Swinging Across the Jordan

I didn’t post last week because I was away at summer camp. Each summer for the past few years I have spent a week as a faculty member at URJ Camp Kalsman, a Jewish summer camp in Arlington, WA. I spend my week leading services, tutoring for b’nai mitzvah, teaching Torah, hosting a reception for the counselors and overall spending time with campers (some from my congregation) and staff.

It is also a bit of a retreat week for me as I get to spend the week away from home and work with nice accommodations, three meals a day and a beautiful setting up north. I use some of my down time to relax, but also do to preparation work—think about the High Holidays, do some planning for the year ahead, and read and study.

Getting outside is also part of the camp experience, of course. The camp sits on a lot of land, so I had occasion to hike around the camp lake, and into the woods in search of a waterfall. The former was easy, the latter was a bit of an adventure into the woods on a poorly marked trail, but my friend and fellow faculty member and I forged ahead and found it.

Leaving camp is also an option (as an adult its possible to leave camp, but it still feels weird in any event—if you have been to overnight camp you understand what I mean). I do usually leave camp once or twice—there is a nearby spot that I like to visit when I am at camp, a swimming hole on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River.

The swimming hole is off of Jordan Road, and I thought it was funny that there is a Jordan Road near a Jewish camp, especially as the weekly Torah reading cycle during mid- to late-summer brings us to Deuteronomy, when the Israelites are camped out on the eastern side of the Jordan River preparing to enter into the Promised Land. After their forty years of wandering, the Israelites are ready to move forward, but not before Moses gives one last speech. The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially this speech: part retelling of the journey, part review of the laws, part pep talk, part admonition for good behavior.

If you have been to Israel you know the Jordan River is not that impressive. It is a surprising modest body of water. The Stillaguamish off Jordan Road near Arlington is more impressive. The swimming hole I go to is at a slow part of the river, the rocky and sandy riverbed serves as a nice beach, and the water is deep, calm and cool.

There is a rope swing there, and while I was there this past week a bunch of kids had commandeered the rope. They took turns jumping off into the water. One girl was excited to try for the first time, but noticeably nervous. Her friends and her parents were there watching. Her father coached her on the proper technique—to wait until the rope is at its farthest point and then let go, he even said he would tell her when to let go. She was hesitant and stood there for quite a while as her parents and friends coaxed her on.

It was a tense moment, and I watched with interest. It was a moment that I felt in my gut— I thought back to times when I was in the situation of that girl, coaxed on to do something risky and scary, how nervous I was, and the feeling of internal and external pressure. And I felt it as a father, I understand those times when you are sensitive to pressuring your kids too much to do something they don’t want to do, while at the same time wanting to encourage your kids to stretch themselves and try something new.

Moses’s speech to the Israelites is in that same vein: coaxing them to do something risky, something nervewracking, all the while knowing that while it will be scary, it is a necessary step into the unknown that will allow the Israelites to grow as a people. Two rivers, two leaps forward.

The girl swung, and the look of joy, relief and accomplishment on her face when she came out of the water was electric. She swam over to her father and gave him a big bear hug. Her fears overcome, her goal accomplished, she offered appreciation to one who had shown her love and support at her leap.

In that moment I realized that we are all in that position at times, that of the Israelites or the girl on the swing: while we naturally want to be cautious, we know that ultimately without risk, without swallowing our nerves and taking a leap forward, we are not going to know what we are truly capable of.

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