William Hamilton

Life-saving camping

A friend shared a story from earlier this week. He was on a call with an Israeli doctor talking about a shared project. The doc was driving home to give his wife and kids a quick hug before rushing to an unplanned 2:00 am flight. He didn’t say so, but my friend knew that the doc was headed to Turkey as part of Israel’s 450-member search and rescue delegation. In the midst of their conversation, the guy got a text. Then he said, “I’ve got to turn around, the flight is now at 8:00 pm, I’m heading straight to the base.” 

Those six hours, the difference between 8:00pm and 2:00 am, can make all the difference. When desperately digging to save lives in frigid conditions, every moment counts. One experienced member of the search and rescue team described how careful they had to be when trying to explain to grieving civilians who pleaded with them to pull a loved one out from a neighboring building. If their loved one had already died, they would indeed help recover them, but they needed to first attend to those who were still alive. 

Being able to sift and sort and focus on what needs to be done. This is a vital life-skill. Amidst all of the self-inflicted political wreckage out there among words posted and words slung, when an earth-shattering emergency arises, clarity and prompt-action are primary. 

The phrase Thou shalt not hovers around our conscience. By contrast, Once upon a time introduces a story that crawls inside our hearts. It’s no accident that the Torah tells once upon a time stories before it reveals laws. Yet there’s something that’s easy to miss in this week’s giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. I’ve missed it for years. The staging and preparation are described like telling a story. “The people journeyed…they arrived… then they camped in the wilderness. Israel camped (vayichan) opposite the mountain” (Ex. 19:2). 

Camp. That’s how Israel was arranged. They camped at Mt. Sinai. It’s a curious setting for the historic instance when divine will comes close, when it arrives within our reach. Why camp? 

The word for camp comes from the same Hebrew word that means favor (chen). It can also allude to glowing grace. A practical aspect of that favor is having the gracefulness to distinguish the urgent from the important. After all, camp is impermanent. This is an ironic key to its lasting influence. 

Israeli search and rescue will soon give way to hundreds more medical professionals that will encamp to triage and treat suffering survivors. Let’s take time this weekend to listen to and for stories. As they encamp inside our hearts, may they inspire our desire to do the kinds of deeds that Mt. Sinai expects from us.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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