The modern-day lament of aging parents is often, “My children don’t call and don’t visit.” While this package of emotional detritus comes wrapped with a bow of guilt, the lament may be misstated. Perhaps the better question is, what happened to respect for parents?

The fifth commandment given to the Israelites at Sinai was to respect parents. Immediately thereafter, additional laws are stated. The penalty for striking a parent is death. The penalty for insulting a parent is death. While death seems preposterously harsh as a punishment, the basis for the prohibition is to elevate the parent-child relationship. Torah focuses our attention on how we interact with others rather than upon our individual aspirations.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, in his last book “Morality”, offers his fourth chapter to this issue. Sacks understands that the foundation of a civil society is in the structure of a two-parent family. The commitment between partners is not merely a contract but a covenant.  The construct of “we” instead of “I” also provides a safe and nurturing environment for children to grow up.  While I may quibble with Sacks’ proscriptions on forming the ideal family unit, I agree with his thesis.  Forming a healthy family is best achieved when a covenantal relationship is created, partner to partner, parent to child, and child to parent. The construct of “we” and “us” works because it engenders the interpersonal processes of caring and respect.

Respect is both an emotion and an action, wrote Tina Gilbertson in Psychology Today. From a Jewish perspective, Torah spotlights the action. Whatever one’s opinion of their parents, civility and God demand that you demonstrate respect. As a fundamental building block of society, the committed relationship between child and parent is elevated as a commandment by our tradition.

20th Century “me-ism” has shifted the question to “have my parents earned my respect?” Torah rejects that approach. Our tradition recognizes that “we” is the cornerstone of a civil society. Our dedication to others is the structure of a stable and productive family. When it comes to parents, we should not say “I will demonstrate respect as I want” but rather say “as I am able.”  To be clear, I am not excusing physically abusive behavior or diagnosable psychoses by parents.  But Torah doesn’t ask if your parents make you feel guilty or inadequate before demanding you respect them. By demonstrating respect through actions, we are setting an example for our own extended families, children, nieces, nephews and such.

As an adult child, I have empathy for the frustrations of adult children.  We live crazy busy lives and elderly parents can be tedious or demanding or offensive. Adult children have every right to feelings that may even include disdain for the actions or beliefs espoused by parents. Yet, our tradition asks that your emotional response to parents not be the guiding principal for your relationship.

Respect may not be something you feel, but our tradition demands that respect for parents is something you must demonstrate as you are able.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Parents just want to help.  At least that’s what we call sharing our opinion.  It’s an ancient habit and one that is risky, especially when talking to a son-in-law or daughter-in-law. The key to being heard? Respect.

In Torah, after Moses brought the Israelites to their encampment at Sinai, his father-in-law, Yitro, visits. They have a nice long chat and a very civil meeting. The next day, Yitro notices that Moses is acting as the sole judge to hear all of the disputes among the multitudes. Yitro says, “Moses, you will wear yourself out! There’s a better way.”

If a stranger had approached Moses to offer a critique, Moses could have easily dismissed the interlocutor.  With a family member, an additional dynamic is at play.  Moses demonstrates his great character once again, recognizing his father in law’s wisdom and instituting his suggestions.

The dynamic of a parent or in-law offering an opinion is universal.  I recently read Hillbilly Elegy. That exploration of Hillbilly culture focuses on the family matriarch, Mawmaw, who freely interjects her foul-mouthed and harshly worded criticisms.  And yet, the author, her grandson, admires and loves her.  His affection is not despite her coarseness but in appreciation of her deep caring.  How does he see past her assertiveness and foul-mouth? He admires her respect for education, which becomes a key to his own success as an adult.

We live in a time when people are not inclined to listen to each other. Our egos, honor, and identity are too easily influenced by the opinions of others, and in particular, family and friends. I wonder what has become of civil society – are we too thin-skinned and brittle to listen without offense?  Or have we forgotten how to speak in a way that others might hear? There’s another possibility – lack of respect.

We fail at offering respect.  The process of listening is a demonstration of respect.  But we don’t listen very well to each other.  People are too eager to offer their own thoughts, speaking over each other and becoming aggressively defensive. If we have forgotten how to be respectful, then we won’t be able to receive the opinions of even the people closest to us.

Respect is a policy of reciprocity. We get respect when we give it. To give deep respect, we must be in awe of the human being with whom we are engaged. Each one, created in God’s image, has the potential to add goodness and challenges to overcome. As Aretha Franklin said, find out what it means to me! Let’s practice this with our families. The words don’t have to be perfect, but the sentiment must be holy.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Going from subjugation to freedom is like watching a magic trick. We are both awed and baffled. Sometimes we feel blessed by what we have witnessed and sometimes we are perturbed by the spectacle. All the while, we are talking about the magician. Was the magician skillful or deceitful? Was the trick successful or a flop? Can the magician perform another great trick or has he left the stage?

The story of the escape from Egypt engenders such a reaction. After ten captivating plagues and a hurried but dramatic departure from Egypt, the Jews are again confronted by Pharaoh, this time in pursuit with his army. The Israelites, frightened for their lives, cry out to God and verbally assault Moses. They have forgotten the wonders God sent to redeem them. They lament their departure from Egypt.  Bewildered by the mysteries of the Divine, they attack the man on stage. Moses assures the people that the Lord will deliver them and battle for them, again, if only they will suspend disbelief.

The last act of the escape from Egypt is like a magic show with an unruly audience and revolving door on the stage. The magician’s assistant is some 80-years-old. The Divine magician has disappeared from the scene. With teamwork, the Israelites are rescued. Moses lifts his rod above the sea water, God holds back the Egyptians, and Nachshon steps into the Red Sea.

Is Joe Biden the Moses du jour? Is he the magician’s assistant? Biden has no magic of his own to offer. Rather, he offers competent performance, truthful presentation, concerted action and faith in God. We applaud his organizing the vaccination effort and redeeming us from the Corona Virus. We appreciate his designs to expand the economy. We praise his determination to quell racial and social tensions.

Yet, people are fickle as an audience. Our gratitude for the gifts we receive is fleeting. Our complaints about the burdens we bear are full throated. And so, I expect that it won’t be too long before the kvetching begins about the new administration. After all, the Israelites had scarcely left servitude in Egypt before they started to complain.

The country will suffer other challenges. We’ll likely be inclined to exchange appreciation for skepticism. We will doubt our leaders and government. Like wandering Israelites, some will wonder if they were better off before, even if it was in a time of oppression. They might have enjoyed the prior magician and his show.

Such faithlessness won’t serve this nation.  We need to set aside our myopia for an expansive view of the world.  We should have faith that challenges are opportunities to hone our skills and strengthen our resolve. We must honor every person in our country as created in God’s image. We can come together which creates the real magic.

The Israelites laid the blame for their problems at Moses’ feet. The stumbles and blunders of most competent leaders are not just the result of one actor. Leadership may fail because the team loses faith and shirks responsibility.

Biden’s message of unity reminds us that he is neither a showman nor a reality show host. We are not a passive, dubious audience. When power is consolidated in one, we have Pharaoh. When we are unified, we create the magic!  All are equally obligated to serve and to repair the world. We should listen to holy complaining that brings attention to worthy issues. But beware, faithless attacks and damning self-interest will consign us to the wilderness of discomfort and shame.

Unity means that we all participate in restoring this nations’ wellbeing. God will be with us and within us when we take responsibility upon our shoulders. And that creates the magic that will amaze us all.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

We are suffering a culture of victimhood. Whether on a personal or communal level, the common ethic is to assume the moniker of victim. It begins with the claim that an injustice has been done and that the injustice must be acknowledged.  The victims claims moral superiority over those who have harmed him. Thereafter, the victim demands that lines be drawn, and sides taken. The oppression narrative motivates the victim in unhealthy ways.

Jews have a keen understanding of victimhood. If any people should understand being victimized, it is us. Despite victimization, the endurance of the Jewish people is attributable to personal growth and communal ties.  Our tradition urges us not to withdraw into our victim status but to emerge into the freedom of a better future.

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In Parshat Bo, Moses instructs the people to place blood on their doorposts so that the angel of death will pass over their homes.  In the morning, the Jews emerge through these bloody portals with their first steps toward freedom. I imagine that the symbolism of the lamb’s blood is as much a reminder of the blood shed as slaves as a protection from harm.  It is precisely with recognition of their own bloody history that the Jewish people liberate themselves.  We start the Seder telling the story of our oppression, but we end with songs of praise and hope.  We don’t remain trapped in the mindset of victimhood.

“Truth is, we currently live in a culture where many political and cultural groups and individuals emphasize their victimhood identity and compete in the “Victimhood Olympics.” Charles Sykes, author of A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American character, noted that this stems in part from the entitlement of groups and individuals for happiness and fulfillment. Building on Sykes’ work, Rahav Gabay and her colleagues note: “When these feelings of entitlement are combined with a high individual-level tendency for interpersonal victimhood, social change struggles are more likely to take an aggressive, disparaging, and condescending form.” Therefore, devotion to one’s victim status impedes our ability to compromise and sympathize with others, also created in the image of God.

The American social and political landscape is overrun by the culture of victimhood. It infects all areas of discourse and governance. This critique does not negate that the oppression has occurred. As noted in Torah, our first step to freedom is [to emerge] from between the bloody posts of the past.

The exit from Egypt is not a perfect journey – neither geographically nor spiritually. Forty years of wandering was a corrective measure to nurture a generation who would dismiss victimhood and embrace self-actualization. Similarly, America’s path through this period of violent victimhood will not end quickly. A generation may have to pass to release attachments to victimhood as motive and moral superiority as message.

We can start to unravel this culture of victimhood in our own communities. The repair of our society begins the process  – in our interactions with family, with friends, within our synagogues and schools, and within our local politics. And the process begins with questions rather than statements.  Our interest in how others are feeling is an opening to mutual respect. Our curiosity breaches the walls erected between us. Our willingness to set aside our own attachment to victimhood sets an example for everyone around us.

As for the political culture of this decade, notice your own inclination to dismiss the expression of persons with whom you disagree. Are you listening deeply or wrapping yourself in a cloak of moral superiority?  We can all agree that violence and hatred are unjustifiable. But if we don’t acknowledge the sense of victimhood, even by those who harm others, we are losing the opportunity to quell the violence with constructive solutions. As Jews we can demonstrate that victimhood does not serve us as well as personal growth precisely because we have endured, empathized and transcended.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Whatever hope we had for the future of America in 2021  took a hit with the January 6 attack on the Capital. Thoughts and prayers are not going to be enough; as if they ever were. But I still have faith in the power of us.

In Torah this week, God says: “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.”  I imagine that the Holy One is cognizant of the insanity that has overtaken this country. God hears the moaning of Americans and likely thinks, “not again! Can’t you people get this right? I taught you to place human life and dignity above all else.”

Like my vision of an exasperated God, we too are exhausted. We are disgusted by four years of partisanship gone wild. Our country has endured narcissism on crack. And then there was a pandemic.

Most who will read this have fared well enough. Our IRA accounts have grown. We had access to great medical care. Even in a pandemic, we ate fresh food, stocked up on toilet paper, and relied on Amazon prime to ease the way through 2020.

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Then a mob attacked the Capital. One rioter wore a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie. Five died. Others were planning an armed insurrection, like the 1933 attack on the Reichstag in Germany. If you ever thought “it can’t happen here” this was the week you changed your mind.

We cannot afford to merely hope that this country will get unstuck from the current depravity. The departure of Pharaoh that did not know Democracy leaves us to reckon with those who followed Pharaoh’s orders. And what of the fine people on the other side who envision a Judeinrein nation?

Next up is Joe Biden. Is he our modern Moses, come to lead us into the expansive American future? Biden is about the same age as Moses was when he undertook a leadership role. Do you believe that a Biden administration is the antidote to the hatred unleashed in America? I’m not inclined to rely solely upon any politician or political party. I put my faith in us.

Like ancient Israelites, there are Americans moaning, and pleading. Their salvation does not depend on any single political leader but upon us, as Jews who know the value of freedom from a history of answering to Pharaohs.

Our tradition teaches us to emulate God. Like God, we must hear the moaning of people, and recall the covenant. The American covenant, by which we flourish, directs this nation to expand freedom. Freedom is not merely the release from constraint. Freedom is diminished when vigilantes harm innocents, where medicine is a luxury, and while children suffer from hunger. Freedom thrives when each person is secure from violence, has access to health care, and is properly nourished.

The covenant to pursue freedom requires our vigilance. It is not enough that Americans are deemed to be free. All must be able to enjoy that freedom. We proclaim the pursuit of freedom that shines hope for all people. That is our holy purpose, both as Jews and Americans.

To release this country from the narrowness of extreme partisanship and acrimony, we cannot hide behind our privilege and our comfort. Recalling the Pharaohs we confronted in the past, we must demonstrate that the Jewish experience in America paved a path to freedom for everyone. With pride in our heritage and accomplishments, we have the moral compass to urge America toward a better future.

The task is ours, my friends. And we may not desist from it at all.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

My daughter is driving across the country to sample life in San Francisco. She joins her brother in California who is enjoying Los Angeles. Each is excited to be working remotely, an opportunity made possible by the pandemic. Yet, when they left, I felt a sense of dread each time. Saying goodbye to family in a time of covid-19 is fraught with heightened anxiety and gloom.

Saying goodbye to children is central to the final chapters of Genesis. Jacob came to Egypt to be reunited with his long-lost son Joseph. He even met Pharaoh. In that conversation, he describes his life as hard and his years as short. Later on, speaking to Joseph, he acknowledged that he was protected from great harm by an angel. Jacob both grieved his struggles and appreciated the protection provided by Divinity.

As he neared death, Jacob offered farewell messages to all twelve sons. Jacob’s goodbye speech was full of disappointment and mixed with admonitions. Sadly, Jacob has witnessed the worst of his sons’ behaviors and anticipates their failures to come.

Moreover, Jacob intuits that this sojourn in Egypt will become a time of sequestration and dispossession for the Jewish people. Yet there is hope, as Jacob said to Joseph, “God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.”

What do we wish for our wandering children in the days to come? In a time of pandemic, every goodbye is fraught with angst. Will God bring them through this time of pandemic? And the next looming crises – environmental ruin? Financial downturns?

My generation has endured many troubling times: war, recessions and now a pandemic. Like Jacob, I both lament the struggles and recognize that angels have kept us from harm. We have benefitted from the technological revolution, medical advances, and increasing prosperity. And among the angels who keep us from harm are the health care workers and the scientists who developed the Covid-19 vaccine, and the philanthropic souls who share so others can thrive.

In saying goodbye, Jacob’s balances his grief and his appreciation. We learn from Jacob to both remain vigilant regarding the challenges of our human existence and bless the angels that save us from harm. To my children, and to all generations to come, as you travel your life’s journeys, may angels bring progress, healing and hope. And may God always bring you safely home.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

The Bee Gees documentary premiered on HBO this past week. While much of the story was as fluffy as Barry Gibbs’ hair, there were a few lessons for us. And of course, they reminded me of Torah.

Brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice founded the group that had dozens of hit songs. Some define the disco era. And perhaps Stayin’ Alive from the movie Saturday Night Fever has become the theme song of the pandemic.

The Bee Gees were gifted musicians and songwriters. Yet, the documentary reveals that brothers Barry and Robin were often at odds. Despite the conflict, the group excelled.

We have a Jewish tradition of brothers quarreling throughout Genesis.  Isaac was estranged from Ishmael. Jacob and Esau are enemies. Jacob’s twelve sons were also contentious and violent toward brother Joseph, selling him into slavery in Egypt.

Joseph endured years of enslavement and prison. After interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams he was appointed to government service. With a regional famine, Joseph’s family came to Egypt in search of food. Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers and sent them home to retrieve their father, Jacob. Joseph cautioned his brothers: “don’t be quarrelsome along the way!”  One might think that the brothers would behave well, after recognizing their good fortune to find a savior in Egypt. But good fortune does not guarantee good behavior.

Disagreement among families is the norm throughout Genesis, and perhaps throughout history. And not just families, but communities, and countries. Sometimes, our creative output is enhanced by interpersonal tensions. Sometimes, we succeed despite the disagreements.

Mere disagreement would be a gift in these times. Despite the economic challenges we face, this country is generally wealthy and strong. We have enough resources to feed and shelter every American, but we have not yet done so because of our quarreling.  Notwithstanding our good fortune as a nation, wealth disparities are a threat to our civil society. We have the capacity to create a free and fair society. Notwithstanding the strength of our republic, the partisanship of these times is tearing at the seams of our democracy.

As we approach a new secular year and a new administration, perhaps we will have leadership that recalls Joseph’s advice.  Don’t be quarrelsome along the way.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Jewish pride emerges when a member of the tribe is appointed to a high government position. Perhaps it is our shared, troubled history that boosts collective self-satisfaction when one of our own ascends to a powerful post. Witnessing Jews in positions of power, we transcend our collective sense of weakness arising from times of subjugation. A few of the recent nominations to President Elect Biden’s cabinet sparked such pride. Yet, Torah cautions us to also add a bit of reflection.

Antony Blinken, nominated to be Secretary of State, has spoken about his stepfather who was a holocaust survivor. Janet Yellen is set to become the first woman Treasury secretary, although not the first Jew to hold that position. Alejandro Mayorkas, nominated to head the Department of Homeland Security has a Cuban Jewish father and Romanian Jewish mother. Add to the list, Ron Klain, the next chief of staff.

There’s a similar story in Torah. At parshat Miketz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and suggests a plan to mitigate the catastrophe of an impending famine. Pharaoh immediately selects Joseph as the man to guide Egypt through a time of crisis.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר פַּרְעֹ֖ה אֶל־עֲבָדָ֑יו הֲנִמְצָ֣א כָזֶ֔ה אִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֛ר ר֥וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃

And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?”  This appointment of a Jewish minister was extraordinary. Not only did Pharaoh select Joseph, but the monarch also remarked of Joseph’s relationship to the God of Israel.

As the story continues, Joseph stockpiles food. When the famine begins, Joseph offers grain to the people. First, the people are asked to pay with their possessions. Next, they offer up their lands. By this artifice Joseph has effectively enslaved the Egyptian people even as he has saved them from starvation.

The entirety of the Joseph story reminds me that my pride in Jews holding leadership positions should also note the possibility that powerful people may concurrently succeed and fail.  Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor, and Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, both Jewish, serve the current administration. Some positive developments took place. For example, Kushner worked to expand Israel’s ties with Arab nations and Mnuchin co-created the $2.3 Billion Covid Relief Act. Yet, Kushner and Mnuchin participated in an administration that worked to ban refugees, degrade the working class and disenfranchise minorities.

Perhaps you anticipate better outcomes from Blinken, Yellen and Mayorkas. Yet, it is worth noting that the exercise of power, even when pursuing noble goals like Joseph preventing famine, might also have negative consequences.

We may all take pride in our shared Jewish identity with new administration officials. Yet, let’s consider that there might be competing values at stake. Our enthusiasm for Jews in leadership roles is a fair initial reaction. Yet, Jewish pride does not warrant limitless devotion when powerful people are entrusted with the future of our nation and the world. Our job is to remind our leaders of Jewish values; preserving life, expanding dignity and pursuing justice.

I’ll close with the words of the late R’ Jonathan Sacks: I believe the great challenge of politics is to keep policies humane and that politicians remain humble, so that power, always so dangerous, is not used for harm. That is an ongoing challenge, and tests even the best.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

How dare you? I find myself shouting this with my internal voice, mostly when I am watching the news. My arrogance meter goes off, haughtiness induced indigestion sets in, and a superiority headache is launched.  Scoundrels seem to appear on the screen daily.

Joseph, the favored son of Jacob in Torah, was one such haughty character. He antagonized his brothers by boasting of his preferred status. He had no filter when it came to sharing dreams of his future leadership of the family.  The young Joseph is the kind of person we typically avoid.

Yet, we tend to downplay Joseph’s arrogance because he is a hero of the Torah for rescuing his family from famine in Canaan. The Joseph story tests our reaction to egotistical behavior from someone we otherwise admire.

When we happen upon scandalous behavior from less reputable leaders we are incensed. What is our reaction when someone we admire acts arrogantly? Here’s the most recent example. 


America’s number one restaurant.

America’s number one restaurant.

Governor Gavin Newsom of California has issued many dire warnings and imposed strict restrictions regarding social distancing in the current pandemic.  His credibility plummeted when pictures emerged recently of him dining at French Laundry, a restaurant some considered to be among the country’s best. Newsom’s “do as I say, not as I do” approach was arrogant. And he wasn’t the only one. The mayor of San Francisco was caught eating at French Laundry recently as well. How good that restaurant must be that prominent politicians are willing to risk their reputations for a meal! 

To whom should I be screaming “how dare you?” To the politicians who downplayed the dangers of Covid-19 and refused to advocate for social distancing and mask-wearing? Or to the politicians who were champions of safe practices but later flaunted their own guidance?

What I noticed about myself, and perhaps about human nature, is that we reserve our ire for those with whom we have fundamental disagreements and excuse those with whom we share values. I should be as angry about Governor Newsom’s actions as I am with Governor DeSantis of Florida or Brian Kemp of Georgia. But Newsom is a Joseph sort of character – he is ambitious, charismatic, and handsome. He is a well-spoken advocate for the people of California. Let’s hope he can get his arrogance under control so that his actions will speak louder than his words. And I’ll try to be more even-handed about my judgment of public figures. But in the meantime, Mario Cuomo, please stay home!

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

As the pandemic drags on, I’ve noticed changes to relationships. Some friendships have grown stronger. Some families have found ways of connecting with virtual reunions. That’s the positive side of relationships in a time of covid. But, other relationships have suffered

The stress of an unseeable, almost unfathomable pathogen has also brought focus to the difficulties of maintaining connections. For example, our responses to the precautions needed to fend off the virus have met with emotional and polarizing political positions. Other personal relationships have suffered through alienation, isolation, and a feeling of abandonment. In these unusual times, some relationships strengthen while others need much repair.

I am not despairing. In Torah, Esau and Jacob were reunited after more than two decades of estrangement. Jacob purloined Esau’s entitlements as the firstborn. Esau was enraged. Jacob fled to the ancestral homeland of Haran.

When Jacob returned to Canaan, emissaries advised Jacob that Esau had begun to march out to receive Jacob. Esau brought 400 men with him. Jacob was apprehensive, dividing his family in case of violence, and sending gifts ahead to Esau. When the two men met, Jacob was pleasantly surprised. Esau received Jacob warmly. The brothers embraced and tears were shed.

Whether we are distanced by fear of illness or fear of each other, there can be reconciliation. Jacob had cautious optimism. Perhaps, he could have turned his family in another direction and evaded Esau. Rather, he entreated Esau with gifts and was greeted with tears.

Whether on a national level repairing political discourse or on a personal level restoring personal relationships, our task is to maintain cautious hopefulness. Jacob sets an example for us on how best to approach reconciliation. We can narrow the distance caused by fear and ill-regard. Relationships might not be perfected, but there are opportunities for respectful relationships even among those who have been at war with each other.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame