Dvar Torah – Parashat Hukkat

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written by Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky

We read Parashat Hukkat this Shabbat, we say farewell to a great generation. The lives of both Miriam and Aaron come to an end in this week’s Torah reading, and we – the children of Israel – are compelled to go on without these national and spiritual parents.

I’m thinking of this ancient generational passage because of a major passing in the Ramah family just more than a week ago. Sylvia Ettenberg, a long-time dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary, passed away at 95 years old, just before last Shabbat.

Mrs. Ettenberg was instrumental in many of our Conservative movement’s most important educational initiatives, especially our Ramah system. She was one of the motive forces behind the founding of the original Camp Ramah in Wisconsin in 1947. The stories of her creativity and toughness are legion: stories of her long and difficult train journeys from New York to the mid-west to oversee the birth and early operations of the camp, of her striding across the camp’skikkar in elegant clothes and high heels, and of her inspiration of the staff, who – more than a little intimidated – worked frantically to please her.  Her Zionist commitment and love of Hebrew were major features of her life: during the siege of Jerusalem during the War of Independence, she rode through the city, pregnant, lying on the floor of buses as bullets whizzed by.

I sat at Sylvia Ettenberg’s funeral last Sunday thinking that at this very moment, at Ramah camps all over the country and in our own CRB, staffers young and old were preparing for another summer of joyful, intense Jewish learning and living.  We and our kids are all the beneficiaries of Sylvia’s tremendous legacy.  Even as we mourned a person who passed, we were also doing the work that enables her to live on.

Think of the words of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes 1.4]: dor holekh v’dor ba, a generation goes away, and a new one takes its place. As we say farewell to another among the generation of Conservative movement giants, the founders, builders, sustainers of our most important institutions, we should think about who takes their place and who moves their work forward.

Let us return to the parasha, and the moving scene of Aaron’s death. Moses leads the aged High Priest and his son and successor up Mt. Hor. With all the myriads of Israel watching below, Moses removes the High Priest’s special vestments from Aaron and lays them upon Elazar. Aaron will do his sacred work  no longer. But the work is not done: his child and then generations of descendants must rise to the occasion and take their places in turn.

Dor holekh v’dor ba, a generation goes away, and a new one takes its place.

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