While at West Point, Dwight D. Eisenhower began wrestling. He later said that through wrestling “I learned the mental discipline along with maintaining the physical stamina I would need for my future responsibilities.” In fact, there is a Torah of wrestling to be learned.

Torah describes Jacob wrestling with a beatific being. On the eve of a fateful meeting with his brother Esau, Jacob is filled with fear. While alone, Jacob encounters a heavenly adversary. They wrestle through the night.

By morning, the match is a draw. The text says that Jacob wrestled both with men and divine beings. In the end, Jacob succeeded in transcending his debilitating fear. He began the new day enlightened yet carrying forward his wounds. The activity of wrestling served a psychological purpose. After the full contact of wrestling, Jacob overcame his self-doubt. He learned that he had the strength to wrestle with all human antagonists.

Wrestlers report that the sport is as much a mental activity as a physical one. The principles of a good wrestler are applicable to everyday challenges. Appreciate you have control over how you approach an adversary. Will you engage calmly or with pressure or by sheer force?

Preparation is critical. A wrestler practices regularly before a match, just as we must practice building our own emotional and spiritual skills. We must spend time developing our techniques and skills.

While engaged in a challenging situation, you have control over whether to remain focused or retreat with your head down. To win, maintain a positive outlook. Those who succeed often have confidence in their abilities and approach. Those who lose are typically terrified of losing. You will not win every match for the rest of your life anyway…that isn’t realistic. If you lose…then you have the control to accept the loss and move on. If you are always afraid to lose, then you might never find success. Rather discover how the uncertainty of outcome can fire you up and fuel your performance, rather than poison your performance with panic.

The wrestler has practiced mental toughness as much as their takedowns. Mental toughness bolsters determination. At times we all feel overcome by negative thoughts. A consistent performer finds a way to feed off of even the negative things encountered in competition. Supplant negative thoughts with thoughts that make you feel worthy and powerful.

From Jacob to Dwight Eisenhower, wrestling built self-confidence and fostered the development of great leaders. The lessons learned from wrestling are a Torah for all times.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

“Everything is going to be alright” may be the greatest lie we tell our children.  Imagine the swaddled babe in its parents’ arms looking quizzically back up at their parent and asking, “what do you mean by alright?” The promise of protection from harm is wishful thinking. But the hopefulness it engenders might be enough to inspire patience and sustain us in challenging times.

For example, when Jacob runs away from his home to find safety with distant relatives, he spends the night in the wilderness. Placing a rock under his head he has a dream of angels on a ladder and hears God’s reassurances. God promises to protect him, to return Jacob to his home, and stay with him always. God’s promises were not a guarantee of an easy life. Soon after this revelation, Jacob was emotionally and financially abused by Lavan, his father-in-law-to-be. After working for seven years to secure the hand of Rachel he was

tricked into marrying Leah. After another seven years, he got his intended bride.  Jacob passed the theological marshmallow test. In the marshmallow test, a marshmallow was placed before a child with the instruction that if the child waited to eat the marshmallow, then he would be rewarded with an extra.  Lavan posed that test to Jacob, who was willing to wait

for the wife he wanted and ended up with a double.

Jacob must have had great faith.  He worked for seven years to secure a promised reward and was tricked. And then Jacob worked another seven years. Lavan could have tricked Jacob again, yet Jacob continued in his father-in-law’s employment for yet another seven years. Perhaps Jacob spent long lonely days with the goats wondering about God’s promise in the wilderness. What did God’s protection really mean? To a young man, seven years seems an eternity. And two decades as his father-in-law’s servant must have seemed unending. But God’s promise inspired Jacob to be patient.

Jacob must have understood that God’s promise was like a limited warranty. God is not a guarantor of happy outcomes. The only guarantee is that life will be challenging. When life feels broken, God inspires us to endure and to be strong.

I do not conceive God as all-powerful and directing every event. I am comfortable understanding God’s role is like that of a parent. Parents hope for the best but anticipate our children being tossed and roiled in their lives. Knowing the pain of parenting, I have empathy for God. Reading about the tenacity and patience of Jacob, I admire how he navigated the challenges in his life. At least he passed the marshmallow test.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Great challenges make us cry out for answers. Every person will confront deep physical pain or emotional trauma. When the ache becomes agony, when we feel about to snap, we might call out to the heavens with our unhappiness. Sometimes we get an answer.

In Torah, Rebekah conceived the twins Esau and Jacob. The twins struggled in her womb. Rebekah cries out, at Gen. 25:23, “if so, then why do I exist?” She inquired of God. And God answered with an explanation about the nature of the two children within her. “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

While God’s answer is correct, he did not answer Rebekah’s question. She questioned her own existence. How would you reply if someone you love is in agony, be it mental or physical or both? I am reminded of beautiful advice from Rabbi Mike Moskowitz about answering questions: “answer the person, not just the question.”

Too often in life, we respond with explanations. I don’t believe Rebekah was anticipating God’s answer describing the tortured future of her offspring. She likely just needed some encouragement to get through the day.

Dare I suggest that God could have tried a more compassionate response? “Rebekah, your pain is real. I hear your distress.” The first step is to acknowledge what you have heard and reflect that back.

“Rebekah, you can call upon me at any time and cry or scream as you need. You don’t need to hide how you feel when you are with me.” The second step is to create a safe space.

“Rebekah, you are strong and you are brave. I know that you wish you didn’t have to be strong and brave. And I know that you have the fortitude to persevere until this is over.” The third step is to acknowledge something positive.

“Rebekah, no one knows how much longer this will last for you. What coping mechanisms help you from day to day?” The fourth step is to acknowledge the challenges. For example, we may feel that we have lost control over our lives when we are in extreme pain. Finding the inner resolve to employ whatever methods are available to persevere is another challenge.

“Rebekah, pain can leave you wounded or even broken. Or pain can be a great teacher, so you learn how brave and strong you are, and how powerful you are to meet future challenges. I hope that this challenge will be for an education and not for lasting harm.” The final step is to provide a framework for moving forward, pointing to the possibility of a self-motivated reclaiming of one’s inner strength.

When the pain of living seems insurmountable, the answers we seek may be hard to discern. But the answer we need might be the presence, support, and encouragement of the people we love.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Since Torah times, people spend too much time on the business of making a funeral. Burying loved ones should not only be a commercial transaction. A funeral is a sacred and indispensable opportunity to say goodbye. Too often we waste much of that valuable time.

The Torah portion for this week opens with the death of Sarah. Abraham immediately begins the process of buying a burial site. The negotiation gets several verses of the Torah’s attention. And then Abraham’s beloved Sarah is buried.

Rarely are we given advice on how to organize a funeral. The business of burying is exhausting. Without prior planning, a plot must be purchased and a coffin selected. The traditions of a Jewish funeral are not always well known and are often expensive. The shroud, the washing of the body, and the shemirah (guarding of the body) may be upcharges. The three funeral homes in the local area provide funerals at widely varying price points, and with increasing levels of service.

While the grieving family is arranging and paying for the funeral, they are planning the ceremony as well.  Usually, a rabbi will officiate. Less than 1/3 of the Jewish population in the Greater Washington Area “has” a rabbi. Even if one belongs to a synagogue, the rabbi is not always available on short notice to officiate. Frantic calls to family and friends often begin the search for an officiant. Engaging a rabbi should not be another burden on the suriviors.

Ultimately, at a time when we should be grieving, we are engaged in the business of making a funeral.  A gift we can give to our families is the outline for our funeral.  A greater gift is having all the specifics in place – purchasing a plot, selecting a funeral home, selecting pallbearers, and some thoughts about who should speak.

When the tasks are completed, the real work begins. I advise people to let the tears flow. Your father or mother, or spouse, deserves your tears. Try to speak at the funeral. Tell a story and let yourself cry.

When asked to officiate at a funeral, I want to spend time helping the family with the grief and pain. If I didn’t know the person who died, I ask the family to share that person’s essence. Tell me about the person I did not get to know.

The legacy of Abraham is the loving-kindness he showed to strangers. We can improve on his legacy by having open conversations with our family about end-of-life planning. With proper preparation, we give our families the chance to grieve and, hopefully, heal.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

America was close to being governed by racists and anti-Democratic leaders. We aren’t the only country in danger of losing our democracy. Israelis elected 14 avowed racists to the Knesset who will pursue an anti-Democratic agenda. Italy has a fascist prime minister. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has crafted an “illiberal democracy.” The second-largest political party in Sweden has roots in Nazism. Populist, fascist, and anti-democratic leaders are circling the carnage of democracy. Those of us who live by justice, fairness, and egalitarianism must respond.

In this week’s election the top two issues motivating voters were the economy and abortion rights. Not democracy. Are we in denial? Perhaps too afraid to challenge the anti-democratic populists? Or are we just too comfortable to be bothered? For Jews, denial, fear, and comfort have never served us well.

When reading the story of Abraham, we extol his willingness to challenge God.  God reveals to Abraham the plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham challenges the Almighty. He asks: “God, will you sweep away the good with the bad?”

Who will stand up for democratic values?  Why are we not advocates like Abraham, who dared to push back against God? As former President Barak Obama has said “whatever you’ve done so far, is not enough!”

Sometimes I chose to stay home rather than protest. On many occasions, I enjoyed dinner at a restaurant that cost more than my donation to a candidate for office. Did I believe that watching MSNBC was a sufficient demonstration of my support for Democracy?

I pray that I am wrong, but these appear to me to be dangerous times. Anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia flourish because there are forces at play to eliminate people of different beliefs, skin color, or origins. No minority group in this country may be safe.

We failed to either isolate the racists or engage with our opponents. We retreated to the illusion of our houses as sanctuaries. Many dismissed the warnings of anti-hate groups that we live in perilous times.

I did not envision the United States convulsing with replacement theory and dystopian ideals. I failed to believe that isolationist, intolerant, and ignorant leaders can hold power in our government. And now I fear that words will lead to weapons and plowshares will turn into swords. I pray that the day never comes when we turn to God in desperation regarding our own fate and ask, “will you sweep away the good with the bad?”

As Elie Wiesel said, “the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” Let’s embrace our roles as the agents of positive change and the defenders of freedom.

Rabbi Evan Krame

 

The campaign for women’s equality begins in the Torah with the story of Sarah.  Sarah was the realist counterweight to her God-fearing husband, Abraham. Not until a millennium later, when we reach Deborah in the book of judges, do we glimpse women’s leadership and parity. And the “torah” of women continues right through to Taylor Swift.

Sarah is the dutiful wife of Abraham. She shleps along with him as he travels from Ur to Haran to Bethel. Sarah is beautiful and barren. She is abused when Abraham passes her off as his sister. Sarah is abusive when she mistreats her servant Hagar. Sarah is rarely quoted and never demonstrates her better nature. She scoffs at angels and God. She demands that Hagar be banished. Sarah is a biblical badass, struggling with her second-class status.

Fast forward to October 22, 2022. That day the news included threats to our democracy, fears of nuclear war, and weakness in our economy. And the big news was that a new Taylor Swift album “midnights” dropped at midnight. One week later, fans downloaded the album 423 million times. The music is haled for its honest reflections on Swift’s life and relationships. Americans are more likely to have listened to Taylor Swift than the news on October 22.

Swift has made her mark as an anti-hero through her musical and lyrical talents. She stands behind no man. Swift is unafraid to reveal her weaknesses. She is even self-deprecating but only as a form of self-empowerment.

Sarah’s persona is redeemable when understood as a woman focused on the long path. She moves to a “promised land”, enduring famine and degradation to achieve a greater good. She offers her handmaid for the sake of progeny but later expels her stepson for the sake of a God-given Jewish future. Sarah is selfless and determined in her role as the mother of a nation.

Taylor Swift’s Torah presents the opposite. Her self-awareness is disarming. Quinn Moreland wrote that this is “emotional bloodletting.” Swift owns her sass and her vindictiveness. Her career does not take a back seat to personal relationships. Rather Swift owes her career to her ability to share the travails of her love life. Her attraction to listeners lies in empowerment born of revealing every aspect of her persona.

In 2022, Taylor Swift’s narrative of self-enfranchisement is far more compelling than the chronicle of Sarah’s dutiful and supporting role. Yet, neither community building nor societal affirmation appears within the Swiftian storyline. Swift has brought us to the peak of self-absorption in mapping out the psychology of her emancipation.

The interpreters of the Torah of today understand Sarah as a victim and Swift as an anti-hero. We need a scripture that portrays a woman who is both confident in her strength and focused on the future.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Vladimir Putin is threatening the use of nuclear weapons. This news terrifies those paying attention, especially in Ukraine. However, the news benefits a few people. Those that benefit manufacture residential bunkers. The industry is booming in the US and England. The possibility of hiding in a nuclear safe room draws a comparison to the Torah’s story of Noah and the ark.

Noah did not need an ark until God spoke and gave Noah the blueprints. Noah faithfully executed the plan, set aside doubt, and operated on belief. God described the provisions needed and the animals to be transported. As fantastic as the predicted disaster might have seemed, Noah completed the task. As the text says, Noah was righteous for his times.

Who is Noah for today? Someone who invests in a bomb shelter for the home? The costs can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Perhaps the motivating factor is the desire to survive. Humans have the instinct to run from danger and to preserve our lives. Noah acted upon that instinct believing that an unseen God intended to destroy the world.

In succeeding chapters of the Torah, Abraham learns of God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham argues with God to reverse that plan. Unlike Abraham, Noah does not negotiate at all. He does not demand to bring other people on the ark. He does not beg God to spare the world. There are no Abrahams in Noah’s era. And this explains why the Torah says Noah was righteous in his time. Noah was not necessarily a tzaddik or righteous person. He was just better than anyone else in that era.

Once again, the world is confronting the prospect of nuclear war in a manner not experienced since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. A maniacal, evil dictator in Russia would ruin if not destroy the lives of millions in pursuit of power. Most of us choose to downplay the threat. A nuclear war defies common sense and seems unimaginable. And some are building bomb shelters for themselves to survive.

Who defines righteousness in our time as we are confronted with issues of survival? The congressmen who wish to cut funding to Ukraine? The xenophobes and racists who value their lives more highly than people of other skin color or ethnicity? Or the people who have so given up on humanity that they are more likely to spend $100,000 on a personal-size bomb shelter rather than engage with their neighbors in building a coalition of democracy-loving, peace-pursuing, and God-wrestling people.

Are you like the people in Noah’s time, sufficiently evil so that God is ready to abandon them? Or are you the ark-builder comfortable setting sail on your own? If neither is true, then it is time to read further in Torah so that we can all learn to become like Abraham. Our Abrahamic efforts are what is needed to save this world from harm.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

We added a new melody for the High Holidays. The song is “Renew, Rejoice” written by Carrie Newcomer. The songwriter is a quaker whose words connect with the meaning of the High Holidays. She writes: “renew, rejoice, begin to begin again.” Can Torah come from a Quaker? Certainly. So why was it that I wondered if our High Holiday service can adopt the melody from someone of another faith tradition?

The Jewish New Year starts just the way Newcomer’s song advises. On Rosh Hashanah, we renew.  On Simchat Torah, we rejoice; on Shabbat Bereshit, “we begin to begin again.” In Parshat Bereshit, we read that God’s creative energies fashioned a variety of plants and animals. Yet there was only one kind of human. No religious divides, no ethnic identities, and no racial divisions separated one person from the other. Fast forward a few millennia and identities divide us, one from the other. I am male, Jewish, American, white, educated, English-speaking and boomer. What are you?

Jewish identity brings us together as a group but Judaism sometimes perpetuates the divides among peoples.  As an alternative, some Reform and Reconstructing Judaism synagogues have tried to unravel the divisions. For example, prayers were amended to remove reference to Jews as the chosen people. Intellectually, the amendment makes sense. In the beginning, God created people, not Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus, and more. If all are God’s creations, then we might be better off learning from one another in our pursuit of Godliness. Focusing on our differences has not served anyone well in history.

The concept of chosenness has been a double-edged sword for Jews. To be chosen is to connect with God as a favored child. In difficult times, Jews have taken comfort in their elite identity. And yet I am reminded of the story of the Jewish man who gathered a petition and brought it up to Heaven. The petition read: “God, we the chosen people respectfully request that you choose someone else for a while.”

Judaism is special. Our people are treasured. And I favor any mechanism by which we connect with God. Adapting a song by a Quaker songwriter or deleting chosenness from prayers are simple ways to remind ourselves that we are all the designs of one Creator. We can be special but not superior, distinct but not different.

The greater challenge facing Judaism is not curing us of our sense of chosenness. The problem is offering Jews a spiritual life worth choosing. I’m devoting my rabbinate to figuring out how to renew our spiritual life and rejoice in our Judaism. It may require considering what is inspiring in other religious customs and secular creations. Our religion may be millennia old, but it is time for us to find new meaning in Torah, even if the inspiration comes from outside our tradition. so we can begin to begin again.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

An effective technique to defuse a pending argument is “to pregame” the events that give rise to tension. For example, we will inevitably debate the process each year of setting up our sukkah. The construction is fraught with peculiar details. Where in the yard shall we place the sukkah? Should we change the configuration? How many pieces of plastic fruit hanging from the rafters is the right amount? Before we begin the construction process, I call out the tension to come. This year I offered, “let’s agree that I will build, and you will correct me as we go.” We both laugh and steel ourselves for the annual sukkah-building challenges.

In the end, we put a lot of effort into creating a beautifully incomplete structure. The process seems a metaphor for our lives. We spend much time debating the details of our days. Yet, the structure is always flimsy; wind-blown, attacked by yellow jackets, and sometimes a washout. The imperfections are either a distraction or a source of joy.  You just need an awareness of the true meaning of the day.

Despite the debates and the dampened plans, Sukkot is the happiest of Jewish holidays. We are commanded in Torah to be happy on our holiday. Joy comes imperfectly.

As I mature, I have learned to better cope with life’s shortcomings. I finally understand Richard Carlson’s book “don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” The sukkah is a little crooked. The plastic grapes hang a little too low. That’s the small stuff. And it is all a reason to smile.

What is essential is to find joy in life’s endeavors. The pleasure of sukkot is about gathering, appreciating the change of seasons, and being grateful that we have warm, dry homes into which we can retreat from our imperfect sukkahs. We can begin to find happiness when we can laugh at our own imperfections. What matters is not what is deficient about us but about the way we build a life with relationships, appreciation, and gratitude.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

What is the key to happiness? Teddy Roosevelt said that the key to happiness is having low expectations!  Buddha said: that happiness doesn’t depend on what you have or who you are. It solely relies on what you think. The Capitalist path to happiness may be just having friends poorer than yourself. But I believe Judaism offers the best guide to happiness.

Among all the positive psychology books on happiness I own, I only needed one. Our Torah. This week Torah instructs us on the delivery of the first fruit offerings. Upon completion of the task,

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֣ בְכׇל־הַטּ֗וֹב אֲשֶׁ֧ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֛ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּלְבֵיתֶ֑ךָ אַתָּה֙ וְהַלֵּוִ֔י וְהַגֵּ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃

“you shall enjoy, together with the [family of the] Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that your God has bestowed upon you and your household.”

Dissecting Deuteronomy 26:11, you could create a TED Talk on happiness. The elements of happiness are these.

1. Have the right attitude. As Winnie the Pooh said, “the most important decision I will make today is to be in a good mood.” Unless you are open to enjoyment you won’t feel happiness. The text offers a divine urgency to being happy. If God wants you to be happy, who are you to do otherwise!

2.  Come together with others. Spend time with varieties of people. People who you respect and people you don’t yet know. Some people who are richer, some poorer, some more powerful, and some less so. Happiness increases through companionship.

3.  Share what you have.  Be generous and be kind.  However much or little you own, sharing creates happiness.

4.  Whatever you have, be grateful. You have been blessed with opportunities. Each day offers something new, and the possibility of something wonderful. If you are blessed with much, appreciate the bounty. If you are blessed with health, be supremely thankful. If you are blessed with friends and family, treasure them.

With the New Year approaching, I am focusing on gratitude. I am grateful even for the opportunity to reflect on mistakes I’ve made and opportunities I’ve missed. I’m grateful for my community with whom I will pray and eat and sing and laugh.

Thank you for reading my blogs all year long and for your feedback which has been so thoughtful and encouraging. And I thank God for new opportunities for us to enjoy life together.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame