Cemeteries are storytellers of history. Tombstones remind the world we were here. Deeply rooted in Jewish Tradition is the preservation of personal legacy and honoring the dead. Yet, cemeteries around the globe and in our neighborhoods are not getting the attention that these holy places deserve.

In Parshat Beshalach of Exodus, we read about preserving the dignity of our ancestors. “Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.”  There were many items Moses needed to take for the journey into the wilderness: food, tent material, clothing, animals . . . Yet, Moses retrieved Joseph’s bones and carried them, as important as any other object. Joseph wanted to be buried in the land of his ancestors. Decades later, Joshua laid Joseph’s bones to rest in Shechem.

Moses and Joshua exhibited extraordinary consideration for their ancestor, Joseph. These vignettes in Torah underscore our tradition of giving honor to the deceased. Today we honor the deceased with prompt burial and memorial services. However, the only tangible, lasting tribute to each person is the grave and their tombstone.

Jewish communities in America are preserving their cemeteries. Jewish Federations in various cities like Cleveland and Philadelphia have raised funds to restore Jewish cemeteries. An organization named Avoteynu (“our ancestors”), is repairing Jewish cemeteries throughout Europe, largely destroyed in World War Two or deteriorating due to neglect. The European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative created by the European Union, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, and the Heritage Foundation for Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries are some of the prominent groups working to save these testaments to Jewish life in Europe.

Torah and tradition teach us to care for these holy places. When cemeteries are attacked or destroyed, we are shaken by a phenomenon called “root shock.” Cemeteries are a link to our past and a testament to the history of living communities. The destruction of a tombstone or gravesite is a root shock that deeply disturbs our footing.

Similarly, other communities have experienced the same affronts to holy places. For example, here in Bethesda, the Moses Cemetery is one of the last surviving remnants of a historic Black community that once included a church, a school, and several dozen homes. The Moses cemetery hosts about 500 graves of former slaves and sharecroppers. Many were displaced from homes in the District of Columbia and pushed into adjoining farmlands in Maryland, along River Road. Montgomery county now owns this land. The Housing Opportunities Commission is selling the land to a private developer. The Bethesda African Cemetery coalition sued the County to protect the Moses Cemetery development.

As Jews, we understand the need to honor our dead, preserve our legacy, and maintain the sanctity of grave sites. I hope we extend our tradition to supporting our neighbors who have suffered the loss of their historic cemetery and are coping with the root shock of displacement and disrespect for their ancestors.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

In preparing to visit Alabama on a civil rights mission, I’ve been learning about the lingering effects of slavery. Among the issues for all of us to consider is whether reparations should be paid to African Americans. I found an example of reparations in the Torah that helped shape my thinking.

In the news this week, a committee in San Francisco has formally proposed reparations for eligible black residents. The payment amount would be $5,000,000 for those who could prove extended continuous residency and meet several other factors reflecting on the oppression suffered. The plan was designed to address “the institutional, City sanctioned harm that has been inflicted upon African American communities.”

In Parshat Bo (read this week), the tenth plague is about to start. Each Hebrew man and woman turns to their Egyptian neighbors and asks to “borrow” their fine silver and gold. Apparently, God has predisposed the hearts of the Egyptians to part with their valuables. This sacrifice is particularly noteworthy because the first nine plagues wiped out their livestock and crops.

I now understand this transfer of precious metals as reparations for the suffering of the Hebrew slaves. This first recorded act of reparations is not too dissimilar from the proposed reparations in San Francisco. The Egyptians offering their jewelry in Torah or the citizenry of San Francisco are not the people who were the oppressors. Further, the value of what the Egyptians gave was quite high, just as $5,000,000 per person is sufficiently high to bankrupt the City of San Francisco.

The issue of reparations begins with the collective responsibility of all who participated or are descended from those who participated in the oppression of other humans. In America, given the passage of time, all white people benefited from the oppression. To advocate for reparations is to recognize the white privilege dominant in America.

America is unlikely to achieve a consensus favorable toward reparations. This country’s citizenry has a tenuous commitment to justice for African Americans. When it comes to racial justice, Americans readily offer thoughts and prayers. I wonder if our citizenry has the holy motivation to repair the damage caused by slavery.

Countervailing winds are blowing. Conservatives have attacked affirmative action and circumscribed the voting rights of disadvantaged segments of society. At the same time companies and campuses have pursued diversity, equity, and inclusion as essential tenets. Black Lives Matter has garnered far-reaching support.

The idea of local governments making reparations might be a reaction to the federal government’s failure to promote racial justice in America.

God had to intervene to get the Egyptians to offer their precious goods. In fact, God sent nine plagues and still needed to soften the Egyptians’ hearts. No matter the difficulty in enabling reparations, Torah compels us to be vigilant for justice and loving-kindness. We were slaves in Egypt and received reparations on the way to freedom.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

The opening chapters of Exodus torment me. God waited decades to respond to the cries of the Hebrews in slavery. What kept the people resolute and strong while waiting for their redemption? I thought about the inspiration that sustained Jews during the Second World War. Most emblematic of that faith was the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was a spiritual leader in the Warsaw Ghetto. He is also known as the Aish Kodesh, or holy fire. Conditions in the Ghetto were abysmal; food was scarce, and disease decimated the four hundred thousand Jews imprisoned there. In that hellhole, Rabbi Shapira continued to run a secret synagogue, leading services, and delivering lectures to Jews there. He arranged marriages and helped arrange a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath. Each week, he wrote down his thoughts on that week’s Torah portion. Before the ghetto was destroyed, Rabbi Shapira buried his sermons for the world to find after the war.

While facing imminent death, Rabbi Shapira sustained people living in horrendous danger. Shapira gave people the strength to see meaning in even the difficult parts of life as part of a larger Divine plan.

Rabbi Shapira’s words recall the wisdom of Proverbs 3:5,

בְּטַ֣ח אֶל־יְ֭הֹוָה בְּכׇל־לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְאֶל־בִּ֥֝ינָתְךָ֗ אַל־תִּשָּׁעֵֽן׃

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart,

And do not rely on your own understanding.”

Faith is how Shapira believed that a person could sustain themself in difficult times. For Rabbi Shapira, acceptance of God’s ways lessened the pain at what was happening. He taught that, with faith, a person can bear more distress. Faith has the power to boost spirits, even when, God forbid, salvation does not come as hoped.

I understand Rabbi Shapira to have said either God will rescue us or God has a really good reason for our suffering. While Shapira’s faith burned with holy fire, his approach unnerves me. I have concerns about relying on God whose plan includes horrendous suffering. As opposed to Rabbi Shapira, I rely less on faith and more on actions. I rely less on God and more on people. For me, humans should be God’s Task Rabbits. The God in whom I have faith gave us the ability to repair the world with our own holy activities.

I don’t pretend that anything in my life, or in the lives of any of my contemporaries compares to the experience of the Shoah. In that truth, lies a personal difficulty. Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, had absolute faith in God while living in Hell. By comparison, I have cautious faith in God. My questioning faith pairs well with my suburban life in Potomac. When I most want a spiritual connection, I might hike mountains seeking God. I sometimes photograph beautiful scenery hoping to capture transcendence.

After the Shoah, many Jews lost faith. As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has explained, the destruction of European Jewry demands that we choose to enter again the covenant with God. To thoughtfully reenter the covenant with God requires pondering questions about God’s true nature. We evaluate God by standards of timeliness, skill, and engagement. For me, the Shoah begs these questions. When does God’s salvation come? Is God able to rescue and redeem? If God is listening, then why isn’t God acting?

For now, I am filled with questions – but I am also bursting with wonder and appreciation. I have wonderment for the Creator and appreciation for the world that was created. That is my faith, the faith of Rabbi Evan J. Krame of Potomac.

 

Season nine of “Finding Your Roots” has begun on PBS.  The show is immensely popular with amateur genealogists, active retirees, and armchair liberals. I’m hooked. Who doesn’t want to see Mandy Patinkin cry when he learns his relatives were killed by Nazis? Or when this season opens so that Julia Roberts and Ed Norton can discover that their ancestors were slave owners. Uncovering family history can be more than pleasant television.

The book we call “Exodus” (not the Leon Uris novel) is known in Hebrew by its first word Shemot, or “Names.”  It begins with a genealogic exploration. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household.” In the sentences that follow we learn the names of Jacob’s sons. Those who are named are remembered. The text also reveals that 70 people in total came down to Egypt. Yet only Jacob’s sons are named.

Let’s recall that Jacob’s sons numbered 12, and his daughter Dina made a baker’s dozen. Dina is not named. Presumably, Jacob had daughters-in-law. Women’s names are forgotten. By virtue of selective naming, the narrative focused on those who are named. Remembering men and not women sets the tone for a patriarchal Judaism.

Judaism is built upon recalling our roots. Even our silent prayer service, the Amidah, begins with a blessing for our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now we add Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Those that we bless and those that we name are each the beginning of a narrative. The storyline of our lives begins with our ancestors, men, and women.

I found greater purpose in conducting genealogic research from my discomfort with the male focus of how Exodus begins. The more I search, the more I learn, the more I learn, the more I have an appreciation for how I came to be me. These are stories I want my children and grandchildren to know and tell. Stories of their great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers.

Exodus begins with this lesson. You move forward after you look back. When you know from where you came, awareness becomes appreciation.  With appreciation for our past, gratitude deepens. With gratitude, greatness can emerge. But the story is only half true if told from the perspective of men.

My advice is to record and preserve your family history. Genealogical work is more than a hobby. It is a holy endeavor that gives honor to those who made our lives possible and sets a footing for future generations to create better lives and a better world. Especially true if you pay attention to your female ancestors.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

I often see the world through the lens of estate planning. Having worked in the field of estates and trusts for nearly forty years, I connect with Torah stories like the end of Jacob’s life. In the final chapters of Genesis, Jacob delivers final messages to his family that serve as his legal and spiritual will. He sets an example for us all. But first, let’s get back to me.

I am a proud long-time member of the AARP. And now I get discounts at museums, movies, and on Amtrak. I have a “mature” perspective on living. In forty years of lawyering, I primarily assisted clients with their estate planning. I have a lawyer’s perspective on dying. With my clients, we planned for the difficulties of aging: possible disability, end-of-life medical care, and funeral arrangements. I served my clients efficiently and stoically. And then I went to “rabbi school.”

From a rabbi’s perspective, I found that some clients welcome the connection between their legal needs and spiritual lives. These people appreciated having a “man of the cloth” guide them through the estate planning process. My interactions with these people made me a better counselor. As a spiritual advisor, my role is to make space for the soulful exploration of a person’s desires. This requires a contraction of one’s own self, what the Jewish mystics call “tzimtzum.”

So, let’s get back to Torah. Jacob flips the estate planning monologue by focusing on his descendants rather than on his bequests. He blesses them with his vision, discernment, and guidance. Jacob offers a unique message for each of his twelve sons and two of his grandsons.

Reflecting on Jacob, here’s my suggestion for 2023. Have personal conversations about your estate. Make it personal. Do you have a message to share with your family? Otherwise, your final communication to your family and friends will be legal documents focused on probate and taxes. Is that how you want to say goodbye?

You might not understand estate planning as a spiritual exercise. However, your choices – about who inherits your property, who you trust with your assets, or your end-of-life planning – all impart a moral meaning and have a philosophical association. Jacob set out the methodology for spiritual estate planning. Make a New Year’s resolution to engage with people you love in profoundly meaningful ways.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

Reading “I am George Floyd”, I took a deep dive into the dystopian and perilous lives of young black men in America. Among many examples, is the likelihood of arrest and incarceration. Black men are 7.5 times more likely to be falsely arrested or accused. The agony of a false accusation should bring tearful distress . . . to the police system. At least that is how I read Torah.

Joseph was the highest government official in Egypt after Pharaoh. Joseph looked Egyptian. Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him when they arrived from Canaan to purchase grain. For the return home, Joseph devised a plan to confound his brothers. He had his servants place a goblet in younger brother Benjamin’s sack of grain. Shortly after Benjamin and his ten brothers departed, Joseph sent men to catch them. They examined the sack for stolen goods, and finding the goblet, brought the brothers back to Egypt. Older brother Judah spoke to Joseph on behalf of the family. He pleaded with Joseph and relied upon God to explain the missing goblet. Finally, Joseph abandons the false accusation and begins to weep.

Joseph abused his power. At that time, Joseph was the government. He was the authority over the Egyptian nation. Subjects and citizens alike hope that their rights will be protected, and their safety ensured. Joseph’s brothers too anticipated fair treatment. Yet, Joseph toyed with them.

Of course, Joseph was emotionally wounded by his brothers who had dumped him in a pit and sold him into slavery. However, Joseph conducted a horrific test of his brothers’ character. Imagine the trauma of the eleven brothers. Nine of them plotted Joseph’s death. Decades later, was Joseph’s abuse of power their punishment? The mistreatment appears to be cruel, suffused with his vengeance.

How does the story of Joseph and his brothers resonate? For me, Joseph’s story is merely a cautionary tale. For men like George Floyd, the story of abusive authority was a real-life experience. That is why African American parents warn their sons to defer to authority and to be afraid of the police.

Just before his death, Floyd may or may not have passed a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill at a store. We will never know the truth. The Police lived down to Floyd’s expectations, smothering out life from his body.

Jewish prayers often begin with “Hiney Mah Tov,“ – how good it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together. George Floyd’s memory can serve as a reminder that living together harmoniously requires the proper use of power to protect and advance the rights of all people.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Trauma fills the Jewish soul. The suffering may be passing obscurely through the generations. Rabbi Tirzah Firestone’s book “Wounds into Wisdom” explores intergenerational trauma and in particular, the kind experienced by the children and grandchildren of Shoah survivors. Yet, the epigenetic passage of Jewish trauma is as old as Torah. One of the earliest examples is the tale of Joseph.

Joseph’s siblings sold him into slavery. Later his Egyptian master condemned Joseph to prison. Joseph found salvation through his skill as an interpreter of dreams. While in prison, Joseph interpreted the dreams of other prisoners. That skill led to a call from the palace to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. After successfully interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, Pharaoh appointed Joseph to serve as second in command over Egypt. Pharoah gave Joseph a wife with whom Joseph has two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh.

וַיִּקְרָ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם הַבְּכ֖וֹר מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה כִּֽי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כׇּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כׇּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי׃

Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.”

וְאֵ֛ת שֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖י קָרָ֣א אֶפְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עׇנְיִֽי׃

And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” Genesis 41:52 – 53.

Through his children, Joseph both addressed his own trauma and passed on his damaged psyche to the next generation. Joseph’s pain upon his sons. Long after Joseph’s death, Ephraim and Menasseh served as a testament to his suffering.

Intergenerational trauma is not always transferred so deliberately. As Rabbi Firestone explains, the psychic damage can pass from a parent through silence or angry outbursts, through the inability to show love or smothering protection.  While the experience of Shoah survivors is the most profound example, inter-generational trauma can be anyone’s experience.

Among the many insights Rabbi Firestone shares, I had deeply personal reactions. I wonder what traumas I inherited and how I can address them. Perhaps they show up in my dreams or in my times of melancholy. My other reaction was to contemplate how many people have I known who suffer from inherited trauma. Had I been kind or condemning when others acted out? Did I make room for the possibility that outbursts or destructive behaviors might have been inherited and not premeditated?

Not every person who has suffered trauma will be as understanding as Joseph.  He specifically named his children as a testament to Joseph’s tortured history. Without a moniker such as Ephraim or Menasseh, we may not know that trauma has been passed down within a family. Without knowledge of the trauma, we might not know what motivates friends or co-workers to act distastefully or disruptively.  What we can know, is that we have the capacity to be thoughtful and forgiving. As Plato said, “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Society has mythologized the sibling relationship with two narratives. The first is of siblings who are best friends, supportive of one another, and devoted. The other storyline is that of siblings whose rivalry burgeons on animosity and even terror. The key to getting past this dichotomy is to know that a blood relationship isn’t always needed to create a sibling relationship.

The book of Genesis is replete with tales of murderous and covetous siblings. Cain killed Abel. Esau threatened to kill Jacob. Joseph’s brothers hurled him into a pit and sold him into slavery. With brothers like these, who needs enemies?

Siblings won’t always get past their differences. Joseph and Esau reconciled but kept their distance. Joseph forgave his brothers, but the relationship remained tentative.

Torah offers very few positive examples of sibling relationships. Even Aaron and Miriam gossip about Moses. However, there are examples of friends who are like siblings. For example, the story of David and Jonathan, who were devoted to each other.

Proverbs do offer some wisdom about friendships.

אִ֣ישׁ רֵ֭עִים לְהִתְרֹעֵ֑עַ וְיֵ֥שׁ אֹ֝הֵ֗ב דָּבֵ֥ק מֵאָֽח׃

“There are companions to keep one company, and there is a friend more devoted than a brother.” Proverbs 18:24. We learn from Proverbs that two kinds of friends exist. The first kind of friend might be a companion but not entirely devoted or reliable. The second kind of friend is faithful and caring, unfailingly. This second category of friend fulfills a sibling role. Sometimes we have friends who are like devoted brothers or sisters.

You can have many companions. However, even one friend who is like a sibling is a great advantage in your life. Sometimes, a genuine or authentic friend is someone who sticks closer than a brother or sister. The friendship is steadfast; he or she will be there for you even more so than a family member. The word brotherhood describes the strongest of relationships. A friend who joins you in brotherhood or sisterhood is a trustworthy friend, indeed. If you are so blessed, give them a call today and let them know how grateful you are.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

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