When I speak about an animal in the Torah, I usually like to have some experience with that animal. I can’t say, however, that I have much experience with camels. I do have a photo of a very happy and suntanned thirteen-year-old me riding a camel, but I have no memory of the experience.
On my native continent, horses, rather than camels, did the work of transporting people and goods long distance. Horses, when they are healthy, are beautiful, graceful, and sensitive. Sometimes they seem to know what you’re thinking better than you do, because they can read your feelings from your touch. In the ancient middle east, only royalty could afford these delicate animals. Ordinary businesspeople worked with hardy camels.
In honor of our Board and key volunteers who go the distance, I would like to talk about the camel. Camels have the physical and emotional ability to adapt to quick changes in their environment. They have strong immune systems that keep them healthy under stress. Socially, they are not territorial. When they have a shared goal, small groups join together into large herds of several hundred animals.
Camels have the very qualities we need to create and maintain Or Shalom.
The Talmud teaches that even these amazing animals need care and feeding. Rabbi Eliezer says, “As a camel, so is its load,” reminding us that a healthy camel can carry a greater load. An anonymous teacher says, “One must not stuff a camel with food, but one may put food into its mouth.” Meaning: a camel is proudly independent, and wise enough to know what it needs. Don’t smother it, but do offer it help! (Sotah 13b, Shabbat 155b)
The history of the Hebrew word for camel gives a sense of the respect that camels commanded in the ancient world. The Hebrew word for camel is gamal.In the early books of Torah, the noun gamal refers to an animal, and the verb gamal means “to become independent.” A bit later in Jewish history, the word gamal refers to a measure of wealth. A gamal is the amount of precious goods a single camel can carry. Specifically, it’s a gift one noble would give another. In the sophisticated spiritual poetry of Tehillim (Psalms), the verb gamal refers to God’s act of giving gifts to human beings. In Tanakh, the camel is a strong, independent animal, who carries gifts both material and spiritual.
This week we read from Parshat Chayei Sarah. After Sarah’s death, Avraham decides he would like his son Yitzchak to marry a relative. So Avraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to their hometown. Eliezer travels with a caravan of 10 camels loaded with gifts. At the town well, Eliezer prays for the ability to discern the right wife. He decides that any young woman who says, “Drink, and I will water your camels, too” will be the right one. Rivkah says the magic words, cares for the camels, and receives the gifts.
The cycle of giving and receiving – all expressed in the little Hebrew word, gamal.
You may know that the prophet Ezekiel describes the revitalization of the Jewish people after the Babylonian exile as a valley of dry bones coming to life. Jewish tradition has borrowed from this story to teach that at the time of Mashiach, all human beings who have ever died will be resurrected. The Zoharborrows from the story of Eliezer, Rivka and the camels to offer a teaching about the qualities that lead to a resurrected spirit. (Zohar on Vayeshev)
Imagine it’s the time of the coming of the Mashiach, and the time of the resurrection. God recruits the gifted matchmaker Eliezer to match souls with newly resurrected bodies. How does Eliezer approach this massive task of discernment? He makes use of a caravan of ten camels – that is, ten noble gifts that come from God, the ten sefirot. Ten divine attributes, including a good head, wisdom, understanding, compassion, judgment, balance, endurance, gratitude, groundedness, and spirit. Using these attributes, Eliezer discerns that the first to be resurrected will be people whose jugs are filled with the spirit of Torah. Like Rivkah, these holy people will be able to revitalize others.
Now imagine that it’s not the time of Mashiach, but just an ordinary day, a day of breathing life into this project that we call Or Shalom. We’ll have to rely on our camels: volunteers and staff who can adapt to change, stay healthy under stress, and form groups with shared goals. We’ll have to offer our gentle help. And we’ll all have to ride our inner spiritual camels: understanding, compassion, judgment, gratitude and more. If we do this, we will be sharing our noble gifts with one another, and truly experiencing God’s gemilut chesed, gifts of love.
— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2010