Opportunities to speak truth to power may approach like an unexpected visitor. Imagine one sunny day you are sitting in your yard, enjoying the shade of a tree. Suddenly you have unexpected seraphic guests heralding the start of adventures in metaphysics. This was Abraham’s story. The first biblical patriarch of the Torah had a surprise visit from three angels and God. Nonetheless, Abraham kept his composure and demonstrated how to share moral outrage with those in power.

At a pivotal moment in the story, demonstrating Abraham’s righteous virtuosity, Abraham challenged God. God had said to God’s self, I’ve heard that the people of Sodom are evil. God was determined to destroy Sodom. Perhaps to test His thesis, God shared this notion with his buddy, Abraham. Stepping into his fullest and most respectable self, Abraham promptly and vociferously protests, “will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?”

With deed and words, Abraham employed the highest level of spiritual intelligence.  He was spontaneous in challenging God, addressing God with urgency.  Abraham employed his vision of justice and mercy. Accordingly, it was Abraham who proved to be the compassionate one.  Moreover, undaunted by the presence of the Omnipotent, Abraham becomes a holy advocate.

Perhaps you have had the experience of knowing a friend is about to make a bad choice.  Often, we hesitate to offer moral advice or offer a warning because we don’t want to confront an acquaintance and jeopardize a relationship. Yet, there will be times when life and death hang in the balance, the results of unethical or callous behaviors.  In those instances, can we muster the moxie to speak up and challenge those in power?

In formidable times like today, when morality has been set aside in favor of power and greed, we need to be more like Abraham. We should challenge politicians and industrialists who pollute our democracy and corrupt our environment.  Our challenges must be offered with urgency and in real-time. After all, lobbying a  politician or protesting a company should not be any harder than it was for Abraham to challenge the Holy One who is omnipotent!

Somedays I feel like we are all sitting in our yards under leafy trees, imagining that the bad news will disappear from the newspapers, the earth will heal itself, and the tyrants will retire to a commune. Yet, this damaged world and suffering people need to hear our voices. Let’s be inspired by Abraham. Don’t be afraid to let your moral nature guide you to challenge the world (and even God) to do better. Sweep away your faux innocence or you too are guilty. It just takes a bit of holy moxie and some spiritual intelligence.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

 

As the Democratic party leadership navigates their intra-family squabble over new legislation, I thought that they could use a bit of spiritual intelligence to solve their differences. Yes, Torah has something to teach modern-day politicians: compromise is a demonstration of faith and concessions are often holy.

In parshat Lech L’cha, both Abraham and his nephew Lot have acquired great wealth.  In ancient times before Bitcoin, wealth was measured in sheep and goats.  The herdsmen loyal to Lot and the herdsmen loyal to Abraham argue over grazing rights.  Rather than allow the conflict to percolate, Abraham opts for an amicable solution

God has promised all this land to Abraham and his descendants, north and south.  With greener pastures to the north and the arid Negev to the south, Abraham offers Lot a choice on which direction to move.  Lot chooses the northern path.  Abraham has faith in a better outcome no matter what Lot chooses.  And as a confirmation of Abraham’s faith just after Lot’s departure, God reassures Abraham.

Genesis 13:14-15

יהֹוָ֞ה אָמַ֣ר אֶל־אַבְרָ֗ם אַחֲרֵי֙ הִפָּֽרֶד־ל֣וֹט מֵֽעִמּ֔וֹ שָׂ֣א נָ֤א עֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ וּרְאֵ֔ה מִן־הַמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֣ה שָׁ֑ם צָפֹ֥נָה וָנֶ֖גְבָּה וָקֵ֥דְמָה וָיָֽמָּה׃

And the LORD said to Abraham, after Lot had parted from him, “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west,

כִּ֧י אֶת־כׇּל־הָאָ֛רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה רֹאֶ֖ה לְךָ֣ אֶתְּנֶ֑נָּה וּֽלְזַרְעֲךָ֖ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃

for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever.

God reassures Abraham not to worry about Lot’s move. In the grand scheme of God’s plan, the division is only temporary. All the land will belong to Abraham. God did not make that promise to Lot or his descendants.  In fact, Lot suffers misfortune. Abraham rescued Lot when Lot was apprehended by warring tribes. Later, God sent messengers to rescue Lot before Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.

Lot‘s chose to move north, motivated by the lure of easier pastures, but his choice was unprincipled. All the while Abraham, settled in a tougher terrain but nonetheless thrived. Abraham demonstrated leadership that is spiritually informed.

Compromise is a solution demonstrating spiritual intelligence. When making a concession we accept less than we want or feel we deserve or have been promised. Grinding one’s heels into the ground refusing to give up an inch is spiritually lacking. Compromise is a demonstration of faith in a greater plan and a greater good.

Our politicians need a little Torah in the halls of Congress!

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

 

A bird referred to as the “Lord God” has been declared officially extinct. The ivory-billed woodpecker is no more. Millions more species of plant and animal life are now imperiled. We’ve read similar stories before. I recall the story of the flood in Torah.

I found a description of the bird called “Lord God” by Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder. The ivorybill had a regal crested head, deep red on the males, velvet black on females. The rest of the bird’s plumage was composed of layered sheens of blue-black feathers interspersed with striking patterns of white on the wings and neck.

When the people of Arkansas or Louisiana would catch a glimpse of the wide-winged, graceful swooping flight, they might call out in amazement “Lord God – what a bird!”

After the earth became corrupted, the Lord God determined that all life would be extinguished but for Noah’s family and the animals they rescued. Noah saved representatives of all the species of animals.

In the twentieth century, people caused the extinction of the last bird called Lord God and are set to eliminate many more. Here’s how it came to pass.

The logging companies felled the sweet gum and Nuttall oak trees of the American South. Consequently, there was less room for the Lord God to find food. As Rachel Carson wrote in her seminal work, Silent Spring, “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”

If the Lord God had survived into the 1960s, DDT and other pesticides might have killed the last of them. DDT had disastrous environmental consequences on bird populations, human populations, and entire ecosystems. Pesticides permeated the seas and soils, and pesticides were traceable in everything from birds’ eggs to the breast milk of every human mother on the planet.

In the 21st century, our dependence on fossil fuels has caused disastrous climate change which threatens every species including humankind. The environmental apocalypse may now be unavoidable. Man may have finally succeeded in emulating God, but it is the God of Genesis who destroyed all life but for a few representatives of each species. How much more of a warning do we need than a headline that includes the words “Lord God” and “dead”?

The singer Sufjan Stevens wrote these lyrics for a 2005 documentary about the Lord God bird:

In the delta sun, down in Arkansas
It’s the great god bird with its altar call
And the sewing machine, the industrial god
On the great bayou where they saw it fall

In the morning paper, on social media, on Cable TV and in my news feed, while we worship an industrial and electronic God, we ignored the altar call. Before our eyes we are watching it all fall.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

 

 

The greatest book of all time begins in confusion. From the first few words of Bereshit, Torah may seem too difficult to understand. Or it can make you smile. It just depends upon which part of your brain you use to read the words.

If you process through your college-educated intellect, then you will note that the text begins with the words “Bereshit barah Elohim . . .”  This means, in a close translation, “in the beginning of, God created . . . “  Your brain that seeks structure and clarity asks “in the beginning of  . . . Wait! WHAT?

Now try engaging on your spiritual genius. The grammatical muddle is now less important than the realization that God created. Questions about when that happened, how that happened and where that happened are part of your intellectual neediness. Your spiritual intelligence focuses on the wow and is happy for the experience of amazement.

Let’s keep growing our spiritual intelligence throughout this year 5782.  Here’s a checklist of character traits and intentions that serve to expand spiritual intelligence. Figure out how some of these might assist you in living a life of more Wow! and less What?

Self-Awareness

Spontaneity

Being Vision and Value-Led

Holism or Integration

Compassion

Celebrating Diversity

Fielding Independence

Humility

Asking Why Questions

Ability to Reframe

Positive Use of Adversity

Sense of vocation

Why not print, cut, and paste these on your mirror or fridge. Make it a practice to review the list whenever you find yourself feeling confused, frustrated, or scared. Improving your spiritual intelligence will connect you more deeply with that sense of wow.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

I’ve been sleeping more lately. Good sleep is healthful for your body and mind. I think that I’m sleeping more because I am so very busy during the daytime that I am exhausted at night.

One-third of your life will have been spent sleeping.  Rest is essential to your good health.  There are other forms of rest besides sleep.  I do not suggest adding more television time to your schedule as a form of rest.

In addition to sleep, there are spiritual practices of rest like prayer, meditation or contemplative walks. These modalities of rest can be energizing. Prayer is not merely reciting rote statements of faith capped by blessings. Prayer can be what the Hasidim call “hitbodedut”, a walking conversation with God. You probably do this in a limited fashion already. Haven’t you talked to God when late to an appointment and looking for a parking spot?

There is also a long tradition of meditation in Judaism. In the Talmud, Tractate Brachot, we learn that the pious ones would get up early to ready themselves before beginning prayer. Torah beckons us to meditate on its words and Kabbalah asks us to meditate to deepen our relationship with God.

Torah also commands purposeful rest. This commandment is of great interest this year. Every seventh year the fields of the land of Israel are to lie fallow. This is known as the shmitah year and 5782 is such a year. Scientifically, a respite from farming is important to replenishing a field for future crops. Yet Torah offers another reason. In parshat Vayehlech, Deut. 31:10, Moses instructed the people that every seventh year. the year set for remission; the people are to gather so that the Torah can be read aloud to them. By this understanding, a reason to let the fields lie fallow is so that the people can reduce time devoted to work and make time for the study of the Torah.

As we don’t live in an agrarian society, the cycle of planting and lying fallow is unfamiliar to us. In our world workers spend more hours than ever at their employment.  During Covid times, the home has become a primary workplace for many. Vacations are a challenge to plan and execute.  More workers are foregoing their vacation leave than ever before. We work to excess, and rest is too often a result of exhaustion.

Let’s be inspired in this shmitah year to create opportunities for meaningful rest. Learn to meditate or take time to simply be. Whether you walk in nature or relax without distractions, give yourself the gift of you. And make this shmitah year even more meaningful by adding Torah to your days. I’ll study with you if you want.  I love talking Torah. It is a blueprint to a better life and improving the world. Why wouldn’t we make time for such worthy goals?

Shana Tova U’Metukah, a good and sweet year to all.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

One goal of the High Holidays is to be inscribed in God’s Book of Life. Whether veritable or metaphorical, the imagery works. There’s an essentially Jewish approach to getting name-dropped into the Book of Life.

The concept of a book of life comes from Exodus 32:33. In a dialogue with Moses after the Golden Calf apostasy, an angry God threatens to remove the sinners from his book. References to books of life and death follow in Ezekiel and the Babylonian Talmud.

The importance of the book imagery is how it helps us to focus our intentions during the High Holidays. Are we remorseful enough to merit having God put pen to paper on our behalf?

The sages and rabbis of our tradition advise that we start the High Holidays by asking forgiveness of our family and friends, even before we address God. This guidance reveals the core principle of Jewish life. To rescue our own selves, we start by repairing our relationships with others. Our respect for and appreciation of the individuals in our lives is a prerequisite to our approaching God for forgiveness. Once again, the ritual life of our tradition demonstrates that Judaism is found in relationships, our connection to others, and our relationship with God.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, open your book of relationships. Make connections with all whom you may have offended, which is everyone. Repair those bonds that elucidate who you are. With practice, you may be ready to address God for forgiveness by the time Yom Kippur rolls around.

Shana Tova U’Metukah, a good and sweet year to all.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

I am a sucker for baked goods. My taste in pastries has been refined over the years, from Chips Ahoy to bakery made black and whites, to baking my own meringue cookies.  No packaged cookie is as satisfying as sharing your home-made treats with family and friends. Sharing what we craft is a core element of happiness.

“Happiness is not ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” This is a teaching of the Dalai Lama. The Jewish approach would be to say, “what recipe do I have to follow to create happiness?” And of course, we have more than one answer!

Torah teaches that before we enjoy our produce, we bring the first fruits as an offering. Imagine how tempting it must be for the farmer to taste the bounty of his fields and trees. Our tradition says, wait. First, make it clear to God that you recognize that a gracious and divine source made all that you have possible. It was not your own actions alone.

Acknowledging the Source is the first element of enjoyment. The second is to be in relationship. Enjoyment comes when we share our meals with family, friends, priests, and strangers.

 “And you shall enjoy, all the goodness that the LORD your God has given you and your household, you together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst,” Deut. 26:11.

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

From the Harvard psychiatrist to the eastern mystic, every expert on positive psychology will tell you that an attitude of gratitude is the key to happiness. The Jewish tradition teaches that happiness is a function of feeling thankful. But our tradition says gratitude alone is insufficient.

To increase happiness we pair our appreciation with personal relationships. While we may make family the primary focus of our lives, happiness grows when we welcome friends and strangers into our homes. Torah teaches that real happiness comes when we share with a wider circle. Our tradition says that as the creator of happiness, you craft the greatest happiness by welcoming others to your home, even those who are strangers.

As we approach a new year, we might again be reminiscing about the large family meals of pre-Covid times. For those who are distanced from family or close friends by the pandemic, the nostalgia may be difficult to bear and disheartening. If you are blessed with abundance to share, here is your opportunity to share in your enjoyment.

We all must navigate this time of social distancing, figuring out how to increase joy by including friends or acquaintances who might not have the same bounty as you. Here’s my suggestion and it comes right from Torah. Be more inclusive with the meals at your patio table or in your zoom dining hall. Sharing a meal brings more joy because happiness is not ready-made but hand-crafted by you and is more vibrant when shared.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

A person I love called to ask if their adult son could attend Rosh Hashanah services and how much that single ticket would cost. I began wondering about the first time a synagogue decided to sell tickets to High Holiday services. That decision transformed the spiritual relationship into in a business transaction. Joni Mitchell understood the difficulty of this situation – it is as if they took all the trees, put them in a tree museum and charged a dollar and a half just to see ‘em!

The rabbis and cantors, and musicians and singers and Torah readers preparing for Rosh Hashanah offer their communities a chance to reboot their lives through prayer and song. Those attending might have a different perspective. Some “congregants” are inspired by the music, the meaning, and the majesty of a prayer service. Others think that Bruce Springsteen can inspire them just as well.

The August blues descend upon those service leaders. The 2021 version of the August blues combines the anxiety of selling spirituality, with the need to offer “hybrid” services, in person and online. In addition, there is the “competition.” Whether on basic cable or a live streaming service, anyone can watch services. You can enjoy sermons by gifted orators and hear melodies from incomparable singers. Perhaps you have thought: “Why should I pay for tickets when I already have the internet?”

If the High Holiday experience is to be sustained then the price of your ticket has to offer an experience that is appealing and meaningful. Gathering, whether virtual or in person, should be as compelling as attending a sporting event with your favorite team. You could watch the reruns on the late news but there is nothing as thrilling as sitting in the stands and watching your team score. (Rarely do fans complain as much about the many boring pauses in the game as they rave about the scoring).

I’ve rarely met a person as enthusiastic about attending High Holidays at a synagogue as arriving at a Springsteen concert or a playoff game. Yet, the single sales tickets for High Holidays are often more expensive!

I am not asking if your High Holiday experience is worth the price of the ticket. That would be falling into the failed business paradigm of Jewish communal life. The question I’d prefer to ask, is this: Will you give me the opportunity to connect your yearnings, hopes, and fears with a Jewish tradition that offers a beautiful, meaningful, and inspirational approach to life?

I don’t want to pave paradise and sell tickets to see the remaining trees. I want to offer inspiration to the community. I want to encourage people to engage in a process of self-improvement as a quest for Godliness. I want you to appreciate the forest and enjoy the trees.

The challenge of High Holiday Services is to deliver spiritual connections to satisfy your soul. The way Jews participate in the High Holiday experience of repentance and renewal is evolving. We will speak new words. We will select inspiring melodies. We will procure new conversations.

If we change too quickly, then we will lose the aspect of the High Holiday experience that feels authentic. If we change too slowly, eventually most everyone will stay home to watch what’s on cable.

If clergy provides truly stimulating and fulfilling experiences, then the task of Judaism is more likely to be fulfilled. We know that the paradigm must change, at least so that the ticket sales become gifts of the heart.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

The Jewish religion of today reminds me of a New York subway station with trains departing the station in opposite directions. Orthodoxy is focused on adherence to rigorous interpretations of Jewish law challenged by modernity. On the other track are progressive Jews who value the search for meaning over the hold of Jewish law and tradition. To some, the traditional ways are authentic. For others, the progressive ways are the better approach to modern challenges. Many are left on the platform not knowing which train to board.

The choice of how we proceed as our Jewish selves seems especially important as we approach the High Holidays. Is this new year more dire than others? I am disoriented by covid, unnerved by political discord, and fearful of environmental devastation. My hope for the New Year is to feel supported by our Jewish religion and community.

Which best maintains your equilibrium –a religion focused on dutiful practice or on providing moral inspiration? Each can be a track to provide comfort and support. Or are you feeling alienated from these choices?

The High Holiday experience should support being wholehearted with God. If prayer is boring, you might pray half-heartedly. If the ritual is inaccessible, you might lose heart entirely. If the offerings are too secular, then the prayer experience is banal.

To start 5782, let’s explore how “doing Jewish” brings you comfort, strength and satisfaction. Which train to wholeheartedness will you board? Can we alternate, embarking on the traditional train at times and then stepping off onto the platform to transfer to a more progressive journey? All the while, how do the conductors avoid jerky stops and starts to offer you a smooth prayer ride? And how do we avoid distractions which derail us from our purpose in gathering?

Service leaders for the coming High Holidays are grappling with these questions. Whether in person or on Zoom, we want to create an experience full of heart. At the Jewish Studio, we will offer the anchoring of tradition with the inspiration of expanding awareness. And with our voices, words, and instruments, we hope to conduct you on an inspiring ride through to Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

You might think that difficult times make us likely to ask God for help. If so, religion would be a thriving business today. Perhaps Judaism offers an alternative response to crisis. Instead of reaching toward God, we might have to start within ourselves when we are frightened or challenged.

In my lifetime, I’ve ducked and covered in response to the Cold War, become vigilant looking for terrorists and hijackers, and masked up to prevent infection. Yet, I feel ineffectual thinking I can’t do much to have a real impact on any of these many existential crises.

As a rabbi I could say that prayer is always available to us. For centuries, religions taught us to seek God in times of despair. After decades of existential threats, I am uncertain if seeking God is sufficient in challenging times.

Torah, at Parshat Eikev, teaches that there is something else we can do. The work to repair world starts in us. At the end of a 40 year wilderness journey, Moses gives this advice to the Hebrews: circumcise your hearts! This may seem an odd use of circumcision as metaphor but one that ultimately makes sense. I can’t change the world, but I can change me. I can peel away the emotional scar layers that obstruct my better nature. Let’s call it a spiritual open heart surgery.

What is the emotional peel we need? Here are a few suggestions.

Set aside being judgmental. Put away jealousies. Undo your sense of superiority. Peel away these layers that separate you from others. With a circumcised heart, you are better equipped to improve the world. No, you won’t influence Vladimir Putin or end the coronavirus. You will help to create a progressive society and contribute to the faith we need to overcome challenges.

When I’m feeling fear or dread, the repair is to circumcise my heart. In removing the layers of emotional plaque on my heart, I can be open to possibilities. I won’t end the arms race or cure Covid. I can cut away the callousness and ego that poisons the world. My circumcised heart is prepared to improve the world one relationship at a time.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame