Why do I attempt to accomplish so much every day? I’ve got a law practice, a busy rabbinate, non-profit work and I study Talmud each day. Perhaps the answer is modeled by our Patriarch Jacob. We both might suffer from the same sort of neuroses, “high-functioning anxiety.”

Jacob returned to Canaan with his wives, concubines, children, attendants, and lots of goats. In a rare Torah description of emotion, Jacob took action out of fear and anxiety. Anticipating a highly charged if not dangerous reunion with his older brother Esau, he implemented a strategy. Jacob sent emissaries ahead offering gifts to Esau. He divided his family into two camps to ensure that some might survive a deadly confrontation. And then Jacob went off on his own to spend the night.

We first knew Jacob as a master of subterfuge, a bit self-righteous, and a passionate player. And yet, Jacob is a patriarch whose name we invoke in our prayers three times a day. Our tradition does not define Jacob as a bad person. Rather, his complex character is what makes him admirable. For example, a generally negative trait like duplicity, in Jacob’s case, is also a pursuit of a God-inspired plan for the Jewish people’s future.

Jacob’s motivations, both holy and secular, compel him to be shrewd and purposeful. Jacob is a high achiever, who is able to successfully outplay his father-in-law, ingratiate himself to a combative brother, and resettle his family in a promised land. Anticipating a fraught reunion with Esau, Jacob maintained his focus, even while feeling apprehensive.

Many of us transfer our anxiety into hypervigilance in our professions, our family dynamics, and our social interactions. Rather than address the cause of the anxiety, we pride ourselves on being hardworking, detail-oriented, and helpful. Motivated by a desire for success, we build walls to insulate ourselves from processing constrictive emotions. Propelled by a fear of failure, high functioning anxious people hesitate to say “no.” We offer our help just to maintain peaceful relationships. We worry too much about what other people think of us. These are also the ingredients for burnout.

Jacob also modeled for us the antidote to high-functioning anxiety. Nervous and fatigued, Jacob spent the night alone. In a rocky retreat, Jacob wrestled a pugilist angel. Some Torah interpreters say that the angel is a metaphor for Joseph struggling with himself.  By dawn, the wrestling match ended, and Jacob had an encounter with God.

On the edge of a disaster for himself and his family, Jacob took a breather. He hit the off switch and created a spatial boundary. Retreating for a night, Jacob pursued a bit of self-care. He created the space for self-awareness and reflection.  He struggled with his ego and combatted his fears. Ultimately, he was blessed by God.

Jacob exited his retreat with a permanent injury to his leg. Perhaps his new limp was a reminder of his vulnerability. The injury may have been a blessing; a reminder for Jacob to slow down.

Unlike the agrarian society of the bible, we live in an information age. Our work life and personal life have merged on the screen of our iPhones. For many, the pandemic transformed their home from a sanctuary into a workplace. The high achievement ethos in our community morphed into persistent anxiety to function at peak performance all day and every day. During the pandemic, many could not even relax at home, competing to bake the best sourdough bread or binge-watch the most Netflix programs. Even the conversations around Peloton focused on beating our best times and competing with virtual friends. Our lives were propelled by anxiety.

Jacob’s story reminds us that achieving our best lives requires us to step away from the anxiety-inducing patterns of our lives and make space for God.  We might have to wrestle ourselves away from our egos and our fears. Otherwise, the high-functioning anxiety we suffer couldruin our lives. Rather, we can learn from Jacob, to step away long enough to retool our souls.  So go for a hike, unroll your yoga mat, take a nap, or read some poetry this coming Shabbat. Turn off the noise in your head about what you need to prove to others, and wrestle with giving space to your best self. High-functioning anxiety may drive you toward financial success or societal status but it is also injurious to your soul.

Rabbi Evan Krame

 

 

Covid kept many sequestered at home for months.  Others packed up their cars and hit the road.  Some were escaping challenges while some were searching for new opportunities.  As my adult children moved around the country over the past two years, I remained at home feeling unsettled.  Since Torah has some similar travel stories, I thought I might find some guidance in our texts.

Beginning with Abraham, it seems our ancestors moved frequently. First inspired by God, Abraham took his wife Sarah and nephew Lot to a promised land. Their journey brought them to Canaan, Egypt, the Negev and back to Canaan.  Only in death are Abraham and Sarah settled and that is in a cave in Hittite territory.

Our ancestor Jacob high-tailed it out of Canaan to evade the wrath of his brother Esau.  He journeyed back to the ancestral homeland that Abraham left. His sojourn there was two decades-long. Jacob returned to Canaan with two wives, twelve children (Benjamin not yet born), and lots of goats. The family’s mailing address kept changing as they went from Succoth to Bethel, to Migdal-eder, and eventually to Egypt.

Reviewing these texts, I realized that God communicated most pointedly when our ancestors were in transit.  For example, God spoke to Jacob on Jacob’s first night away from home. God promised that Jacob’s descendants would own the land of Canaan, even as Jacob fled that land. God promised that his descendants would be as many as the dust of the earth, even as Jacob slept on the ground with a rock for a pillow. Also, God promised to protect and accompany Jacob, even as Jacob ventured across unknown lands all alone.

I sometimes crave the personal experience of God afforded Abraham and Sarah and Jacob. God seems hidden to me while I am sequestered at home. Yet, I recall that many say that their experience of the Divine has been outdoors, on a  hike, or while moving in nature. Could it be that God is nearest when we are on the move?

I was discomforted when my children traveled across the country during pandemic times. Each was leaving challenging situations and searching for something more Eden-like. (Apparently, California has some of those idyllic qualities). I coped with my anxiety, but Torah gave me additional comfort.

My children may not have an experience of God or pursue encounters with God, but in their travels, they might be nearer to God.  At least that is my hope.  I pray that their experience of God is the protection promise offered to Jacob. And may the angels that kept Jacob from harm, bless my children, and all those who are on life’s journey whether near or far. Or at least may they know the blessing of parents that cherish them.

Rabbi Evan Krame

 

 

It is easy to become jealous while scrolling through social media. You might feel worse about yourself after scrolling through Facebook or Twitter. Vacation photos, wedding shoots, grandchild announcements – it can be enough to make you seriously envious. While the bases for jealousy have evolved, jealousy can become a life-threatening condition.

Jealousy is as old as the Bible.

Acting upon jealousy is a biblical phenomenon as well. We learn in parshat Toldot we learn of how the Philistines, jealous of Isaac and his wealth, stop up the wells serving Isaac’s flocks. These are life-preserving water sources for the flocks and Isaac’s clan. Add tribalism and fear to jealousy and we have a life-threatening situation.

Social media today is an amplifier of these precarious human sentiments. In October 2021, a Facebook whistleblower testified to Congress that Facebook knew the extent to which social media is harmful, especially to young women.  The testimony revealed nothing new. “Researchers have known for years that social media has a negative impact on how young women feel about themselves,” says Jennifer Mills is a professor of psychology at York University.

The Cyberbullying Crisis.

The linkage of social media and jealousy exposes a shadowy aspect of human nature. People are sometimes willing to cause harm acting on jealousy. Social media platforms are particularly good outlets for jealousy, often among teens and young adults, sometimes in the form of revenge. One result is the current cyberbullying crisis. Motivated by jealousy, tribalism, and fear, social media participants can become troublemakers and worse.

The tactics of cyberbullying include posting comments or rumors about someone online that are mean, hurtful, or embarrassing. Cyberbullying includes threatening to hurt someone, posting a mean or hurtful picture or video, posting false information, and even telling someone to kill themselves. As a result, targets of cyberbullying are at a greater risk than others of both self-harm and suicidal behaviors. Students who have experienced bullying are twice as likely to commit suicide.

Sadly, human nature has not much evolved in three millennia. Only the modalities of how we torment rivals have evolved. In ancient Canaan, the modality was stopping up wells. Today, jealous people attack through social media. Either way, we need to spend more time confronting the human predisposition to harm rivals of whom we are jealous. We must learn the lesson that jealousy is a dangerous and disruptive emotion.

Rabbi Evan Krame

 

 

The press analyzed every single body movement as the two brothers walked behind their grandfather’s casket.  William and Harry had not spoken for more than a year. Perhaps the world hoped that these royal siblings would end their estrangement.  In a tale reminiscent of a biblical story, we had the opportunity to watch them and perhaps reexamine our own opportunities for reconciliation and growth.

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh in 2021 was a chance for Harry and William to reunite. In Torah, we read a similar story about the funeral of Abraham, attended by his oldest and scorned son Ishmael and his younger, favored son Isaac. Torah being less investigatory than the British press offers nearly no details of the reunion.

Presumably, Ishmael and Isaac have not been together since Abraham gave Hagar a skin of water and sent Ishmael into the wilderness. Sarah had demanded Ishmael’s dismissal. God backed Sarah on that deal. Isaac was to be the next progenitor of the Jewish people. Ishmael’s crude ways and tainted pedigree were incompatible with the future Jewish ethos.

Some 60 years passed from Ishmael’s expulsion to the reunion. Ishmael and Isaac stood together, peacefully, before their father’s internment. Subsequently, there were no other reported sightings of Ishmael and Isaac together.

Our tradition has not been kind to Ishmael. The great Torah commentator Rashi describes Ishmael as a highwayman.  The rabbinic imagination has historically been harsh even to Ishmael’s descendants, described in Torah as demons of the outhouse! (kiddushin 72a:10)

Some commentators wondered if  Ishmael arrived to collect an inheritance. If Ishmael was so motivated, he was disappointed to find that Isaac was the sole inheritor of Abraham’s wealth. We can imagine the conversation between Ishmael, laying claim to the estate as the firstborn, while Isaac responds with his superior position by virtue of being Sarah’s and not a slave woman’s son. Ishmael might also have reminded Isaac that they are both sons of the covenant, Ishmael having been painfully circumcised at age 13, while Isaac was an unaware 8 day old when circumcised. Sadly for Ishmael, circumcision conveys no rights of inheritance.

Alternatively, Ishmael’s reappearance at this funeral reasserts his claim to the land of Canaan promised to all of the descendants of Abraham. The Rabbis try to jettison that claim stating that we are B’nai Israel. The children of Jacob are the sole inheritors of that land. In fact, Ishmael and his descendants were not sedentary homebodies.  As seen later in Torah, Joseph’s brothers sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelites, beginning Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt.

Perhaps  Ishmael’s banishment was precisely because Ishmael had not inherited Abraham’s good character. Greed could be a motivating factor for his return upon Abraham’s death. Yet, as the son of an enslaved woman, Ishmael would have had no reasonable expectation of inheriting. His return appears to be purely gratuitous and born of a sense of obligation.

The expansiveness of time allows for kinder interpretations by us as modern commentators. Doesn’t Ishmael demonstrate good character rejoining his brother to honor their father? The death of a parent or righteous person typically brings people together, even if temporarily. Ishmael shows character when he set aside anger for the greater purpose of honoring his father.

Perhaps Ishmael was working through his agony of being rejected and expelled by his father. Returning to bury his father may have been Ishmael’s way of exorcising his rejection demons.  Attending this burial required Ishmael to confront his pain, a necessary step toward healing.

Ishmael’s return may also represent a bit of kind-heartedness. Proverbs 27:10 reminds us “a close neighbor is better than a distant brother.” Showing up demonstrates a willingness to stand alongside his half-brother and extended family. The medieval commentator David Kimhi (“Radak”) opined that Abraham must have raised Ishmael to behave well and know the ways of the Lord. To condemn Ishmael as evil is to criticize Abraham.

Just as Harry’s appearance at his grandfather’s funeral represented only a fleeting reunion, so too Ishmael’s attendance at Abraham’s funeral appears to have been ephemeral. Yet, there are lessons to be learned. Whatever Ishmael’s wild nature might have been, he was present when needed and attentive to familial obligation.  If he harbors anger at his rejection and expulsion, he manages those negative emotions sufficient to stand shoulder to shoulder with his brother, Isaac.

Ishmael’s appearance at his father’s funeral demonstrates for all of us a pathway to overcoming estrangements and setbacks.  Ishmael’s life was upended by Abraham, and Isaac was the winning rival for their father’s investment. Yet, he demonstrates for us the strength of character to show up in peace for this sacred and transitory moment in time.

The world remains riveted to the story of the royal family of England, and its defectors, Harry and Meghan, who have decamped to California. As tantalizing as the feuding might be, there is also the great expectation of a reunion between brothers Harry and William. On the day of their grandfather’s funeral, Harry shows up with all of his hurt and a bit of contrition. Whether reconciled or recalcitrant, they carried on the biblical traditions of showing up, remaining civil, and keeping the peace.

Rabbi Evan Krame

 

 

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