I have just returned from another successful civil rights mission to Atlanta and Alabama. Especially before Passover, the parallels between the histories of Blacks and Jews resonate profoundly for me. Both groups suffered enslavement and oppression. The dark legacy of slavery reminds us of the importance of sharing freedom stories, particularly the narrative of Passover. While there are commonalities between the experiences of African Americans and Jews, it’s also crucial to recognize the distinctions.

For nearly two and a half centuries, Africans were transported to America and endured enslavement. While emancipation technically liberated Black Americans, they grappled with another century of suffering under the weight of Jim Crow laws and discrimination. Visits to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma underscore a moral chasm in America’s history. The 20th Century was populated by visionary leaders, fearful bystanders, and vicious oppressors. The legacy of slavery continues to manifest in limited opportunities for advancement, inadequate education, and ongoing threats to civil rights for Black communities.

Similarly, the Passover seder commemorates over two centuries of enslavement, with the Haggadah directing our focus toward God’s redemption of our people. As we celebrate freedom during Passover, we express gratitude (“dayenu”) and praise (“hallelujah”). Into the seder, we incorporate extending hospitality to strangers and symbolically expelling hatred from our midst. Each seder serves as a poignant reminder to embrace the belief that all human lives are valuable and a better world is attainable.

While the stories of African Americans and our Hebrew ancestors share commonalities, it’s essential to approach these parallels with two cautions.

Firstly, through the lens of the Haggadah, Jews are compelled to acknowledge God’s role in their salvation. Passover is a time to renew faith in the divine. Your faith may manifest through efforts to combat slavery and expand freedom. Moreover, the primary objective of this celebration is to foster a deeper connection with God. For those grappling with the concept of Divinity, the Seder remains an opportunity to appreciate heritage or hope for change.

Secondly, rather than solely seeking common ground with other oppressed groups, there’s immense value in honoring the unique identities of each community. By making space for the distinct narratives of others, we deepen our understanding and foster healthy connections.  If we honor other groups we gain their respect. Civil rights missions are about acknowledging and uplifting our neighbors, rather than retreating into our histories. With genuine appreciation and active listening, we forge alliances and safeguard our individuality. Successful interactions are a delicate balance of recognizing shared experiences while respecting differences.

May your Passover seder awaken us, inspire us, and instill a profound appreciation for the uniqueness inherent in every human being.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

When walking through a new neighborhood or city, I enjoy counting the mezuzahs I see on doorposts along the way.  Most Jews put this beacon of holiness on the entranceway to their homes. The parchment inside includes the instruction to teach the words of our tradition to the children. As you enter your home, we are reminded that holiness is created through passages, like doorways.

Rituals make sacred our life cycle events, like birth or moving into a new home.  During those events, we move through a portal. In this way, narrow spaces and transition events help us in building a spiritual life.

When we move into a new home, we mark the doorpost with a mezuzah.  A couple getting married enters the chuppah for kiddushin, a portal to begin the marriage ceremony. Even the birth canal through which life begins is a doorway, marked with a brit or circumcision for a boy and simchat bat or baby naming for a girl. Parshat Tazria begins with a cleansing ritual at the time of giving birth. The mother was cleaned of blood and purified spiritually.

In a similar episode, at Exodus 12:7, the children of Israel neared the end of their enslavement. They painted blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. The bloodied doorposts conjure up an image of birth. After the first Passover night, the Israelites emerged through bloody portals. They began their exit from Mitzrayim–literally, “the straits,” the narrow place – birthed into being as a free people.

Putting blood on the doorposts and lintels gave their doorways the status of an altar. Upon their portals, they sacrificed their slave identity. Through those entryways, the people attained freedom.

Also, the bloodied doorposts resembled an altar used as an atonement for sin. Blood atones for sins. What sin had the Hebrew slaves commited? Perhaps losing connection with the God of their ancestors or following Egyptian ways. Even in redemption from slavery, the people had to account for their behaviors. In that way, each regained a measure of dominion over their identities.

In a little-noticed text, Pesikta Zutreta (Lekah Tov, Exodus, Parashat Bo, ch. 12.7):  reads “Thus we learn that our ancestors in Egypt had four altars, the lintel, the two doorposts, and the doorstep, as said by Rabbi Ishmael.”  As one’s foot lands on a doorstep and propels the body forward, it becomes a place of restoration of the soul and reclamation of faith.

Similarly, each newborn, emerging through a bloodied portal, is like a step that propels us forward. That mindfulness starts when we witness the moment a baby pushes its head from the womb and takes its first gasping breath.

As we enter the month of Nissan, and approach the Passover festival of freedom, it is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves as if through a portal. Passover is a reenactment of the altar upon which we can again build our world.  We emerge through doorways determined to expand freedom and spread holiness in this world.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Suddenly, on October 7, Hamas attacked on the eighth day of the Sukkot festival. Unexpectedly, Hamas fighters crossed from Gaza into Israel. Quickly, they killed and raped and destroyed. The disaster stunned Israel and disoriented its people. Some were unable to integrate the distressing information. Sudden tragedies assault the psyche of those who persevered.

At Parshat Shmini, the Hebrews completed 8 days of dedication rituals for their new tabernacle. At the festivities’ end, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, lit an additional incense offering. Suddenly, Nadav and Abihu were dead as fire came forth from God and consumed them.

Aaron did not cry out at the sudden death of two sons. At first, silence was his response. Unspeakable tragedy sometimes leaves us unable to speak.

Soon after, Aaron returned to his duties as the High Priest. Service replaced silence. Activity replaced immobility. Aaron did not abdicate his role or foreswear his duties.

Upon the death of his nephews, Moses offered cautionary words. “This is what יהוה meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” Leviticus 10:3.

Moses’ warning is that God shows God’s self as holy through those near to God. Perhaps Moses was saying that the people truly near to God would not present an impassioned fire offering. The inappropriate offering was presumptuous and arrogant. Holiness cannot be summoned by ego-driven actions. Those who act for their glory, under the pretense of serving God, might not long survive.

Unsanctioned and self-serving actions can end in disaster. That is the legacy of Nadav and Abihu. After the shock of a disaster, people can be resilient. That is Aaron’s legacy.

God willing, like Aaron, Israel will recover. As for leaders whose actions are self-interested and excessive, God is not discernable within their unholy endeavors. Their legacies are not crowned with glory but will be buried in disgrace.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

My morning ritual is unchanging. I begin each day with the New York Times Games. After Wordle and Spelling Bee, I make the same breakfast, eggs, and toast. Only then do I read and respond to my emails. Afterward, I shower and dress. The routine is predictable, yet my approach can be holy.

In Leviticus, we glimpse the daily routine of the priests. They accepted and slaughtered animals as sacrifices. Torah portion Tzav, read this week, gives nauseating details about the blood, fat, and entrails of the sacrifice.

Juxtaposed to the slaughter is a detailed and surprising description of how the priests were bathed, dressed, and adorned before heading off to the holy abattoir. If dressing for work at the slaughterhouse, I would not first bathe and then dress in fine linens!

Yet, the Torah offers a lesson on how to approach each day. Whether, a butcher, baker, doctor, or lawyer, each can imagine a holy daily pattern. What if my shower and clothing selection is a precursor to a sacred enterprise? I don’t have to be a priestly slaughterer to imagine that the work I perform in this world is productive if not redemptive.

I can begin by being mindful while bathing and dressing. There is warm water pouring on me. Amen! I have a selection of clothes in my closet. Amen! I prepare myself to serve the world with gratitude for all I have.

Our Jewish tradition captures the holiness of our daily routine with morning blessings. The blessing of clothing the naked corresponds to our getting dressed. The blessing of girding Israel with strength is inspired by buckling your belt. Putting on a yarmulka is like crowning Israel with glory. The ancient wisdom, encoded by Tractate Berachot of the Talmud, dedicates our preparation for leaving home each morning. Whatever words you choose, try to sanctify your morning routine with gratitude and praise.

The priestly routine teaches another lesson. To connect with the fullness of your life, take notice of the mundane ways you prepare for the day.  Selecting a shirt and shoes is the foundation for a holy endeavor. If we understand our lives to be purposeful, we find inspiration. Whatever lies ahead in your day – be it cooking, cleaning, consulting, or constructing – notice your preparation, make it holy, and bring dignity to your life.

So how will you prepare yourself each day? I suggest you start with both gratitude and a holy intention. Begin with the way. you attend to the outermost parts of yourself.  Then, offer this world the best within you and become your fullest self. Then you will offer kindness to others, create what is valuable, and improve the world.

Rabbi Evan Krame

Throughout history, leaders made grievous mistakes, often more pronounced during times of war. George Bush’s misjudgment of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, are among these historical blunders. Yet, the leader alone might not be to blame. According to the Torah, the community shares in responsibility.

Even in the Torah leadership made great errors. One of King David’s sins was at a time of war when he ordered census forbidden by the Torah. As a result of this sin, tens of thousands of David’s troops died. Could the community also share in responsibility for David’s sin? When the people learned of the improper census, perhaps they should have disobeyed.

Early in Leviticus, the Torah addresses atonement for mistakes by leaders. A sacrifice, called a hatat, atoned for sins. In particular, the largest Hatat sacrifice, a bull, was offered for the misdeed of a leader. In Chapter 4 verse 13 of Leviticus, the Torah focuses on leadership errors and their impact on the public: “If it is the community leadership of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by יהוה’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize guilt, when the sin through which they incurred guilt becomes known, the congregation shall offer a bull of the herd as a sin offering.”

Dissecting this verse, first, there was an error by the community leader. Second, the error was unknown to the community. Third, the community violated a Commandment relying upon the leader’s error. Fourth, the error became known. Finally, the congregation makes a sin offering. In this way, the community was also answerable for the leader’s error.

In modern times, George Bush directed an attack on Iraq based on bad intelligence. Initially, most Americans supported the war against Iraq. Soon we knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Our leadership’s error led to the decimation of a country and over 200,000 deaths, including American soldiers. Could the American people also be culpable for the President’s nightmarish blunder? Perhaps our role was to protest and demand an end to the war. Thus, having failed to raise our voices, was the community accountable?

We are now in the throes of Israel’s longest war. Hamas unleashed a brutal attack on October 7.  1,200 Israelis died, others were wounded and 253 were taken captive. Hamas’ savagery and immorality traumatized Jews everywhere.

Yet, the Torah offers that we consider another facet of this insidious war. We may be uncomfortable criticizing Israel, but the Netanyahu government made mistakes. They ignored intelligence about Hamas’ ability to launch an attack. The border with Gaza was poorly patrolled. The Israeli government turned a blind eye to the flow of money from Qatar to Hamas. These transgressions became known after the war began. These errors do not excuse Hamas’ evil. Yet, in the context of the Jewish law of wars, Israel’s response is problematic. If Israel transgressed Jewish law because of the errors of its leaders, the Torah calls to mind that all Israelis may need to make a sin offering.

An Israeli teacher I cherish recently spoke about her sense of responsibility. She believes that Bibi Netanyahu is corrupt. For months she protested in the streets of Jerusalem. She said Israel now suffers for the sins of its leaders. Currently, her children fight in the Army. Over 100 hostages remain captive. Israel is grieving. Yet, my teacher wondered if she bears some responsibility, asking if she could have protested even more. She was mirroring the Torah.

People suffer for the mistakes and the malevolence of leaders. When leaders’ errors become known and the country has violated God’s laws, the community may be culpable for the failure to object. Whether in Israel or the United States, we have power. We are voters. Together, we can demand accountability. We can demonstrate and our voices can rise in protest. Merely complaining about bad leaders will not suffice. And if we fail to respond, the Torah teaches we share in the blame.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

In the State of the Union, the President acknowledged the hard-working middle class of our country. He thanked the Americans whose labor builds our nation. Appreciating workers is a Jewish value. I found it in the final verses of Exodus.

In the concluding passages of Exodus, God provided Moses with instructions for building the Tabernacle. The generosity of the people led to an abundance of donated materials, prompting Moses to halt further contributions. Skilled artisans then crafted the intricate structures and decorations of the Tabernacle. The narrative concludes with Moses offering his blessing upon witnessing the completion of their tasks. “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks—as יהוה had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them.”

This seemingly overlooked passage holds a profound lesson for us. When individuals perform their work diligently and take pride in their contributions, they warrant our gratitude and blessings. Whether it’s the chambermaid in a hotel or the attendant cleaning an airport bathroom, acknowledging their efforts is a Jewish value.

While Judaism draws us into a relationship with God, our tradition also teaches the importance of our relationship with each other. For example, Talmud tractate Mishnah Peah begins with the requirement that farmers leave the corners of their fields for poor people to glean. The Mishnah continues with these words: “The following are the things for which a person enjoys the fruits in this world while the principal remains for them in the world to come: Honoring one’s father and mother; The performance of righteous deeds; And the making of peace between a person and their friend.”  Essentially, our treatment of others dictates our fate in both this world and the world to come.

In this context, Moses serves as a role model for our conduct in the world. When we recognize and appreciate the labor undertaken for our benefit, we spread godliness everywhere. Let’s emulate Moses’ spirit of acknowledgment, gratitude, and blessing, fostering a world where the divine and the human intersect harmoniously.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

You don’t have to be an angel to have meaningful relationships. But you might learn something from the angels. The lesson? It’s all about how we focus on loving each other.

From the design of the Tabernacle, described in the Torah, we get a profound lesson on successful relationships. In the inner sanctum, the cherubs rested on the ark. These celestial beings, meticulously crafted from hammered gold, faced each other with outstretched wings. The cherubs were positioned in a never-ending welcome, one to the other. The placement of these angels revealed a pivotal truth about human connections — the importance of paying attention to each other.

The position of the cherubs within the tabernacle’s design is striking. Sitting above the ark, the angels did not direct their gaze towards God or the tablets of law. Instead, they looked at each other. This deliberate choice of paired cherubim sends a message about the indispensable role of relationships in our lives. It suggests that, in serving God, we serve best deeply connecting with others. These cherubs teach that we best express our relationship with God by engaging with one another.

Ultimately, the paired cherubs challenge the notion of individual importance. They imply that each person exists fundamentally for relationships, emphasizing that our connections with others are essential to our existence. These celestial beings, locked in mutual gaze, remind us that the quality of our relationships is paramount.

In tractate, Yoma, Rav Ketina described the scene in the Tabernacle or Temple. When the High Priest pulled back the parokhet, the decorative curtain, he revealed the golden figures locked in each other’s sights. The decorative cherubim embraced one another. Then the kohanim would explain that they represented the relationship between God and the Jewish People. That love is as significant and real as the love of a man and a woman.

Moreover, a single angel would not have sufficed. There had to be two angels facing each other. Given their focus on each other and not on Heaven, these angels demonstrated that to love God love must be shared. So if you want to love God, then love one another.

Unlike celestial beings, human relationships are not fixed. We can’t sustain just one role, and remain in one position. Our exchanges are dynamic and multifaceted. Yet, these angels teach us that we are at our best when we stay focused on the people in our lives, especially those within our sight. Just like the angels, we prioritize relationships and nurture them with our undivided attention.

There is a Shaker hymn that says it best.

If you love not each other
In daily communion,
How can you love God,
Whom you have not seen?

The Heavens are blessing,
The angels are calling,
O Zion, O Zion more love.

Rabbi Evan Krame

(with gratitude to Rabbi David Inger for teaching this Shaker hymn)

I have been in emotional and spiritual confinement. I am a senior-aged man and I have an older mother living nearby. Each day begins with worrying, continues with caring, and ends with anticipating. My “detention” is not about being an attentive son. My jailer is an inability to address my emotional health and spiritual resolve. In a sense, I feel like a hostage. My frustrations, disappointments, and fatigue constrain me. As I read the Torah this week, I may have found a key to unlock my imprisonment.

Parshat Ki Tisa opens with a census. Each man paid a half-shekel as ransom to God for himself. How odd this directive is, as typically we pay ransom to free a captive. How can we be captive to God? Perhaps, we are spiritually and emotionally hostage when we displace our sense of Divinity. Here are some examples. Either we are cursed by rain-quashed plans or grateful for abundant water. Either we are disappointed by our failings or encouraged by what we learn from failure. Perhaps we are troubled by our health challenges, or we appreciate the abilities we retain. In these ways, we can either be hostage to our spiritual and emotional expectations or we are freed by paying a ransom of gratitude.

The payment of a half-shekel for freedom is merely a symbolic act. The ransom is a physical demonstration of our appreciation for the gifts given by God. Of course, God does not need our shekels. Rather, the community benefits when we ransom ourselves from self-doubt, longing, anger, and fear. We engage better with family and friends as we focus on appreciation rather than dissatisfaction. When we are grateful we are willing to give more of ourselves – not just shekels. Gratitude is the key to unlocking our emotional and spiritual prison cells so that we can better engage with others and in the community.

Only a handful of my friends still have parents alive, often nonagenarians. Along with advanced age comes great challenges, for both the parent and their mature children. In my 60’s I’m already confronting my issues of an aging body and even my mortality. All the while, I ransom my sanity and spirit with gratitude for the gifts of having my mother nearby and the blessings of what I can continue to achieve. I regularly provide a half-shekel of patience, kindness, and dedication to my mother. The greater challenge is “Can I do that for myself?”

For myself, I often struggle against my aging process. Poet Dylan Thomas urged that we “rage against the dying of the light.” As we age, Thomas railed that we “not go gently into that good night.” Alternatively, I can pursue gratitude. My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, understood mortality as an instructor so that we might grow in generosity and gratitude. I am not a shadow of my younger self but rather I am a glowing beacon of acquired wisdom and demonstrable love.

Without a practice of redeeming ourselves, we are groping in the dark, feeling confused and lost. We cannot escape from our captivity unless we continue to ignite meaning in our lives. For me, the meaning that informs my life is a Divine inspiration to improve the world. As Psalm 142 says: “Free me from prison, so that I may praise Your name.” The key to our freedom is to pay a ransom of gratitude to God.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

The data about consuming fats is confusing. There are good fats and bad fats. The distinction is important if we are trying to eat healthy.  In doing so, I try to avoid the bad fat. However, we need some fat to feel full. If you try to eat low-fat foods beware that many are fat with sugars which are as bad as fat. Perhaps, the Torah can alleviate my confusion.

Exodus 29:13 instructs that the priests when making sacrifices to “take all the fat that covers the entrails, the protuberance on the liver, and the two kidneys with the fat on them, and turn them into smoke upon the altar.” The word for fat in Hebrew here is helev. In Genesis 4, the word helev is used when Abel offered the finest of his flock. When Pharaoh tells Joseph to bring his family to Egypt where, rather than experiencing famine, they will eat “of the fat (helev) of the land” (Genesis 45:18), which is a poetic way of saying “the very best.” Later at Leviticus 3:17 God tells us never to eat helev. The fatty protective layer in a bull or ram is considered the choicest part of the animal, and thereby reserved for God. Perhaps the Torah imagines helev to be too delicious for mere mortals.

Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg explains that the fat connects to the blood, and the blood is the life force coursing through all flesh. As we are prohibited from eating blood, so too we should avoid fat

Another explanation comes from Leviticus 3:5 directing the burning of helev to create a pleasing, sweet odor for God. While the vegetarians among us will cringe, our ancestors prized the smell of burning fat. Moreover, when burned on the altar, fats created an unimpeded and uncontaminated connection to the Divine.

Why is the sense of smell so precious to God? The sense of smell is unique among the five senses as the only sense not corrupted in the Garden of Eden.  As you may recall, Adam and Eve saw the tree, heard the snake, touched the apple, and tasted the apple. Their sense of smell remained pristine, and thereby holy.

When considering which fats to consume, there are holy choices. While a juicy steak might be delicious, perhaps we should leave the foods laden with animal fat for special occasions. Without an altar, we burn fats these days taking a walk after dinner. When looking for culinary satisfaction, don’t substitute fat with sugars. Let the inherent sweetness of foods please your sense of smell and your palate.

The Torah says make a holy choice. Just leave the animal fat for God and buy some avocados.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

This century is a heyday for the cardboard industry. Nearly every delivery on your doorstep comes in a cardboard box. Wood pulp and cellulose combine to form cardboard. Accordingly, the cardboard craze exacerbates deforestation. The environmental impact of cardboard boxes is just one example of the holiness of choosing the right packaging.

A seemingly mundane fact from Parshat Tetzaveh, Chapter 25 of Exodus, describes the construction of the ark out of Acacia wood. In the Sinai wilderness, there might not be many trees of any kind. I wondered, where did the Acacia wood grow and why was Acacia selected?

Acacia trees are common in Israel. The trees grow quickly in tropical and subtropical climates and in the desert. Three varieties of acacia grow in various regions of Israel. The wood is quite hard and very durable. Given that the trees grow quickly and many species are healthy, acacia wood is a sustainable source of wood.

Most importantly, the tablets of the ten commandments were placed into the ark made of acacia wood.  God did not choose bronze, silver, or gold for the ark. Neither was the ark chiseled out of stone. God selected the acacia tree as the primary source of wood; a sustainable, fast-growing tree.

Torah is teaching us to be mindful of the materials we use as containers. Whether holding holy objects or creating homes for people, we can choose sustainable, natural materials. Cork, bamboo, recycled plastics, stone, and reclaimed wood are better choices for building and decorating homes.

When we make environmentally friendly choices, we are upholding the values we learn from the Torah.  You express your desire to save our planet when you eliminate gas stoves, buy an electric car, or cut down on red meat. And the next time you buy something on Amazon, select the option to have all of your purchases delivered in just one cardboard box!

Rabbi Evan J. Krame