Shalom Shaarei Kodesh,
I want to begin by thanking our congregation for allowing me this time to serve as Rabbi in Residence at Camp Ramah. It is not lost on me that this is a great privilege to be allowed this time by our congregation. Not only do I get to spend quality time with our young congregants, but I also help make a difference for hundreds of young Jews across the South. For those who would like to learn more about the positive long term benefits of sending your child to a Ramah camp, I highly advise the following article which is backed up by data: Send Your Child to a Jewish Summer Camp: Case Study - Camp Ramah by Rabbi Alan Silverstein.
When I hear about people lamenting about the future of Judaism, I am inspired by the young people I meet at Ramah every summer, from the campers to the staff. I try and make every summer different, taking on a new and unique experience. For example, one summer I became involved in a glass blowing project (you can read more about that here). This summer, I thought perhaps I would become more physically active and climb the tower and wall, but alas, that wasn't in the card for me this year, but something unexpected was. This summer, I was part of a very special project called Kesher Tefillin led by Rabbi Noah Greenberg who lives in Sefad, Israel. Rabbi Greenberg travels across the world to Jewish summer camps and schools to help children make their own set of tefillin. Each participant, both boys, and girls, takes a raw piece of parchment, which they cut, mold, fold, emboss and color, creating their very own tefillin.
They select and insert the parchment scrolls, attach and tie the straps, and they study the sources reviewing the holiness of the tefillin, the Halacha (Jewish law) of making and using them. When completed, they finally don their new tefillin with the appropriate kavanot (intentions) and blessings.
I had the chance to make my own set of tefillin, and it was a deeply meaningful experience. I have had two sets of tefillin in my life, the tefillin I received from my grandfather who purchased them in Israel before I became a bar mitzvah, a pair I bought when I lived in Israel, and this pair. But this pair is different because not only did I make them, but I put the parshiot, the scrolls with the verses from the Torah, in the boxes. The boxes that we call tefillin have an interesting name: Batim, literally translated as houses. As we made the tefillin, we had to figure out when they were deemed holy and therefore, needing to be treated differently. Was it when they were fully assembled or just when they were painted black and resembled the shape of the tefillin? The answer is that the tefillin become holy once when we put the scrolls in the boxes, the moment we had to treat them differently. This got me thinking about our own 'homes', especially our spiritual homes, and when they are deemed holy. A big moment of moving into a new dwelling is when we put the mezuzot, which contain parchment with the Shema written on them, on our doors. Often, the first thing a synagogue purchases to take their real first step is a sefer Torah, a scroll with words. Here we see a clear message - holiness comes from our words.
Last week's parashah, Balak, highlighted the importance of words, both positive and negative.   We read the following: "He (Balak) sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of his people, to call for him, saying, "A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the "eye" of the land, and they are stationed opposite me. So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed." (Numbers 22:5-6) Balak, the king of Moab, looked at what Israel had accomplished in their time in the Wilderness, looking at their victories, and probably thought to himself, 'I cannot defeat this nation with just might, I need to employ an unconventional tactic and use words.' There is an old saying, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Unfortunately, we know that this is not the case; words can hurt and can lead to destruction. This past Sunday, we observed a minor fast, the 17th of Tammuz which signifies the breaching of the gates of Jerusalem by the Romans and the destruction of the Holy Temple just three weeks later on the 9th of Av. Our rabbis teach us that the Holy Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Hinam (hatred unleashed) between Jews. The Talmud tells a famous story of two men ( the Kamza and Bar Kamza account) whose argument led to the destruction of the second Temple. 

Talmud Tales: The Rise of Yavneh: Kamza, Bar Kamza & the destruction of the second temple
Talmud Tales: The Rise of Yavneh: Kamza, Bar Kamza & the destruction of the second temple

I often say that camp is a bubble. The news events that consume us in the real world often do not penetrate the bubble of camp. But during my time at Camp Ramah, I was disappointed to see the news of the day, the leaders of our country using their words for curses instead of blessing, and their ripple effects.
Balaam, the non-Jewish prophet for hire, was charged with the task of cursing the people of Israel, but every time he stood facing them, about to utter words to curse them, God put blessing in his mouth. What is implicit in this scenario is that his words actually matter, because if they didn't, why wouldn't God just let him curse Israel?
Our words matter - our curses can harm others, and our blessings can bring peace to the world. It is during this time, the three weeks leading up to the 9th of Av, when we focus on blessing and reflect on how our words can sometimes get the better of us. These three weeks allow us to think deeply about our words and focus on blessing because we know the consequences of curse.
I would like to end with a blessing that related to the use of words that I encountered yesterday morning. On Thursday morning, our community celebrated when one of our religious school students, Matthew Archambault, became a bar mitzvah. Together, we donned tefillin, Matthew led us in prayer, read Torah, and shared a beautiful dvar torah on his parashah, Pinchas. On Shabbat, I do not carry or phone on me, but on the weekdays, it is generally in my pocket. During the service, my phone beeped telling my I had a text message. I took it out of my pocket to silence it and on the screen was a picture from the Abram's family who was celebrating their son Owen, Matthew's classmate in our religious school, becoming a bar mitzvah at the egalitarian Kotel in Jerusalem. The rabbi who officiated at Owen's bar mitzvah ceremony, Rabbi Arie Hasit, visited our congregation in May as a rabbi in residence. Several days ago he asked if I would like to share some words for Owen over text. On the morning of Owen's bar mitzvah ceremony, at the holiest site for Jews, the remnants of our Holy Temple, Rabbi Hasit shared my words of blessing with Owen. They texted me the picture and words of gratitude.

Here I was, standing between two boys who were becoming Jewish adults, across the world, both wearing tefillin, the houses with holy words in them, both speaking the holy words of our ancestors and both sharing beautiful words of Torah. I showed Matthew the picture of Owen at his bar mitzvah ceremony that occurred in Israel that morning (seven hours prior), and he smiled and wished him a mazal tov, and Owen wished him one right back through text. In this age of freely flowing information, our words went across the world in an instant to bless.
All too often, we use the gift of the internet to curse, to be snarky, to tear people down. On this morning, the gift of the information age brought two boys, and two families, together in blessing and simcha/celebration.
This will be my final weekly message until I return from my sabbatical time. I look forward to returning rejuvenated and energized for the high holiday season and the year ahead. During the month of Av, we will mourn the loss of the Temple and millions of Jewish lives taken, our center, the Holy Temple, destroyed, and our people scattered; but just days later, we will celebrate love and rebirth as we mark the holiday of Tu B'Av. As we journey to this month where words take on an added weight, let us be mindful of the words we use; that we use them to build, not to destroy, to bless and never curse.
Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David Baum
Follow me on Twitter @rabbidavidbaum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh 
561-852-6555 | |