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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a Shaker hymn that says it best.

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

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

Rabbi Evan Krame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

Abusers of power undermine our society. Whether politicians or rabbis, those entrusted with power often betray their privileges. Thereafter comes the “conversation” about abuse, power and privilege. The problem is made worse by the internet which gives rise to new and more complex power dynamics. Between the right to free speech and the privilege of an internet connection, lies a tortured path. When powerful people abuse their privileges, we can easily call them to task on social media and listservs. Yet, using the internet to correct, warn or reprimand is also fraught with abuses.

The laws in parshat Mishpatim, instruct us to guard our speech, especially when it comes to questions of guilt or innocence. Exodus Ch. 23:1.  Do not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness: 23:7 Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer. Judaism offers a deep appreciation for the power of words. Talmud teaches that words created the universe and words can destroy a life. Similarly, our testimony against another person might alter the course of their lives.

In recent decades, the internet gave a new dimension to the power of speech as an instrument of justice. Each of us is empowered as an individual media outlet, able to blog, vlog, and podcast, or share ideas widely on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Reddit and more.  Given these platforms, we can express our opinions with great effect. Our pronouncements can ascribe guilt to people whether we know them or not, assessing them along the spectrum from rudeness to felonious behavior.

In response to people who have caused harm, the internet can be a tool to warn others, create community among victims, and share resources. Yet, those who undertake to share concerns, criticism or condemnations also have obligations to limit their words. In every case, each of us should stop before posting to ask, as Bernard Meltzer urges – “Is it true?” ”Is it kind?” ”Is it necessary?” – and add, “is it helpful?”

That pre-broadcast analysis of what we share on the internet is a holy endeavor. The first step is to be a fact checker.  We know that gossip, whether spoken or posted, may contain kernels of truth but ultimately is not factual.  Before speaking against another person, we should be certain of our facts.

The second step is to be caring enough to even consider the feelings of the person whose actions offend us. Without giving solace to a person who has caused harm, can we also demonstrate some concern for another person despite their doing a bad thing? As Bryan Stevenson likes to say, we are “more than the worst thing we have done.” Within Stevenson’s creed is the assumption that each of us is an imperfect creation, likely to behave badly at times.

The third step is perhaps the most difficult. We may feel justified in sharing our thoughts, and even be aggrieved by a third party’s offense. Yet, our own sense of satisfaction does not give the penumbra of necessity to our posts.

Finally, I would add, ask if your words provide a warning of harm to avert further offenses, or provides information likely to instruct proper behavior.

And our personal assessment or attacks on others should take into context the offending person’s position. All people make mistakes and sometimes abuse their power. The assessment of persons entrusted with power, such as political leaders, teachers, doctors, and rabbis demands a higher level of public scrutiny.

The response to people whose bad behaviors caused deep or repeated harm demands appropriate public warning. Yet, consider if your additional warnings are needed and deserved. When is our carping about another person’s inappropriate or even unlawful behavior an exercise in serving our own needs, licking our wounds, rather than benefitting the recipients of our postings?

Every person will at some point act improperly or even illegally. You would not want every infraction announced and revisited. Accordingly, we should be circumspect about our public criticisms of others.  How we are treated when we err or abuse our power may reflect how we have treated others. Ultimately, the golden rule reminds us that how we regard using electronic media is how we may be regarded in turn on Facebook and listservs.

Jewish law offers no specific instruction on the dangerous confluence of social media and the abuse of power. The power to communicate using a laptop is a privilege we should regard as holy. Perhaps we need a Torah of the internet teaching the right use of privileges and the righteous use of power.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

Boundaries can keep us protected. With concern for health and safety we learn that there are things we don’t touch, and even times when we don’t look. Of course the Torah sets out a compelling case of healthy boundaries serving as holy behavior, applicable to today’s hyper-electronic world.

At Sinai, before God revealed God’s self, God gave Moses a warning. First, Moses told the people not to touch the mountain. Then, on the morning of God’s revelation, God further told Moses to warn the people not to look at God’s manifestation above the mountain. Moses warned that the failure to obey these rules would result in death. God gave us an eternal instruction. What is holy must not be treated as ordinary. Seriously!

In a modern world, we have less regard for holiness. The scientific revolution deconstructed faith. The technological revolution allowed people to believe that they are on par with divinity. After all, we each hold a computer in our pockets that can access almost any fact, image, or sound.  Knowledge need not come from Sinai when you have an Apple product in your hands. We are boundless in what we can hear, see and touch.

Without boundaries the fabric of society shreds and tears. The same is true for the fabric of our civilization. Today, we have few boundaries to personal pursuits. Everything seems available and anything appears possible. Perhaps money is the only real restriction to access.  MacBooks and iPhones can be expensive. Yet, the barrier to owning a hand-held computer is  low enough and the priority of owning a personal device is high enough that  internet access is an entitlement. That small screen is now our window on the world. And if the world is not enough, we now have artificial intelligence to create alternatives.

We shifted focus from God’s omnipresence as eternal to information access being universal.  The model of Sinai was disrupted. Our sense of awe and wonder is diminished. What was once could only be imagined is now ordinary. The supernatural is conventional. We get messages through the thin air and connect across vast distances. Ho hum. Moreover, access to information is believed to be an entitlement. Just notice any person you bump into on the street who is looking at their phone and not where they are going.

As direct human interaction falters, humanity suffers. Because we gather less often as a community the greater good slackens. We shift focus inward as we know few boundaries in our pursuit of personal entertainment. Accordingly, the world is shifting in its moral grounding and regard for principled living. Consequently, younger generations are more protective of their rights, their feelings, and their entitlements. Those empowered by their electronic devices cocoon around their individual sensibilities. Personal boundaries are heightened and narrowly construed.

There are two correctives we might consider involving the reinstatement of some boundaries in our lives. The first is to reconnect with the meaning of shabbat.  Many progressive Jews have come to identify shabbat as a limitation on our activities.  However, when we practice limitations, we elevate the quality of our lives and our world. We limit work in favor of rest. We set aside ordinary interactions in favor of holy engagement. Personal relationships on shabbat should take precedence over electronic connections.

The second corrective is to recreate Sinai experiences. Limit your connectivity through the internet and connect  outdoors and in nature. Contemplate the majesty of mountains and oceans and vast skies. If inspired, set aside the senses of touch and sight and taste for a while. Engage the world with your inner being – with sympathy, empathy, and love.

Restoring holiness to the world requires new boundaries. Separate the ordinary from the extraordinary. We achieve holiness pursuing time for personal connections rather than internet connectivity. Godliness expands when we appreciate our limitations rather than speak of our privileges. Through the practice of observing boundaries, we reset our compass toward the true north of holiness.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

All people complain. Jews elevated complaining to a holy art. Just read the Torah. The text is peppered with complaints. Perhaps Torah anticipated the “gig” economy, where the world revolves around the threat of complaints. I’m not complaining, but . . .

Just after exiting Egypt, complaining began. Scared and untethered, the people wondered why they had left Egypt to die in the desert. In parshat Beshalach, before and after the miracle of crossing the sea people complained to Moses. What could be the Torah’s purpose in sharing this unpleasant side of the newly freed slaves? I believe that the Torah demonstrates that faithlessness is the underpinning complaining. Among the newly freed slaves, fidelity to God was tenuous. Whether chased by Egyptian troops or shadowed by hunger, the people lost conviction and hope. To demonstrate that point, the Torah preserved their complaints forever.

Yet, Rabbi Irwin Kula taught that complaining can also be understood as a yearning for a better world. The barren wilderness of Sinai was certainly not as attractive as the lush banks of the Nile or the milk and honey laden Promised Land. Complaints may also be born of a motivation to seek a better life.

In the modern “gig” economy, complaining has become the guarantor of successful commercial transactions. Whether Uber or Airbnb, complaints posted on the internet inform our faith in the unknown service provider. Yet, I have observed that the system has its weaknesses. In one Airbnb house rental, the owner advised me not to post a critical review of her home or she would post a critical review of us. In another case, I posted a complaint about the noise level in a small boutique hotel, before I had checked out. The owner quickly tracked me down and begged me to remove the negative comment as it might affect his livelihood. Otherwise, my complaints would hover on the internet forever.

At the airport, there are red, yellow, and green buttons at the TSA checkpoint and outside the bathroom. Did you find the bathroom experience satisfying? If so, press the green button. If not, press the red. As I don’t believe that my pressing a button will have any impact, I’d rather not touch another germ ridden point of contact.

There is a connection between complaining and faith. If we believe that change is possible, we should offer constructive criticism.  On the other hand, we can believe that grousing and complaining is an entitlement. Complaining for the sake of personal expression will always result in diminished spirit. Torah is teaching us that complaining without faith is puerile and unproductive, perhaps even destructive. Appreciation fills our soul with hope.

I’m not complaining, but I’d like to hear less complaining and more appreciation. Next time I might just press the green button.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Given the many parallels in their lives, Martin Luther King, Jr. is often compared to Moses. For each man, their most important work was during times of great oppression of their people. Both spoke their truths to power – whether it was the Pharaoh of Egypt or the Governor of Alabama. Neither reached their Promised Land. Both had complex relationships with the people they led.

Both Moses and King were greatly admired among their followers and beyond. In Exodus 11:3, we read in the Torah. “יהוה disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses was much esteemed in Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and the people.” Notice the subtle difference between the relationship between the two peoples and the reputation of Moses among a people. It took God’s intervention to make Egyptian people be “disposed . . . favorably” toward the Hebrews. However, Moses was much esteemed among the Egyptians on his own accord. Of course, this was before the final plagues struck and Egypt was decimated. Perhaps there has been an admiration for strong leadership since the time of the Pharaohs.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was much esteemed among many Americans – even white Americans. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 until the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, King grew in popularity among whites. Then, the admiration of whites from the North was tested. King called for change throughout all of America, not just the South. The civil rights struggle reverberated in northern cities’ housing markets, workplaces, and school districts. White support for the civil rights movement faltered.

Great leaders also have difficulty ensuring their support among their people. The Hebrews often challenged Moses. Even after their liberation from slavery, some cried to return to Egypt. Others abandoned God for a golden calf. Even Moses’ cousin, Korath, challenged his leadership. The people’s complaints tested Moses’ faith.

King persevered against similar internal opposition. Some Black leaders at that time called for measured approaches, less confrontation in the streets, and more reliance on the Courts. Tired of waiting, another growing force within the civil rights movement called for activism. And Malcolm X predicted, if not advocated, a violent resolution.

The public is fickle in its devotion to great leaders. For two heroic leaders, Moses and King, loyalty had to be earned daily among their people. Oddly, admiration for a leader who brings liberation seems more tenuous than the devotion of hoards to dictators.

Godly inspiration should bring us closer to national heroes. Left only to human devices, are tyrants easier to love? For God’s sake, let us support leaders whose path brings us toward freedom, justice, and mercy.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

When you talk to God, you’re praying…When God speaks to you, you’re a schizophrenic.

An early prayer in the Torah is in the fifth chapter of Exodus. God sent Moses to Pharaoh with a demand. Pharaoh responded by increasing the Israelites’ burdens. Then, the people mock Moses. “Moses turned to יהוה and said, “O my lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?”

Yes, prayer can be in the form of a question. Prayer can be supplicatory or questioning, personal or communal. Moses talks to God and says, “Why, why, why?” Moses’ question is sparked by awe and wonder, frequent elements of prayer.

Recently, my prayers followed Moses’ model. “God, what more are you asking of us? We’ve endured destruction, genocide, and terrorism. What more are you asking of us?”

I imagine God intended that Eden was only a small local park.  Left to our own devices, it took only two humans to misbehave and get evicted from paradise. The earth is not a utopia, and humans are not angels. God created it for our benefit. We haven’t yet learned how to direct our collective existence into peaceful coexistence. I want to talk to God about this dilemma.

Moses had similar questions. Moses heard back from God. He was not a schizophrenic.

I’m willing to believe in a God that communicates with us. I’m having trouble with the God that abides by human suffering and says nothing. Could God speak to us in ways we can’t understand, or perhaps we are not listening? Or maybe God has thrown God’s proverbial hands up in the air and said, I can’t do better than the Garden of Eden, and you didn’t make it there for a week!

God was still speaking when Moses came along. Moses and God continued their conversations over 40 years. God said, as reported in Chapter 6: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.”   Why does God say “now” he has heard the moaning? Perhaps he was waiting for someone to seek God’s help. Perhaps, Moses was the first to say God, we need a major intervention here and now!

Moses’s request demanded an explanation. God left the answer to Moses’ imagination. Yet, God does respond in a different way. God assured Moses that it was time for God and Moses together to take action.

Like Moses, my questions/prayers also ask why. Why is there terror in Israeli homes and destruction in Gaza? Why are there tyrants in power and willing supplicants to support them? When, if ever, will this end? I may not get explanations. However, a fundamental teaching of the exodus story is that change begins when we call out and ask, “Why?” And the answer may be that we and God take action together.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

No one knows the names of the people who lived in the mountains surrounding the Mexican city of Oaxaca. We don’t know the names of their rulers, nor do we even know what they called their city. Yet, names are a defining element of a culture or a people. How we record and display names speaks volumes about the kind of civilization created. The Torah, for example, demonstrates a profound approach to recording names. But first, let’s visit this pre-Columbian city-state.

Monte Albán underwent four levels of development, from its foundation to its regional dominance in what is now known as Oaxaca. Visiting the ruins, one striking observation is that we use a Spanish name to identify a region that existed and then disappeared long before the Spanish arrived. Little information exists apart from glyphs that depict snippets of history. These glyphs, wherever found, seem to identify people. The oldest glyphs might identify the conquered peoples who first served the city. The second level of graphic writing appears to distinguish the leaders. The third level juxtaposes the strata of society, possibly sharing the names of rulers, priests, and captives. Finally, a significant shift occurred as a fourth level. Instead of being publicly displayed, stelae were created at the homes of elites, narrating family histories and using genealogy to reinforce the status and legitimacy of power.

Archaeologists believe the Monte Albán nation may have endured for over one thousand years. However, we lack recordings of the names of those lost when their civilization collapsed. Perhaps a devotion to remembering the names of those who were lost gives a people an enduring quality.

In contrast, at the beginning of Exodus, the Torah records the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, with the entire book known in Hebrew as “Shemot,” meaning “names.” Genesis often repeats the lineage from Abraham and Sarah to Isaac and Rebekah, and then to Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. These names serve as reminders of God’s covenant with the ancestors.

Two hundred thirty years later, on the precipice of leaving Egypt, a more comprehensive recounting of names was necessary. Reciting names establishes lineage, which is crucial for people on the move as it helps organize religious and societal structures for the Hebrews.

Later, in the Book of Numbers, a census lists the chieftains and their progeny. Here, the Hebrews are readied to battle for and create a nation with this recitation of names.

Since the days of the Torah, Jews have continued the practice of recording names. We recall the names of our deceased in prayers and on fast days. On Yom Kippur, we recite the names of martyrs. Even today, we repeat the names of those lost in the Shoah as a ceremony. Recently, the names of Israelis taken captive have been displayed on buildings and in protests.

Recalling names is a powerful ritual. We remember our leaders by naming streets and buildings after them and honor those killed by saying their names.

In the context of the Israel-Gaza conflict, while we might not know the names of every casualty, for the Jewish people, the names of each captive taken, each Kibbutznik murdered, and each soldier lost are critical for understanding our civilization. The Jewish people have maintained definition and cohesion by recording and recalling each name. Perhaps no other people have endured so long partly because, as we recall a name, we add that their memory should be for a blessing. Judaism understands that saying the names of cherished and lost individuals creates an enduring legacy and a hopeful future.

Rabbi Evan Krame