Details, Details, Details…or, What You Might not be Hearing from Your Teen

By Rabbi Loren Sykes, Director of Israel Immersives

The second of this week’s double Torah portion, Matot – Masei, opens with what could be described as a very dry travel blog. Occasionally, there is a verse that provides a small detail about one of the places visited by our ancestor. For the most part, however, we get very little information. Instead, we read lots of verses that sound like this:

“And they departed from Rephidim, and they camped in the desert of Sinai.
And they moved from the desert of Sinai, and they camped in Kivrot-Hata’avah.
And they moved from Kivrot-Hataavah, and they camped in Hatzerot…” Numbers, Chapter 33: 15 – 17

If I were to write about my day in the same style, it would read as follows:

I had a fantastic day! I…

4:30 am – Woke up
9:00 am – Drove to the Haas Promenade
11:30 am – Arrived at the Old City
1:00 pm – Went to a meeting in the Artist’s Colony
3:00 pm – Drove home

For our Sages, the lack of detail provided by the Torah opens a world of possibilities for creative interpretation, also known as Midrash. Midrash can come to teach a moral principle or value. It can also answer questions raised by the terse nature of the verses or serves as a form of rabbinic creative writing to fill in the missing details. Through Midrash, an otherwise dry text can come alive. Now, in good rabbinic tradition, I am going to fill in some of the missing details of my fantastic day.

Let’s start with my 4:30 am wake up. For over a week now, my dog, Hamilton, has started barking at this obscene hour. One good thing that comes from this early wake up is that I get to see magnificent Jerusalem summer sunrises. From the balcony of my apartment, I see the whole city (and the mountains of Jordan) turn from black to green to red to gold. I hear the city come alive, from silence to birds chirping to people taking their early morning walks. It turns out to be a pretty great way to start the day.

My first stop of the morning was at the Haas Promenade, a spectacular place to see the entire city of Jerusalem. I met our Sci-Tech Israel group which is being led by educator extraordinaire, Gary Kamen. The teens were completely focused on his explanation about Jerusalem and what made it a great location for ancient urban development. Gary was not only giving a history lesson. He incorporated geology, topography, and natural resource locations in a way that connected our modern Sci-tech teens to our ancient and enduring capital. It was truly beautiful to watch and to get a clear sense that the teens and staff had already created a strong sense of community. This is what success looks like!

My next stop was the Jewish Quarter of the Old City where I got to meet up with our Mitzvah Corps Israel teens and their staff. Gil Brav is another extremely talented educator working with NFTY in Israel this year and I was able to spend some time hearing from Gil and the staff about how the trip was going. Gil was glowing with praise for the participants, the way they were so welcoming to one another, and the way they had already found to bring different traditions together to form a new culture for the group. I got to talk with some of the teens and heard about their volunteer experience in Tirah, their meeting with representatives of Bayit Patuah, The Open House, which is a center for LGBTQ+ teens in Jerusalem, and their discussion about Women of the Wall and the fight for religious pluralism in Israel. I was amazed by the ability of the teens to shift from deep conversation about serious issues to less important topics like where to get the best Falafel or Shawarma in the Old City.

On the way back to my car, I stopped to see two old friends, artists, who were working in the Artist’s Quarter. I often see or talk on a weekly basis with one of the artists. I had not seen the other person in a few years. Both are incredibly talented and create art that is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and texts. After catching up on life, I found myself talking about ideas and options for future summers, for all NFTY in Israel trips and for creating either a “chavaya” opportunity or building an entire trip around the arts and Judaism. It was one of those conversations where I could already see what a future trip might look like, one of those conversations that is incredibly energizing.

Given that they are so busy right now and, frankly, because they are teens, you might be getting the Parashat Masei, short on detail, version of what your participants trip has been like up until now. Before you know it, they will be home and, after a chance to sleep for a few days and do laundry, you will start to get the midrashic version of their trip, the one that is rich in detail, full of lessons learned, and abundant in funny, meaningful and poignant stories. First, though, they have to have the experiences, enjoy them, and ruminate for a while about the impact they have on them as people, as Jews, and as global citizens.

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