp community. There were many in the camp who were nervous about this idea for several good reasons. But the green light was given and a project was born.
The idea was to create a play based on Breishit, the creation story in the book of Genesis. There were 12 campers.The campers were split into six groups with each group consisting of two Tikvah campers and one counselor. Each group focused on a different day of creation. And each group was tasked with not only writing a skit, but creating a visual image of their day (a sun, a tree, etc.). The performance itself was presented in a low-key atmosphere as a ‘lunch theater’ in the auditorium at camp. Just the oldest campers were invited to the performance and as they came in to the auditorium, everyone grabbed plates of spaghetti from the buffet and sat down to eat their dinner and watch some theater. One by one, each group got up to perform their scene, and then placed their visual image on the back wall of the stage and then sat back down to continue eating. It felt like a casual series of cute performances. And then for the last day of creation (Shabbat – God’s day of rest), all the campers came back on stage and fell asleep. The show was a huge success! Everyone talked about it for days and the campers felt so proud of themselves.
The next summer, a new idea was hatched. The counselors decided that for that summer’s Tikvah Lunch Theater, the rehearsal process would be opened up to several camper volunteers who wanted to work with the Tikvah campers to help them create their show. The only problem? 15 campers listed Tikvah Lunch Theater as their first choice activity. There were only 15 campers in all of Tikvah! So what did they do? They let them all in, and 30 campers performed in that year’s Tikvah Lunch Theater. No counselors had to help write the scripts or perform. The campers did it all themselves. It was a show about superheroes in the Torah (Joseph, Miriam, etc.). But it could have been a show about superheroes at camp. That’s what it felt like.
Fast forward to 2012: the 11th annual Tikvah Lunch Theater had a standing room only crowd. It has become a marquee event in the camp calendar. What is most exciting to me is that the staff members who were working on it this past summer had no idea that there hadn’t always been such a program as the “TLT.” They just assumed it was something that always existed at camp. This was culture change at its best. This is why people like me choose to work at Jewish summer camp. So we can watch campers and staff members become superheroes before our eyes.
Jon Adam Ross is a widely acclaimed theater artist, founding company member of Storahtelling and the Northwoods Ramah Theater Company. As a highly sought-after artist in residence, Jon leads workshops and facilitates the creation of theater using physical and emotional exploration of stories from ancient Jewish narratives.
Summer camps may seem to only be ‘open’ in the summer. But from September to May, the full time staff are thinking all about the next Summer season up at camp and how it can be an even more successful summer for our campers and staff than the one before. Of course, once the campers arrive, the camp community becomes one that dwells in the now; “Carpe Diem” is right up there with “Everyone’s a Winner at insert camp name here”. One of the luxuries of all the hours of thoughtful planning that happens before the summer is that, come June, there is room for everyone to just have fun and enjoy every moment at camp. Campers and their families do a lot of planning preparation as well, from shopping for toiletries to packing and repacking duffel bags to pre-stamping their pre-addressed envelopes in the hope for letters home. But recently, while sitting in synagogue reading my chumash (Torah), I found myself pondering all this preparation. It was a few weeks ago, Parshat Bo was being read in shul (synagogue)…
The Israelites are in a tough spot. Not only are they slaves in Egypt, but there’s this leader named Moses who keeps advising them to pack their bags and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. And nine times now, the Israelites have been forced to play a frustrating game of red light/green light; after each of the plagues, Pharaoh has relented in the face of God’s wrath, and then instantly reversed himself. It’s hard to plan for the future when you don’t know when the future will come. The Israelites are forced to live constantly in the moment. So much so, that when they finally do get to escape after the tenth and final plague, they do not even have time to let their bread rise and we get an entire delicious week free of chametz. But I noticed an obscure pasuk (verse) that put all of this planning and living into perspective.
This month shall be unto you the beginning of months;
it shall be the first month of the year to you. (Shemot Chapt 12, Verse 2)
It seems that God recognizes that the back and forth of the ten plagues might have planted the seeds for anxiety within the Israelites. I know…shocking. My neuroses goes all the way back to the Israelites in Egypt!? And here, all this time, I thought I inherited my anxiety from my Grandpa Marshall. God chooses this moment to talk about the calendar. How this month of Nisan is now a ‘first month of the year’, a new and fresh start for a people desperately in need of a clean slate. I often felt it jarring to hear this story of Pesach (Passover) read aloud each winter, so many months before I celebrate the seders with my family. But now it makes perfect sense to me. We just experienced the turning of a new year in the Roman calendar. And here we are learning about not just a new year in the Jewish calendar, but a new start for our people as they take steps toward freedom.
One can imagine the Israelites finally packing their belongings, loading bags on the backs of their camels. Our people were packing for what would turn out to be a 40 year journey in bags that, no doubt weighed about the same as some of the duffels that accompany campers on their pilgrimage to their summer haven. And, just as in the face of a camper about to head up to camp for the first, or second, or last time as a camper, one can imagine these Israelites…with one eye on the packing, and one eye on the future. A future when planning takes a backseat to living. I know it’s only February…but it’s okay. You may start packing now.