One of the defining moments of a week at camp at Ramah in the Berkshires is when the whole camp gathers, a sea of white shirts, in the amphitheater facing the agam, the body of water in the center of camp. The singing is sweet and soulful. The still lake absorbs the frenetic energy of the week, leaving us open to hearing the voice of God over the waters.
Water features prominently in Parshat Hukkat. Moshe strikes the rock in order to get water for the kvetchy people and God is angry. Really angry. One imaginative midrash suggests that Moshe struck the rock (instead of speaking to it as God commanded) because he was upset over the death of his sister Miriam.
Water was so much a part of her legacy. Miriam’s name means, “a sea of bitter waters.” She places her brother, Moshe, in the waters of the Nile in order to save him. She dances at the Red Sea in celebration of the Israelites safe crossing. Because of all this, the midrash I referred to earlier brings a tradition that for all of the years that the people wandered in the desert, a well of water, Miriam’s Well, miraculously accompanied them. When Miriam dies in this week’s reading, the well dries up, the people are thirsty, they rebel, and Moshe, usually compliant, makes his fatal error.
Miriam’s legacy, according to midrash, is clear. She possessed the ability to use water to save and to celebrate. She literally turns her name on its head- bitter waters become sweet and drinkable for the Children of Israel. When the people complain about water, I wonder if Moshe thought of his sister- and the ways she brought salvation through water.
It’s easy to look back on Miriam’s life and to say, “Ah there is her gift. She knows what to do with water!” But I wonder- at what point in her life she knew that that she had these gifts?
For most of us it takes a long time to discover the skills and characteristics that make us special. It takes a lifetime to understand what we can contribute to the world. Our legacies are not as neat as the one I painted for Miriam. We have gifts that we don’t use, ones that we never knew we possessed.
Part of the magic of camp is that, here, many kids discover those qualities. Walking around camp on the first full day of activity, it was thrilling to see kids trying on helmets to ride the bikes for the first time, breaking their teeth on a new Hebrew word, and watching kids shed their winter personalities for the ones they try on over the summer. Being here for Shavua Hachanah, prep week for the staff, it was particularly exciting to watch yesterday’s campers begin to assume the role of madrichim, counselors. Each one of them has the potential to be that legendary madrich/a who creates an unforgettable experience for our kids.
This Friday night, assuming the weather cooperates, we’ll gather at the agam. White shirts. Voices over the water. Poised to create our legacy. Or at least a great summer.
Rabbi Barry Dov Katz is the rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale. He has worked at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires for many summers. This year he is Rosh Mishlachat, coordinating the work of our Israeli staff, and Rosh Ivrit, head of the Hebrew program. He does not wear a tie at camp.