As the people approach the end of the their journey through the wilderness, Moses prepares them for the final crossing into the land of Canaan. Though they have been in striking distance of the land for some time now, only a precious few have actually laid eyes on the land God has promised them. Of those, only Joshua and Caleb are still alive, the others have died along with the rest of the Exodus generation. In our parasha, Moses seems intent on trying to conjure a picture of the land of Israel for the people as they are about to finally enter. “The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land,” Moses tells them, perhaps remembering the disappointment of the incident with the spies, “A land with streams and spring and fountains issuing from plain and hill.” He goes on, engaging in a bit of salesman’s hyperbole, “A land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing.” The message is clear and direct: the promised land is perfect. The land will sustain them; the land will keep them fed.
But the agricultural bounty of the land is not the only attraction. As the real estate folks might say, it’s all about location, location, location. And it turns out that from God’s perspective, the land of Israel is perfect for entirely different reason. Later in the parasha, Moses again describes the land, and this time the fitness of the place is conceived of in quite different terms. “The land you are about to enter and possess is not like Egypt,” Moses tells the people, “There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors.” Egyptian agriculture is fed by the Nile, and thus irrigation is the norm. Not so Israel. “The land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven.” As anyone who has ever been in Israel knows, the land needs rain. There is no mighty river to bring water on demand. There is only the rain to make the flowers (and everything else) grow. And this, it turns out, is what makes Israel the perfect land from God’s perspective, “It is land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord always keeps his eyes.”
At first glance Moses seems to be explaining that the land of Israel is a place where God can keep a Divine watch on the people of Israel. But that cannot be, since we know from the book of Exodus that God’s eye can be cast onto whatever land God wishes. Instead, it becomes clear that what Moses means here is that Israel is a place that will require the people to rely on God’s grace in the form of rain. The condition of the land of Israel thus gives the people the fateful choice Moses outlines in the next few verses: follow God’s commands and the rain will come, or fail to do so and die of famine when the sky refuses its bounty. The Promised Land is a land of plenty, a land of abundance, and it is also a land whose very climate will require the people to be mindful of the laws God is giving to them.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, this plan never really works. The people are a rebellious lot before they enter the land, and the they are pretty rebellious once they cross over as well. As the later books of the Bible will all attest in some form or another, the people of Israel never seem to be able to live within the rules God has given them. In the Bible’s later narratives, it is usually not famine that punishes the people’s sinfulness—that lot falls to war and plague—but it is clear that the constant threat of drought as described by Moses in our parasha does little to keep the people in check. In the end, when the sins become so great, exile—as promised elsewhere in the Torah—falls upon the people of the land. A place, lovely and fecund as it might be, cannot alter the destiny of the people of Israel.
As a Camp Director, I believe in the power of a place. I think people are different at Camp. I think prayer can be a little deeper, music a little more powerful and the bonds of friendship just that much stronger in this particular corner of the world. For a little over eight weeks each summer, this place in Wingdale, New York is transformed into its own version of the land of Canaan: a patch of ground that somehow means more after we arrive than before. We strive to live up to the generations who have come before us in this place, and we try to protect it so that we can pass it along to those who will follow us.
And yet what we do at Camp—what we try to do—must ultimately transcend the place itself. A popular camp saying is “ten for two” meaning we wait ten months of the year to get to the two months we get to spend at Camp Ramah. I love that campers and staff care so deeply about this place, feel so connected to what we do here, that they live their lives in anticipation of our relatively brief time together. But I would hope that the essence of Camp can cross the threshold of our property and proceed out into the world. Because I believe that the Jewish world, and the world at large, could use a bit of what we do, of what we are. I would hope that our campers and staff come back to the world with a little more courage, a little more compassion and lot more passion for Judaism and the Jewish people. And I hope they will find a way to share what they have found in this place and spread it to the many, many places they reside. Location matters, and for a short time we have had the privilege of living in our own personal Promised Land. But now the time has come to leave, and as we do, I hope we remember that what we became in this place is not tied to any bunk or building. Camp is nearly over for the season, but I hope that, wherever we go from here, a little bit of Ramah always and everywhere goes with us. The place matters, but the people matter most of all.