Shablog — The Beginner’s Mind Challenge

 Written By Meg Batavia, Jewish Programmer

“The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless.” -Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

“The 613th command is not simply about the Torah, but about the duty to make the Torah new in each generation.” –Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (England)


A pivotal learning moment for me happened during this summer’s staff training. One of my brilliant colleagues raised his hand to say, “We will be our best selves this summer if we have a beginner’s mind.” In the context of Camp Tawonga, this Zen Buddist idea means that no matter how many summers we have been here, or how many song sessions and campfires we’ve lead, we must challenge ourselves to approach each experience with an open mind, ready to learn and re-learn. Even if we have taught a million campers why we say the Motzi before meals, we must teach every new camper with the same attention and care we had the first time. When we are truly thinking with a beginner’s mind, we awaken in our hearts a deep and audacious compassion and capacity for inclusion.


On this Shabbat, I am struck by how Jewish this Zen Buddist idea is. Every week we read the same Torah portion we read exactly a year before (and next year we will read it again!) Each year, though the words on the page don’t change, we practice approaching the text with a beginner’s mind. If we didn’t, we would get to the same portion and scoff, “Been there, done that.” But that’s no fun. Where is the curiosity and challenge for self-growth in that?!


Just as we return to the same Torah portion every year, we return to the same story with each new session at camp; Sunday, the campers arrive, there is an opening campfire and bunks write their 10 commandments for a harmonious bunk. On Monday, campers participate in rotations to learn about all the activities, etc… While this might sound monotonous to some, to Tawongans, this is a beautiful opportunity. We have been exercising our beginner’s mind all summer –  and now, during Session IV, is the real test.


Torah challenges us to find new meaning in the same stories; in this last session, can we still wake up willing to see camp through the eyes of a first-time Tawongan? Can we continue to anticipate their needs and questions to help them feel extra welcomed and valued? By virtue of being  Tawonga staff, we have already accepted this challenge, and we will support each other in bringing our best beginner’s minds to breakfast every morning. Fourth session may be the last one this summer, but every moment is a chance to see camp anew.


So I challenge you, on this Shabbat, to invite in a beginner’s mind. Notice when you feel like saying, “I know, I know, I know!” and instead say, “Tell me more.” What can you learn from places you’ve been before? Opportunities for growth are everywhere if we choose to seize them, and every experience is fresh if our minds are open. Shabbat shalom!


Meg Batavia is our brilliant Jewish Programmer this summer. When not at Tawonga, Meg strives to bring camp to the real world through her role as Youth Director for Peninsula Temple Beth El and as a NIFTY Youth Advisor.

The Shablog series on The Pipeline blog is dedicated to Jewish content and shared on Shabbat. Some of you might remember that the Shablog used to be the name of Tawonga’s blog. Well, we didn’t want to let it go entirely, so are bringing it back on this special day set apart in the week.

Below, enjoy photos of this morning’s service. Check back later today here on The Pipeline for more updates and photos.