I lost patience recently and directed some unkind words toward my mother. She asked are you mad at me because I haven’t been feeling well? That soul-searing question reminded me of Torah’s lessons about parent-child relationships.

Torah states that the person who “curses” a father or mother shall be put to death. I doubt that Torah meant for such a harsh result. In biblical times, such a death would have been by stoning. The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra suggested that this rule applies only to a curse that invokes God’s name. By that limiting understanding, the prohibition is about reverence for God.

On the other hand, modern translations state that one who “insults” his father or mother shall be put to death. The broader translation lowered the standard for stoning. As I may have insulted a parent on a rare occasion, I am troubled by this translation.

In the ten commandments, Torah directs us toward always honoring our parents. Consistently honoring parents may seem an unrealistic directive. The parent-child relationship is often highly emotional and sometimes troubling. Some parents may not be deserving of respect. Their children struggle with the obligation to assist an abusive and aging parent.

The challenge of caring for parents has been a mixture of love and sacrifice, dedication and frustration. Even in “normal times” adult children of aging parents suffer as well. Those adult children seem to become a parent to their own parents. The role reversal alone is unsettling even for the healthiest of family relationships.

Assisting older parents during this pandemic tests the mettle of many adult children. Every action to assist an elderly parent is more complicated and emotionally agitating. We battle to make doctor appointments, show up for telehealth sessions, and second-guess the need to go to an overcrowded hospital. Everything that was routine is now complex. The kindest and most caring of adult children lose their cool under trying circumstances. Sadly, the easiest target for expressing frustration and disappointment is the elderly parent.

As the adult child caring for a parent in the time of covid, I’ve had to navigate what the Torah demands of me. The stress of being a caretaker in a time of covid can make the saintliest child a bit of a sinner. The task is hard, the day is long and the job is never done. Please forgive me mom if I offer an unkind word or get impatient. I might do it again. Yet, I’ll try to remember what I think Torah teaches; honoring a parent is supposed to be like honoring our relationship with God.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Burt Lazarow z”l had been held hostage in the B’nai Brith building for nearly three days.  Burt was a smart and kind man, a lover of Yiddish and Yiddishkeit. I first became friendly with Burt in the 1980s. I have been thinking about Burt’s ordeal since hearing about the attack on Beth Israel synagogue in Texas. There is a lesson about how we cannot ignore the persistent threats to Jews in America.

The story of Burt’s ordeal begins with an American, Ernest McGhee, who was born in Indiana in 1921. McGhee was discharged from the U.S. Army on grounds of mental instability. He worked as a jazz drummer in New York City. McGhee converted to Islam and changed his name to Hamaas Khaalis. Khaalis split with the Nation of Islam in 1958 to found the Hanafi Movement. In 1973, five armed men entered Khaalis’ home and killed five children and one grandchild.

On March 9, 1977, seven members of Khaalis’ group burst into the headquarters of B’nai B’rith in downtown Washington and took over 100 hostages including Burt Lazarow. Less than an hour later, three men entered the Islamic Center of Washington, and took eleven hostages. Later, two Hanafis entered the District Building, three blocks from the White House, and quickly killed two people.

Throughout the siege, Khaalis denounced the Jewish judge who had presided at the trial of his family’s killers. He claimed that ‘the Jews control the courts and the press.”

Khaalis and his followers wanted those convicted for the 1973 murders handed over to them, presumably for execution. Part of the negotiations to free the captives was conducted by the three Muslim ambassadors, who read passages from the Quran that demonstrated Islam’s compassion and mercy. They urged the gunmen to surrender. Finally, the sieges ended on March 11, Khaalis and eleven others were tried and convicted, with Khaalis and sentenced for his role.

The younger generations may not know the many stories of attacks on Jews. Some will think their parents and grandparents to be alarmist or paranoid about the safety of Jews in the United States. We need to teach these stories to our children and grandchildren. While faith-based communities across the country face varying levels of discrimination, there is a persistent threat of violence and hate crimes against Jews and Jewish communities, primarily by domestic violent extremists.

What happened in Texas is a reminder that Jews are too often victims. Like Khaalis, the Texas shooter sought perverse justice by taking Jewish hostages. As Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL wrote: “Unfortunately, the crisis in Colleyville is just the latest event to show that being on edge and being vigilant is now very much part of the American Jewish experience.”

In the past decade, we have seen improvements in security measures and training first responders. But there is one more thing we must do, as Jews. It comes to us from the last line of Torah for this week’s portion, Yitro.

God instructed Moses to build an altar. As a coda to the demand, God said to Moses make sure that the people “do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.”  While the intention may have been to teach about grace and modesty in the presence of God, there is another lesson. We must always be mindful of our weaknesses and areas of vulnerability.

The hate groups must not think of us as weak or forgiving. And we cannot always rely on others for every aspect of our safety. Our resolve after this latest attack is to teach our children these words of the Torah, “watch your back.”

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Our brains are marvelous and mixed-up memory banks. However, memory is often inaccurate. We recall events through a lens of life experience. Like an artist choosing their medium and palette, the virtuosity of remembering is subjective.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explained memory is an experience recalled. Every occurrence in our lives begins as an experience and is recalled as a memory.  Yet, memories of the same experience can differ widely. As a result, people clash over their recollections. “We do not choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences.”

In Torah this week, Parshat Beshalach, the Hebrew people came to the Red Sea. Unable to imagine a way forward they panicked. Even though they experienced the miracle of ten plagues, their memory of those events was not sufficiently inspiring to overcome their fears. They could not become a faithful flock because their psyche was impaired and their judgment diminished.  The Hebrews had a slave mentality which clouded their memories. They lost faith in God’s awesome power when confronted with another obstacle. Their memories of the miracles they experienced did not activate hopefulness. Rather, the people complained to Moses that they should have stayed in Egypt!

As the story progressed, God performed another astonishing miracle. The waters of the Red Sea parted. New miracle, old framing. Shortly after crossing the sea, the people again complained, this time about the lack of food. Again they questioned why they left Egypt!

The Hebrews experienced God’s miracles, but their memory was impaired by their lack of faith. After all, the condition of a slave is capitulation and hopelessness. Without a framework of faith, they could only anticipate further powerlessness and desperation. The Hebrews could not transform the memory of experience into a positive approach toward the future.

Kahneman’s explanation of how memory is employed may be crucial to healing the rifts in our country. While reflecting on the January 6 insurrection last week, I was baffled as to how people experienced the same event at the Capitol and yet described the participants with different recollections. Were the people entering the Capitol vigilantes or visitors? Terrorists or tourists?

The background of my American canvas is a functioning democratic system with opportunities for advancement.  However, the canvas is tinted with my fears of racism and anti-Semitism.  Accordingly, I recall January 6 as an insurrection of white supremacists who threatened our democracy. Is my memory accurate? Millions of other Americans recall a justifiable demonstration, born of frustration at a stolen election. Same event, different memories. The key to understanding this discord is to figure out how these contrasting memories evolved.

The Torah of America teaches that we cherish life, protect liberty, and pursue happiness. The American Torah states that all are created equal.  Even with the miracles of a free nation, triumphant over enemies, and abundant in resources, many have lost faith in this democratic experiment.

Our Torah describes a lack of faith by our Hebrew ancestors, not unlike our current American experience. Our collective challenge is to restore everyone’s faith in the ideals upon which America was crafted. Maybe then our shared experiences will meld into one life-affirming memory that becomes the backdrop for a free, just, and safe United States.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

I was an uncomfortable dinner guest in the home of the in-laws of my in-laws. We all knew the patriarch to be crass, gluttonous, and prejudiced. After our meal, he offered the most offensive idea I had ever heard in my life. And I did not reply. It is three decades later. I remain upset with myself as I should have offered a rebuke. Courage was lacking.

Parshat Bo in Exodus reminded of this upsetting event. Moses confronted Pharaoh whose heart God had hardened. In an odd linguistic construction, God told Moses to “bo el paro” ( בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה ) which is literally “come to Pharoah.” There is an important difference between being told “to go” versus being ordered, “to come.”

God’s order for Moses “to come” demanded an interpersonal approach. The verb to come implies that we are moving toward an object or an objective. Similarly in English, we say that we “come to an agreement.”

In coming to Pharaoh, Moses brought the fullness of his humanity to the encounter. Moses demonstrated that we should rebuke another person from a position of physical closeness, deep understanding, and spiritual intelligence. Remonstrations are most effective when we address each other in the context of an interpersonal relationship.

The next verse of the Torah offers two justifications for reproving the tyrant. The first is so “that you may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians.” And the second is “that [all of] you may know that I am the LORD.” Standing up for goodness and decency sets an example for the generations to come. Cowing to bullies sets a dangerous precedent that offensive behavior needs not to be addressed. Moreover, Torah teaches that standing up for honesty and righteousness is akin to knowing God.

What did my host say over thirty years ago that still upsets me? He suggested that our government should harvest the organs of prison inmates for other citizens in need. He even described which “kinds” of inmates would be the donors. The idea was odious, repulsive, and shocking.

While the blowhard spewed his vitriol, some ignored the comments as just “Jack being Jack.” Others were worried about keeping the peace and avoiding a confrontation. I was afraid I would be reprimanded if I expressed an opinion. Now I know I was wrong to stay silent. Advocacy for brutalizing any person can never be acceptable.

Torah says speak truth to power, denounce repression, and advocate righteousness. Failure to do so signals to future generations that silence and apathy is acceptable.  As Elie Wiesel reminded us, “the opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.” Wiesel wrote: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.” Wiesel’s guidance channels the Godliness of Parshat Bo.

My younger self had not learned this lesson. Moreover, I was not confident enough to respond to hateful speech. I did not understand how to come to a bully and speak the truth. How and when to appropriately respond to hatred and prejudice is a learning process. With Torah’s inspiration, I hope I have the courage to never suffer another uncomfortable dinner party.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

The last twenty-two months have been tough. We are drained, stressed, and scared. Rather than be frozen in fear, ask a forward-looking question. What can we do to improve these precious lives we have?

Many of us feel stuck in “crisis” mode. Waves of infections and new variants plague us. Our world has narrowed, both territorially, economically, and politically. Perhaps you feel that our best days are behind us.

Instead, we could prepare to move to the next stage of an endemic or post-pandemic life more effectively. What will that take? Careful discernment and courage are key. How do I know? I read the Torah.

God spoke to Moses, directing him on how to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. “Tell them I am the God of their ancestors.”  “Tell them I will rescue them on eagles’ wings!” Moses shared the news, but the people could not listen. Why? Because their souls were crushed by bondage. They had lived too long in the narrowness of Egyptian enslavement. When the soul is crushed, people are at the bottom of their reserves.  And so the Hebrew slaves were too demoralized to hear Moses’ message from God. Only after a series of miracles did the people finally regain hope and imagine the future.

We are not bound up in enslavement, but we are experiencing the sort of calamity that can crush the soul. And yet we can persevere by adjusting our short-term goals and thinking about longer-term strategies.

The first step is to appreciate the many wonders of our times. The development and distribution of a vaccine in record time. The technology to diagnose, test, and track the disease. The miracle of cable television made difficult times more bearable. Who could imagine that we could order anything delivered to our front porch? Do you remember life before Zoom?

The second step is to acknowledge how you are feeling. The CDC website says “Notice and accept how you feel. Taking care of your emotional health during an emergency will help you think clearly and react to the urgent needs to protect yourself and your family.” Making time for self-care now will aid in your long-term healing.

The third step is to anticipate how to live your best life even in a time of pandemic. What are the opportunities for increased downtime? In what ways can your life be more healthful? Can you better care for and inspire the people you know?

Creating a better future requires changing ourselves. Start with these steps: appreciate, accept, and advance. Because we can change crushed to crushing it!

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

George Takei played Captain Sulu on Star Trek — the helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Less known is that in 1942 George Takei and his family were forced into an internment camp for Japanese Americans. The deportation of Japanese residents was deemed a “security” measure during World War II.  Takei’s story reminds us that Jews too have been oppressed and denied our rights. Yet, these stories are not mere history as freedom is denied in the face of fear and prejudice.

In the opening verses of Exodus, the Hebrew people living in Egypt were objectified and enslaved. Other people have suffered similarly. Discrimination against Japanese Americans is emblazoned in our jurisprudence in Korematsu v. the United States. The Supreme Court upheld the Government’s right to move 120,000 persons of Japanese descent from their homes to internment camps.

Just after the United States entered World War II against Japan and Germany, President Franklin Roosevelt established internment camps for Japanese persons.  Roosevelt’s actions were not unlike that of Pharaoh over 3,000 years ago. As Exodus reports, Pharaoh said of the Hebrews “let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise, in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.”

There was no hard evidence that Japanese Americans had divided loyalty. Our democratic system gave way to prejudice and fear. By contrast, Caucasian-looking German Americans were not similarly detained and deported.

Fred Korematsu had a story similar to that of George Takei. On May 30, 1942, Fred Korematsu was arrested in California and taken to the Tanforan Assembly Center. There he was housed in a horse stall. On September 8, 1942, Fred was tried and found guilty of violating the law directing Japanese Americans to surrender and be relocated.  Ultimately, Korematsu was moved to a relocation center in Topaz, Utah, described also as a concentration camp of harsh conditions.

Every day in prayer, Jews remember our time of oppression in Egypt and celebrate our redemption by God. The daily prayer should also remind us that freedom is precious and fragile, easily denied us by powerful leaders. Our Jewish mission, fashioned by our history, is to be vigilant against oppression. We can neither be bystanders to the supremacists who marched in Charlottesville nor apathetic toward elected officials who would deny any American their rights.

As we read these opening verses of Exodus, may we be inspired to oppose all oppression and watch over this fragile democracy in America that is easily upended.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

The movie It’s a Wonderful Life turns 75 this year. Considered the favorite holiday movie of all time, Jews too seem to favor this classic. Perhaps we identify with the lead character, George Bailey, a most earnest soul outplayed by a ruthless rival.

George Bailey’s world is upended when a bank deposit goes missing. In every life, there will be disruptions. Some are life-changing. Sometimes these troubles are so great that we can see no good resolution. We might be so hopeless that we feel as if we are standing on a snowy bridge contemplating the jump into the icy river below.

We encounter one or more such challenges in our lifetimes. For example, Jacob in Torah endured many such predicaments. Jacob fled home when his brother, Esau, threatened his life. His oldest two sons killed the people of Shechem as an act of revenge. Jacob feared that the other neighboring tribes would exact justice on him.  Jacob’s favorite child, Joseph, was reported dead and Jacob’s grief was overwhelming. Each time Jacob could have been overcome by dread and despair.

Each of George Bailey and Jacob had guardian angels at their service. An angel named Clarence kept George Bailey safe. Jacob attributed his safe life’s journey to protective angels. In Genesis 48:16, Jacob prayed that the angels who kept him from harm, bless his descendants.

Just like my fantasies about winning the Power Ball, I sometimes imagine that there could be an angel to shield me and keep my family safe. Forget the Avengers, I want a “super angel” who can reverse any misfortune and avert any future disasters.

I hesitate to mention that I leave room for angels in my life. In the angelic realm of conversation, Jews are generally skeptical when it comes to angels.

Yet, Jewish texts often reference angels. In daily prayer, we describe and emulate the angels. Can it be that these invisible agents of God be stealthily awaiting their moment to help us?

In dark times, I may imagine myself as a latter-day George Bailey, not knowing that an angel will rescue me from harm. Yet, the movie does not teach that we should wait for angels. The lessons of the movie are these. First, be nice to everyone. Second, if you have been good to others, they will support you in your time of need. Third, never give up hope.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” teaches us not to despair and not to see ourselves as victims. With the darkest Shabbat day upon us, however bleak the world seems or sad you feel, remember that the daylight hours will again increase. And perhaps it is true, as the Talmud teaches, that two angels come to escort you on the sabbath day.

Until an angel appears to guide you, allow me to offer some sage advice.  Remember that the good that you put out in the world can come back to sustain you. You may suffer tragedies, but you should not quantify the value of your life by misfortunes suffered. God gave this life you live to you. You are a unique and extraordinary person, and your life is a precious gift. It’s a wonderful life!

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Jews are the pioneers of modern psychology: Freud, Klein, Maslow, Frankl, and Kahneman. Apparently, we create what we need.  Jewish suffering gave rise to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

Yet, examples of improving mental health are as ancient as the Torah. At the end of Genesis, the text shares Joseph’s descent into despair. First thrown into a pit by his brothers who wanted to kill him, he later became a slave, and then a prisoner. Joseph’s redemption came as a successful interpreter of dreams for the Pharaoh. Elevated to a leadership role, Joseph successfully organized Egypt’s “farm back better” famine plan. Joseph’s own estranged family, fearing starvation in Canaan, came to Egypt to buy food.  After a series of torturous and enigmatic encounters with his brothers, Joseph revealed his identity. The petrified brothers feared that Joseph would seek revenge. Rather Joseph learned to positively reframe his situation. He explained to them that God merely sent Joseph ahead to Egypt so that his family could survive the famine.

Joseph made a dramatic and life-affirming transition. Psychologists refer to this as positive reframing. Joseph thought about his difficult situation in a more helpful way. Joseph was able to comprehend the ultimate benefit of an extremely negative situation. Finding something to be grateful about after two decades of abuse is a great example of positive reappraisal.

Joseph regrouped and transcended without a therapist or prescription for anti-depressants. Joseph understood that the point of his suffering was for his family to thrive in Egypt. Accordingly, he is neither angry with his brothers nor with God.

Joseph teaches us to search for meaning in our personal travails. That is the lesson taught by Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor who later became an influential psychologist. He wrote that human existence is a search for meaning. Joseph happened upon the meaning of his struggles when reunited with his brothers in Egypt. Joseph’s example instructs us to employ our struggles as tools in a search for personal growth and purposefulness.

None of us exit this life without challenges and downfalls. Joseph teaches us that we can overcome our resentments, fears and acrimony. The key is to refocus our understanding, unveiling our best selves to the world. We can learn to positively reframe our lives thanks to both Joseph and the groundbreaking work of Jewish psychologists.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

A super-wealthy family battling each other and the world to maintain power and wealth. That is the premise of the HBO show Succession. The series is popular as it reverberates with the display of wealth and power. Those who have “it” are destined to be humbled.  Those without it, are merely fascinated viewers.

The bible has a story of a successful but troubled family.  Jacob, his wives, and sons lived in Canaan at the time of famine.  Meanwhile, in Egypt, there was plenty of corn. You may recall that Joseph had properly interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and had prepared Egypt for a famine. Jacob learned of the bounty available in Egypt. He turned to his sons and admonished them, “Why do you keep looking at one another?”

Even before instructing his sons to go down to Egypt to purchase food, Jacob offers an ethical rebuke. Rashi, the great medieval commentator on Torah and Talmud, offers that the sons were feigning nonchalance to the famine. Their concern was how the family appeared to the neighboring tribes more than making the effort to obtain food. Jacob was wondering, “Why should everyone gaze at you and wonder at you because you do not search for food before what you have in your possession comes to an end?”

Sometimes we become obsessed with appearances. In the case of Jacob’s family, the assumption is that the brothers were so enwrapped in their status among local tribes that they hesitated to secure sufficient food supplies for the future. This biblical story presents a challenge for all of us.  Sometimes, do we worry more about appearances than we do about existential issues? Would Jacob’s sons have suffered starvation rather than search for food?

Jacob taught his sons that humility is the key to a secure future. Allowing our egos to dominate our thinking interrupts clear thought and timely action. Concern with appearances makes us hesitant to act, even when the circumstances are dire. Yet, we often only learn humility from experiences that knock us down or even challenge our survival.

After all, the haughty colorful coat-wearing Joseph who boasted of his dreams of dominance over his family became far humbler after his time in an Egyptian prison. Whether pushed into a pit or felled by famine, we are all going to learn a lesson in humility at some time in our lives. God spares no one from critical reminders that we are all unique but not special and all strong but breakable.  We all have egos, so we all need to learn humility.

When following the lives of the rich and famous, most often their downfall is arrogance. While entertaining to watch, watching the mighty fall is more than good television. The lessons of humility are a prelude to a moral message. Our lives may not measure up as biblical or fantastical, but we all suffer the misfortune of ego unchecked.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

At the intersection of ancient roads heading to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria is the town of Dothan. The dry, rocky landscape was dotted with pits dug to store precious rainwater. As an archeological site, the location is an entryway to understanding life in ancient times. As the backdrop for a biblical story, it is a metaphor for times when life can become treacherous and unfair.

The root of the name Dothan in Hebrew means “pit.”  By its very name, the location signaled out a warning.  Digging pits was the key to water collection and storage. Plaster applied to the walls of the pit created a life-sustaining well. While a well had to be deep enough for collection and retention of the water, it also created a dangerous abyss. Fall into the well in a rainy season and you could drown. Get thrown into the well when dry, and you might die of thirst.

In Torah, Joseph’s brothers, jealous of Joseph’s favored status, threw him into a pit near Dothan. Why were they jealous? Joseph boasted of dreaming he would lord over his family. He flaunted the colorful coat given him by his father. In a sense, because Joseph was arrogant, he dug his own pit. But Joseph’s egoism alone was not sufficient to justify entrapment by his brothers.

The clan of Jacob frothed up their jealousy into hatred. Of the ten siblings forming an unholy tribunal, only Reuben and Judah cautioned against killing Joseph.  Yet neither had the fortitude to stop attempted fratricide. Rather than killing him, the brothers sold Joseph into slavery.

I too have traversed a life landscape dotted with pits both dangerous and life-giving. My displays of egoism garnered antipathy. My occasional zealousness earned condemnation. Like Joseph, there are times when I failed to appreciate the damaging impact of my words and actions. What we learn from Joseph is that it didn’t matter if the dreams he shared were true. It didn’t matter that he had every right to wear a beautiful coat.  He failed to notice the effects of his words and actions in front of his brothers.

The reaction of the brothers was immoral and brutal.  Joseph’s arrogance was no excuse for their plotting murder. And yet, the story asks us to consider if Joseph should have noticed that he walked a dangerous path in a region dotted with pits. In this way, Torah asks us to consider how we contribute to our own problems, even when we are judged exceedingly punitively by our peers or family. Torah asks you to check your ego and anticipate the hazards ahead if you don’t regulate your own character.

Consider how the Joseph story is a metaphor for your own life.  Marriages and career choices can be both wells that sustain us or pits that draw us down.  Whether with our life partners or business associates, being smart or being right is insufficient if we wish to remain in safe relationships. We live our best lives only when we are vigilant about the effect we have upon others, especially those closest to us.

We know the landscape of life is filled with dangerous chasms. Walk cautiously. Sometimes it is the wells that we dig that are also the pitfalls of our lives.

Rabbi Evan Krame