I remember my first summer as a CIT at Camp Ramah in Nyack. I have spent many summers there, as a counselor and Rosh Edah (Division Head), but it was those initial weeks during my first summer that I truly learned what leadership looked like from the camp’s director, Amy Skopp Cooper. Being a CIT was a ton of fun and a lot of work — a balancing act between caring for children and also having to work in the kitchen, serving hundreds of hungry children and even hungrier counselors on a daily basis. Admittedly, on hot summer days, I would hide in the walk-in fridge with other CIT’s – using this space as our experimental air conditioning – and avoid being asked to bring a fourth serving of grilled cheese to a table of fifth graders. I was about to enter college and clearly had a lot to learn about leadership. But ultimately, Amy taught me the most important of lessons.
Every afternoon featured ice cream popsicles and sandwiches on the migrash, the grass field in the center of camp where only hours earlier we would begin our days with Israeli dancing. By week three, you could notice the divots made in the sod from the extreme ruach-filled dancing to HaYeladim Koftzim. The mid-summer look of the migrash was evidence of joyful Judaism in action. But each afternoon, that same field was full of ice cream wrappers, a sign of satisfied campers, and well, children who aren’t so good at cleaning up after themselves.
During those first few weeks of my CIT summer, I vividly remember walking through camp, and speaking with Amy Skopp Cooper about the Jewish future. As we walked and had a very intense and yet quite informal conversation, she slowly would pick up a piece of litter and hold unto it until we found a trash can. I noticed the humble act and began to do the same. So did the other CIT’s around us. She never delegated this responsibility, expecting someone else to take it on. Rather, humbly as the camp director, she understood that the smallest of acts as a leader are the holiest.
In Parashat Tzav, we not only learn of the multitude of sacrifices that the priests were to perform, but also of their responsibility to clean up those sacrifices.
“He [the priest] shall take off his [priestly] vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes the outside the camp” (Lev. 6:4).
The priests did not delegate such “dirty work” to those who were lowest on the totem pole. Instead, they understood the importance of rolling up their sleeves. The sacred work wasn’t just about the ritual. It was about the everyday work that we too often take for granted, delegate to someone else, or ignore altogether. In fact, Rabbeynu Bahya, of 14th century Spain, clarifies that this act of “cleaning up” was a part of the sacrifice itself. In essence, he was saying that this act, the simple and everyday, was as holy as the ritual of sacrifice, if not more so. The haftarah for this Torah portion, taken from the book of Jeremiah, suggests that we weren’t even meant to offer meaningless sacrifices.
Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, explains:
“For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you’” (Jer. 7:22-23).
Jeremiah is suggesting that if we only focus on the ritual and miss everything else, then the ritual becomes meaningless. If we only look at the letter of the law, and ignore the meaning behind it — the intent — then it is meaningless. If our holy acts become rote, devoid of any form of intention, then they are meaningless. Furthermore, walking in God’s ways, the everyday acts of life and our routines, are holier than the occasional rituals themselves.
Maybe then it is not those rituals that matter most of all. Ritually speaking, anyone can learn how to recite the proper words of liturgy. B’nai mitzvah can learn the trope to chant an Aliyah of Torah. From a leadership perspective, an elected official can put out a carefully edited and wordsmithed press release. But what do they do when the cameras are off them? What do they say when a journalist isn’t asking for a quote?
Our holiest of acts — those that define who we are — aren’t the pomp and circumstance of ritual. It’s not the sacrificial ritual acts. It’s the everyday and simple acts. It’s the cleaning up of the ashes by the priest. It’s the picking up of the ice cream wrappers on the migrash by the camp director. It’s the way an elected official acts when they aren’t posing for a photo shoot. It’s our everyday obligations to each other. That is what should define us. So let us all be more aware of our simplest acts. They have the power to be our holiest acts.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky