I ran away from camp. Yes, I was that kid.
I went to summer camp every summer from the age of 8 until the age of 15, when it was no longer a yearly priority for me. Every summer I’d pack my bags and head to sleep-away camp. Jewish residential camp provided me the opportunity to be immersed in Judaism, to live a life filled with song, dance, art, swimming, gaga, and learning.
On paper, the idea was magical. In reality, the intense experience of living in close quarters with twelve girls in one cabin for eight weeks was often just a little too much for this introvert. Like clockwork, I’d find myself overwhelmed by the intensity of experiences and emotions, and I’d get the urge to run . . . away. I became known as the runaway camper because once every summer, when something overwhelmed me, I would bolt from my cabin down the dirt road, out the camp gate (before we had locked gates). I’d take off down the road, running as fast as I could until I could just barely see the camp sign. I was a counselor’s dream, as you can imagine. And every year my counselor would tell me, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” In other words, the thing that upsets you or bothers you won’t change just by running away from it.
There’s some comfort in knowing the Israelites tried to run away from their problems too. This week we read parshat Beshalach. We find the children of Israel on their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness. The Egyptians go after them, but God intervenes and saves them. The Israelites continue through moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them and moments of the occasional temper tantrum at God because the journey through the desert isn’t perfect. God provides manna, and the people want more. God provides water, and the people complain that it doesn’t meet their standards. Exodus, like a 40-year sleep-away camp, is a rollercoaster of emotions.
In Egypt, the life of the Israelites was harsh and exhausting. There was no independence and no possibility of change. When God and Moshe offer them the opportunity to leave this environment, they can’t get out fast enough. The Israelites were running from their “problem” of slavery. Once in the wilderness, they realize whether you’re free or enslaved, life is not without its problems. As the Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century Hassidic rabbi taught, “Often in life, we think we can escape our problems by running away, only to find our problems running after us.”
Did my escaping from camp solve anything or simply create new problems? Likely a little of both. Allow me to paint my fleeing from camp in a new light. Yes, it was a misguided solution that probably scared and annoyed my counselors, but it was also my way of removing some of the pent-up frustration so I could clear my head and return with fresh eyes and calmer emotions.
Even once the Israelites are out of reach of the Egyptians, perhaps in their minds they’re still fleeing. Perhaps the real “running away” is their use of a new, defiant voice that, for the first time, is able to make itself heard loud and clear.