Many Jews feel compelled to update their Passover seder each year. You might make your seder more entertaining with a new au courant theme. Other seder updates take on the issue of freedom where people are in danger. Topical seders can make Passover more relevant to our modern lives. That is why I’ll be talking about Ukraine this year.

Last year’s seder conversations included freedom from Covid. The year before that the popular theme was . . . Covid. Over the years seders have highlighted important issues like civil rights, Muslim refugees, the labor movement, and Soviet Jewry. Some themes are represented by additions to the seder plate. We honor women’s rights at the seder by placing an orange on the seder plate. If you aren’t familiar with the symbolism, it has to do with a juxtaposition of competing ideas of excluding and including women in Jewish religious life.

Reflecting on a current issue through the lens of the seder is an important tool. Starting with our liberation from Egypt, we can better empathize with other enslaved or imperiled people. As the Haggadah says, we are supposed to feel as if we ourselves were set free. We can amplify that understanding when also considering a modern story of a people in peril.

On the other hand, some feel pressured to create an entertaining Passover seder. I saw new Haggadahs created around themes like the Disney movie Encanto and the television show The Golden Girls. These will be added to the pantheon of the Schitt’s Creek Seder and the Mrs. Maisel Seder. These leitmotifs make the seder enjoyable. Yet, they detract from Seder’s best feature, the opportunity for family and friends to express gratitude for the freedom we enjoy.

This year the world is more imperiled than last year. The war in Ukraine has disrupted the lives of 44 million people. Many Ukrainians have emigrated or escaped. Many more are trying to reach safety. There is no liberty when sirens are blaring the warning that bombing raids are upon your city. There is no freedom when your family is hiding underground to stay alive.

This year, I want to reflect on Ukraine at our Passover Seder.  I will add an icon to the seder table in honor of Ukraine and I urge you to do the same. Perhaps you can use a blue and yellow flag or sunflowers which are symbols of Ukraine. You might add an olive to your seder plate, to remind us that the olive branch is a symbol of peace. When you reach the part of the seder where we discuss the symbolism of matzah, maror, and the bone, point to the symbol of Ukraine as well.

This Passover let’s focus on the core reason for the Seder. We should take time to appreciate our freedom and commit ourselves to liberating all people from oppression.

Rabbi Evan Krame

Remember Ivory Soap, claiming to be 99 44/100% pure? That soap slogan began in 1882, at a time when Americans expected women to be pure. Purity tests remain part of our culture. However, the application of purity tests has corrupted and concretized the concept of purity into classifications of good and evil, an approach damaging to society and religion.

Purity tests of the late 19th century focused on women’s virginity. Women’s sexuality was subject to harsh judgment. Virginity until marriage was expected. That purity test has harmed women ever since.

The temperance movement emerged, equating the consumption of alcohol with impurity.  From 1919 to 1933, the United States banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages.  Instead of reforming society, banning alcohol caused an increase in lawless behaviors. These examples of striving for purity demonstrate the dangers of equating purity with goodness.

In 15th Century Spain, purity of blood was an obsessive concern. During the inquisition, Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or be expelled or be put to death. Fanatical Catholic leaders continued to have hatred for these new Christians because of their belief in the unfaithfulness of the “deicide Jews” (God-killing Jews). It was believed that this unfaithfulness persisted and was transmitted, by blood, to their descendants, regardless of the sincerity of their conversion to the Christian faith. Consequently, Old Christians “of pure blood” considered New Christians impure and therefore morally inadequate to be members of their communities. Author Jerome Friedman explains that medieval anti-Judaism became modern anti-Semitism through these concepts of purity.

Purity tests in our times abound in politics. Activists on the extremes of the political spectrum demand adherence to ideologies or philosophies. Absent their strict devotion, leaders are subject to alienation and denigration. Even more dangerous is the cult of personality that demands 100% faithfulness to a given leader. The application of purity principles has stratified and calcified political positions. The ability to compromise has given way to the opportunity to demonize.

Purity tests have stratified discussions about Israel in the Jewish community. Advocacy for Israel has given way to the condemnation of those who disagree with you about Israel’s policies. The discourse about the Holy Land has become most ungodly.

In this week’s Parshat Metzorah, purity principles are applied to houses, to women after childbirth, and to men after seminal emissions. In none of these instances are people making choices to be impure. The dichotomy between purity and impurity is part of the rhythm of living. The Torah’s purpose is not to vilify the impure but to lift us up to holiness. God asks that the Israelites be put on guard against impurity, not suffer because of it.

Impurity transfers from person to product, whether it is the sheets of a bed or a tent we enter. The quality of being impure is both tangible and intangible. The task of shedding impurity engages the mind in the duty to seek holiness. Purity and impurity are not opposites. They are different aspects of holiness.

More recently in Jewish history, there is a movement to reclaim purity as a spiritual practice. Mayyim Hayyim was founded in the Boston area over twenty years ago to elevate the ancient practice of mikveh. Inspired by author Anita Diamant, Mayyim Hayyim seeks to update the ritual of immersion by creating a very appealing physical structure and attending to innovation in its spiritual approach. Dignity, modesty, and inclusiveness are paramount to Mayyim Hayyim. This one mikveh has become a “living waters” movement around the globe to reclaim the concept of purity as a striving for holiness rather than as a measure of goodness.

Immersion in the mikveh is not only for women. As noted in Parshat Metzorah, men need to cleanse themselves in ways that purify the soul, with mikveh being one such modality.

Jewish life should also be a striving for purity of intentions. Our tradition demands that we care for the stranger, help the widow and orphan, and follow paths of peace. Nowhere are we directed to opine on the purity of others, whether it is their sexual or political proclivities. The meaningfulness of our lives should not be about testing others. Instead, we should be challenging ourselves. As history demonstrates, purity tests are harmful to individuals and to society. Similarly, our approach to purity is an essential element in the future health of Judaism.

Rabbi Evan Krame

My mother-in-law loved to refer to herself as the chief cook and bottlewasher. She was a multi-tasking caterer, grandmother, and volunteer. At the time we marveled at her energy. She is a slacker by today’s standards! Everyone is busier than ever. And Torah may have set the race in motion!

In the Torah portion Tazria, we learn of the skin affliction often misunderstood to be leprosy. Who are the diagnosticians of this disease? It is the priests. The priests have duties of tending to the Mishkan, judging between disputants, and teaching.  They also were responsible for the sacrificial offerings including the burnt offering, meal offering, dough offering, sin offering, the guilt offering, the release of the scapegoat, peace offering, heave offering, drink offering, incense offering, and thanks offering.

Torah doesn’t teach the priests how to balance their time. In our times, the priestly cult is gone replaced by our modern cult of the busy. The priests were the elite class of their time. Now the busier we are the more we appear to be successful.

Our current culture encourages constant action.  Downtime is wasted time.

The antidote is found in the heart of our religious traditions. The best medicine for any illness, physical or mental is rest. When the priests diagnosed Tazria, the ill person was sent out of the camp where they were idle.

Are you tired because you are too busy? Often missing in our daily routines is the time to rest. Even during the pandemic, many were anxious to fill their daily schedules. Binge-watching television became a competitive sport.

I fear being bored. I have avoided downtime. And perhaps my approach is not the healthiest. Even as we anticipate retirement from work, friends ask “what will you do with your free time?” Instead, we might ask “how will you enjoy having more control of your day?”

The key to life has always been to find the balance. Torah teaches us how to be both productive and how to recognize when it is time to take a break. As Ecclesiastes might have written, there is a time to be busy and a time to rest.

Rabbi Evan Krame

March 12, 2022 was the two-year anniversary of the covid pandemic shutdown. At first, we were obsessed with purity – wiping down groceries, wearing masks, and isolating ourselves from social contact. As covid has demonstrated, the pursuit of purity must change with the times.

For Jews, the pursuit of purity is a central precept. The sacrifices offered had to be pure. The foods we ate had to be pure. In Torah, purity was interwoven with holiness, and holiness is commanded by God. Torah teaches that if we are scrupulous in following the laws, we bring God’s presence among us. Yet, the ancient approach to achieving purity needs to adjust to new realities.

Looking at Parshat Shmini for this week, we read about the pursuit of purity in sacrificial protocols and the selection of kosher animals. While the sacrificial cult of Judaism is interesting reading, its laws are now disconnected from our lives. Alternatively, the designation of which animals are kosher remains in force. Meanwhile, it may be time to reimagine these kosher laws to better serve the needs of our planet and its people.

Here’s an example. A Jewish friend was visiting town. He asked for assistance in procuring a Shabbat chicken dinner for his family to eat at their hotel. I offered to purchase a prepared meal at the kosher supermarket. My friend asked, is the chicken organic? and free-range? His primary concern was for the welfare of the planet and the animals.

I am scrupulous about avoiding unkosher animals as proscribed by Parshat Shmini. I also understand that we must now supplement those practices. Can I reduce my consumption of animal products? Can I help to reduce waste in packaging and avoid single-use plastics? These questions are also a form of kashrut. The updated kashrut would be a pursuit of purity that aligns with the needs of people and our planet.

We can best expand God’s presence when we pursue holiness in our eating practices. To be kosher should mean striving for purity in our food choices as a demonstration of our humanity.

Rabbi Evan Krame

Habib Rahman, the Lord Mayor of Newcastle, in the UK, has helped organize relief for the Ukrainian city Novograd-Volynsky. These two cities aligned through an international network of municipalities named Newcastle (Novograd in Ukrainian means Newcastle).  My great-grandmother, Anna, left Novograd-Volynsky in 1911. But for her, I might not be writing this today, when my thoughts about Ukraine are influenced by a Muslim mayor in Newcastle.

As war rages in Ukraine, I researched Novograd-Volynsky, in particular. The community’s history has been documented by Leonid Kogan, a Jewish historian living in that region. Jews began to arrive there in the 1480s. Until the 20th Century, they lived in relative security. I corresponded with Kogan to learn more about my family. I only knew of my great-grandfather, Azriel Krasnastovsky, who was a shoemaker and died in 1908. Kogan helped me to identify the names of family members who remained in Novograd-Volynsky. Yosef, brother to Azriel, moved east to Kazakhstan during World War II. While he survived the war, his two sons died as soldiers.

The larger story of Novgorod-Volynky’s Jews is also a story of ongoing depravity and oppression. As World War I ended and Communism arose, the Jews were caught between revolutionary Bolsheviks and marauding Nationalists. In turn, bands of soldiers and gangs of peasants robbed, brutalized, and murdered the local Jews. Kogan recorded stories that are too horrific for me to repeat here.

The killing continued in each of the succeeding decades. In the 1930s, Stalin starved Ukraine and murdered intellectuals. In August 1941, most of the remaining Jews of Novgorod-Volynsky were shot by Nazi death squads.

Now, we are witness to another, and perhaps a final, sad chapter for the Jews of Novograd-Volynsky. Help for this region is coming from people like Mayor Rahman of Newcastle, who knows about senseless cruelty. As I researched Novograd-Volynsky, I came upon this story. Lord Mayor Habib Rahman’s father Azizur was stabbed to death in 1977, 10 days after arriving in London from Bangladesh. Azizur Rahman was working in a curry restaurant. A disgruntled patron returned with a knife and murdered Azizur. Shortly after, Rahman’s mother moved the family away from London.

In 2021, Mayor Rahman and his family returned to the restaurant for the first time in an act of reconciliation with the past. Mr. Rahman praised his mother for being a “tower of strength and a true symbol of humanity” who had led the family in forgiving the killer in accordance with their Islamic faith. I thought of the strength of my great-grandmother Anna who brought her young family to the United States after the death of her husband.

As I reflected on Mayor Rahman’s story, I reflected on my own relationship with Ukraine. I have been tentative in my support for Ukraine. Jews were too often attacked by Ukrainians and I am wary of them. However, now is the time to release resentments. I am inspired by Mayor Rahman and his family. Now it is time for me to forgive in accordance with my faith.

We celebrate Purim this week, perhaps as a reminder that the Jewish people have long been targets of hatred. Sometimes we outsmart the enemy as Esther did in the Purim story. Sometimes we escape to safety as my great-grandmother did. Too often, we fall victim to our adversaries.

Purim celebrations this week will be overshadowed by the war in Ukraine. Yet, we will honor this festival. Leonid Kogan shared that the small Jewish population of Novograd-Volynsky in the Soviet era still gathered to celebrate Jewish holidays. Kogan posted a picture of a Purim gathering in 1977.  It is with those Jews in mind, that I will celebrate Purim in 2022.

For all those who have ancestors from Ukraine, for all those whose relatives were victims of hate, and for the sake of our Jewish heritage, we gather for Purim. We gather in safety and freedom. We gather in recognition that our people have been bequeathed a legacy of resilience. We gather to say that being Jewish means standing up to tormenters like Haman or Putin.

May the Holy One who makes peace in the heavens bring peace down to all who cherish life.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

The winner of Ukrainian “Dancing with the Stars” was Volodymyr Zelensky, then actor and comedian, and now President.  Zelensky heard the call of justice and freedom, becoming a world leader. He has invited others, Ukrainian and European, Jewish and Christian, to honor that call as well.

The call to action is not a conversation. It is a sacred summons or a holy appeal. The call is an assemblage of political, sociological, historical, and theological constructs. The answer to the call is action, not mere words. Zelensky’s duty is to have faith in his people and nation, leading them through the most perilous time of their lives.

Others drawn to political or spiritual service describe “hearing the call.” As one of my teachers said to a group of prospective rabbis, one does not become a rabbi is if one could choose to do anything else. To hear the call is to be compelled into service for a purpose beyond one’s needs and comprehension.

The third book of the Torah begins with the word “Vayikra,” meaning God called.  In this case, Moses is given instruction as to how the people shall offer sacrifice to God. Most times God speaks to Moses saying, (viyidaber HaShem el Moshe, laymor). In this case, God called to Moses from the “Tent of Meeting (the Mishkan).” And the holiest of Jewish leaders heard that call, yet again.

Great people who truly get the call have the discretion to know if the call is authentic and valid. The call might come from the Mishkan, from the cries of children, or the yearning for true freedom.

Some believe that they are called to pursue their own passion. Idealizing the pursuit of passion can lead to failure, and with it disgrace, self-loathing, and confusion. When one idealizes their passion, then anything less than success is unacceptable. Undue passion may lead to overconfidence and detrimental outcomes. If one believes that their call to action, their passion, is directed by history or God, then they may delve into insane zealotry . . . like so many autocrats before.

The calling is about following a higher purpose rather than the pursuit of a specific outcome. To be called to service is to stand at the altar of holiness, for freedom and for justice. The leaders who are truly called, as if from the tent of meeting, are those who value life and liberty. And may God bless the leaders who have answered the call of preserving and protecting a more Godly world.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

I recently visited the Ukraine memorial in Washington, DC. It is a bas-relief commemorating millions of deaths in Ukraine in the 1930s. Millions of Ukrainians are again imperiled. Families are being ripped apart, others are seeking refuge in new lands, and many are fighting for a treasured homeland. These stories are familiar to those who know Jewish history.

Jews inherit the trauma of generations who endured times of great peril. From the Assyrian invasion of Israel in the 8th century BC to the destruction of European Jewry, nations of the world assaulted the Jewish people time and again.

Perhaps the miracle of Judaism is that the Jewish people persist despite the millennia of oppression and hatred. Judaism has survived in part because of our attachment to the land of Israel. Jews in the diaspora have dreamed of Zion even when we Jews had no hope of returning.

The reports from Ukraine show a similar attachment to the land. The Ukrainian people are committed to defending their nation. We can appreciate reverence for land as a core Jewish value.

Yet a superior Jewish value is the preservation of life. Exactly these competing values challenge Ukrainians today. Some are leaving their homes and homeland to preserve life. Others are defending their homeland, risking life to protect their land. And the evil Putin, covets land and abhors life.

The Jewish vision for the future is of a world at peace. All attachments to land and nations will be released.  As said in the last lines of Talmud tractate Ta’anit 30b: “In the future, in the end of days, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will arrange a dance of the righteous, and He will be sitting among them in the Garden of Eden.” Until then, our mission is to preserve life. And history will record how we respond to Ukraine’s call for help.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

A favorite icebreaker used at retreats and business meetings asks you to reveal one fact people don’t know about you. One of my “secrets” is that I was Federation’s campaigner of the year in 1999. Fundraisers confront strong emotional reactions. Separating a person from their wealth is tricky business. Yet, Torah teaches us that the motivation for giving is worth exploring. With the right inspiration and appropriate project, fundraising can and should be a holy process.

Fundraising is anxiety provoking for both the professional and the donor. The key to a satisfying fundraising process is understanding what motivates the donor to become a giver. The insight into motivation teaches us as much about ourselves as we learn about the successful campaign.

Exodus details two fundraising campaigns. The first reported campaign funded the golden calf construction project. The second responded to God’s order that the Hebrews construct the travelling tabernacle or mishkan. In addition to listing the materials needed like dolphin skins, refined metals and acacia wood, the text describes the gift-giving process.

There was a flood of offerings. This is a fundraiser’s fantasy. So much stuff was offered that Moses said: “enough!” In a cursory reading, you might first focus on the spirit of generosity. I am intrigued by the emotions of the donors.

Only the donors prompt to present their jewels and hides to Moses were participants. Those who lagged behind were excluded from giving. What motivated some to rush forward with their gifts while others were unhurried?

Recalling the context, the mishkan fundraising project takes place in the wake of an apostacy. The Hebrews fashioned and worshiped a golden calf. Perhaps those who celebrated the shiny animal figurine felt fear, shame and guilt. Embarrassment, remorse and fear are powerful motivators. Perhaps those who contributed to the casting of the calf were fast to contribute out of contrition. Or perhaps they were slow to contribute, feeling confused and fearful.

Perhaps those who donated first did not worship the golden calf.  In supporting for the second recorded fundraiser, the Hebrews understood that the mishkan filled a holy and communal need. The mishkan was a place to meet and greet God. The early donors delighted in their gift as a celebration of true holiness.

Charity given for a selfless and sacred purpose is the superior choice. Charity given for creating a devotional icon is abhorrent. Somewhere in the middle are those who donate out of fear or to assuage guilt and shame.

In the 20th century, charitable giving was often an expression of fear – for Israel’s security or the Jewish future. Charity was a way to assuage guilt and shame for our consumerism or insensitivity to people in need. Giving Jewishly was a proxy vote; an easier way to show up Jewishly as opposed to active participation in communal Jewish life.

What works to motivate fundraising in this century is baffling to me.

What motivates you to be charitable? Take some time to look inward to find what inspires you to give. If fear or shame or guilt emerges, then you might wish to take time to explore ways to elevate the soulfulness of your giving. Most importantly, avoid funding the golden calves that come crashing down.  Rather be charitable to support a real connection to Godliness.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

It is awards season.  From the Winter Olympics through to the Oscars, talented men and women will be rewarded with the recognition of their skills. Often, they will point skyward and offer thanks to God. Regardless of whether the artist giving the speech is religious or spiritual, many express a belief that God helped them to receive their award.

God might not be voting for award nominees. Yet, our tradition acknowledges that God is the source of our skills. In Torah this week, we read of a time when expertise and talent were a specific part of God’s plan.

The stage was set at the foot of Mount Sinai. God provided Moses with extensive details on how to build the mishkan, a traveling tabernacle. God described all of the materials needed, from copper and gold to wood carving and dolphin skins.  Afterward, God selected the general contractor.  God named Bezalel as the chief artisan. As Torah states:  “I (God) have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft.”

God has endowed each of us with certain skills, abilities, and knowledge. In recognizing our God-given gifts, we face two challenges. The first challenge is for each of us to identify and nurture that talent. Understanding our abilities as gifts from God instills both a sense of reverence and modesty. To waste our talents is like an affront to God.  And to presume that our talents come solely from our own efforts is hubris.  The second challenge is for us not to value our individual worth by comparing our talents to those of others. Only a few will win awards, yet all of us are created with infinite value.

I have my reservations about stating that God is responsible for each success or failure in our lives. I don’t have a belief that God selects the winners and losers among us. Yet, each of us can appreciate the talents we have. We don’t need an award to express gratitude to God.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Clothing design can be a matter of life and death. At least that is how I understand the High Priest’s garments described in Torah.  In fact, the sartorial design of life’s yin and yang is seen on the hem of the High Priest’s garment.

Tiny pomegranates and bells enwrapped the hem of the ornate robe. The pomegranates were sewn in blue, red, and purple thread. The bells were golden. By virtue of their abundance of seeds, pomegranates became a symbol of life’s fullness. The pomegranate on the robe tells us that life itself is a tapestry of color and design. Meanwhile, the bells indicate that life is finite.  Bells are tolled when a soul departs. The cold metal and deadening sound signal a solemn moment of passing.

Subsequent verses describe the association of the bells with death. The text advises that Aaron, the high priest, by wearing such a garment will make noise. The clothing serves to announce both his arrival and departure within the sanctuary. The announcement has as much to do with holiness as it does with heralding the High Priest’s arrival. After describing the role of the golden bells, the text adds the words “וְלֹ֥א יָמֽוּת (v’lo yamoot”) lest he die.” Following the rituals of approaching God, down to the hem of the clothing, are indispensably critical. Holiness is in the details and failure to follow the instructions can be disastrous.

In modern times, each of us feels empowered to question the rules and demand proof.  In our search for meaning within religious practices, we deconstruct Jewish rituals. The dissection of sacred activities in a search for logic or purpose often ends up like the frog in a laboratory. Once dissected, you can’t put the frog back together again. Ultimately, our experimenting and prodding obfuscate the fundamental message of the Torah, the path toward appreciating life.

For those inclined to listen, the Torah teaches a life lesson by describing the design of the priest’s garment. The opposite of death (bells) is the fullness of life (pomegranates). We are alternatively graced with pomegranates and bells – both the fullness of life and the loss. Without death, we might not cherish life. Without the fullness of life, we might long for death.

We can discern important life lessons from seemingly archaic rituals. If we pay attention to the details, even the hem of the priestly garment is like a Ted Talk on life! All we need do is sit with the Torah text and weave its colors into the fullness of our life.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame