We carry the spiritual and emotional burden created by images of destruction and despair that fill our screens. The media hesitates to show us the stark reality of the dead. Yet, they inundate us with images of rubble – the aftermath of conflicts that seem unceasing. From the shattered homes on Kibbutz Be’eri to the desolation in Gaza, human conflict scars our world. In the aftermath, our task is to pursue holiness in the building and the rubble.

In the Torah, we find resonance with our current struggles. At the start of Parshat Vayishlach, Jacob returned to Canaan. After a precarious meeting with his brother, Esau, Jacob attempted to settle his family in Canaan. He moved from Succoth to Shechem to Bethel. God reminded Jacob of the promises made to his fathers. Jacob created a pillar of stone. The journey continued. Then Rachel died in labor, and Jacob buried her along the road to Bethlehem. There, Jacob set a pillar of stones.

A pile of stones, or Matzevah, is a spiritual marker of where God spoke and where people are buried. Different cultures use stones to mark holy places for remembrance, good fortune, or as altars. Buddhists stack rocks for good fortune. The Norse people created a hörgr as an altar or cult site. In our modern world, we see echoes of this practice. Often, hikers stack stones on rugged trails, a reminder of the search for peace and tranquility. Even in times of destruction, we salvage wreckage for museums.

Others reduce structures to detritus. Some turn detritus into memorials, and wreckage may be salvaged for museums, the way we did with parts of the World Trade Center after September 11, 2001. The way the hulls of Israeli jeeps destroyed in 1948 line the old road to Jerusalem.

Bombs destroy buildings and take lives, leaving us with nothing but rubble. During one sleepless night, I watched as a reporter described the devastation in Be’eri. Then he showed us not just the rubble but the blood and body parts that stained the remaining walls. In the next segment, a Palestinian woman cried out, yearning to return home to unearth her relatives from under the debris.

If we focus only on individual suffering, all we see is rubble. Yet, holiness demands that we understand the context, the complex tapestry of history and conflict that led to this point. God promised Canaan to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In commemoration of that promise, Israel has risen – a matzevah, a spiritual marker for the world to witness that the people of the Promised Land endure. Israel erected gleaming cities, institutions of scientific innovation, a democratic nation, and a haven for oppressed Jews.

At times, nations create piles of rubble in defense of their homes. Whether piles of stones or debris, holiness is not confined to quiet moments or scenic hikes. The pursuit of holiness should guide us when we tear down and build up.

In these challenging times, let us remember that even amid destruction, we have the power to build anew. Let our actions be guided by the pursuit of holiness, recognizing the sacredness in every life and our responsibility to create a world where peace and justice prevail.

May the piles of stones we create symbolize not just our pain but our resilience, compassion, and commitment to a world where the pursuit of holiness is our guiding light.

Rabbi Evan Krame

Social media is fueling hatred around the world, especially when it comes to Israel and Jews. A primary culprit appears to be TikTok, which offers short video clips and the opportunity for misinformation. Like sheep, viewers are led to these video troughs. On TikTok, poison sometimes fills the channels, leading people to fast conclusions based on limited or biased evidence. Why are people so quickly drawn to dangerous conclusions? Torah offers some insight into illusory thinking.

Jacob worked for his uncle Lavan for nearly two decades. They agreed that Jacob’s compensation would be the spotted and dark goats and sheep. However, Lavan’s sons removed the speckled animals. Nonetheless, Jacob went into the fields with a striped wooden rod. He placed the rod at the trough where the animals watered. As they looked at the rod, the animals were predisposed to bearing spotted and striped kids and lambs. Eventually, Jacob amassed great flocks, speckled and stippled. In jealousy, Lavan and his family turn against Jacob. Accordingly, Jacob and his family prepared to move to Canaan.

The illusion of the rods may seem like magic to our modern minds. Was the birth of kids and lambs genuinely affected by what the animals saw at the trough?

Visual stimuli can affect pregnancies. Various medical journals have reported that trauma in the mother can affect the health of the child. For example, the barrage of information about conflict manifests as unhealthy anxiety and stress. While striped rods may seem like magic antenatal influencers for sheep, they call to mind that external stimuli can affect future generations.

You likely have a negative sense of magic and illusions. Illusory information like memes, urban myths, biased projections, and misconceptions interfere with pursuing evidence-based knowledge. Psychologists have learned, however, that people use cognitive illusions to adapt to changing environments. In other words, people accept illusions as data if the illusions conform to their prior conceptions of the world. Moreover, challenging events cause people to double down on their assumptions, seeking information to confirm their long-standing views. However, prudent reasoning requires analytic thought based upon consideration of competing factors. By relying on illusory information, people are more likely to make errors in judgment.

Social media offers illusory ideas as freely as factual evidence. Yet, many people, especially young adults, rely solely on social media for information.

With a war raging between Israel and Gaza, preconceived notions of Zionism, Israelis, and Palestinians are bolstered by our selection of facts from among the barrage of information on social media. People are not activating an analytic process because of their predispositions. The historical trauma of Jews, who are scarcely three generations from the Shoah, influences thinking about the current conflict. The same can be said of Palestinians whose national narrative evolves from the Nakba, or defeat by Israel and displacement from their homes in 1948. Each group will absorb facts about the current war as those facts serve their prior assumptions.

What is most beguiling is how people not identifying as Jewish or Arab have formed strong opinions relying on social media. Short videos and memes providing biased information are incomplete and deceptive. Like sheep at Jacob’s trough, opinions birthed from these illusions are streaked and discolored. Those with notions of intersectionality adjust information about the war to their views that Israel is colonialist, capitalist, and racist.  Similarly, those holding unfavorable opinions of Palestinians connect current events with stories of terrorism, intransigence, and brutality.

The Middle East hasn’t changed much since the days of Jacob and Lavan. Magical thinking and deception continue to challenge us. Peaceful coexistence between Jacob’s and Lavan’s family was unachievable then, just as peace eludes Israelis and Palestinians today. One path to a better future is to activate analytical processes that allow us to consider all the facts and discern the best way forward.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth,” – Marcus Aurelius 

Facts may be indisputable, but perceptions are more powerful. Facts be damned, a point of view will be both sword and shield! That’s how the Torah portrays reality.

Jacob was outdoors cooking a lentil stew. Esau returned from the field and was famished. He asked Jacob for some of the red stew. Jacob demanded and received Esau’s birthright in exchange for a bowl of sustenance. “Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, rose, and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.” Genesis 25:35.

Nowhere prior does Esau spurn his birthright. Esau thought himself about to die if he did not eat. But Esau is not to be the hero of this story. That role is reserved for Jacob. Therefore, Jacob’s trickery had to be justifiable. Accordingly, the Torah says the story is about Esau spurning the birthright. When picking heroes, the Torah picks the man whose name will become Israel.

Today, we are picking heroes in the Middle East. I believe that I know the facts about the war between Israel and Gaza.  In recent weeks, I have struggled to understand how anyone could conclude that an immediate ceasefire or nonviolence can be the correct approach. Do they not know the facts as well as I do? Or are we both operating out of sets of perceptions and, perhaps, misperceptions?

For example, I can acknowledge that Jacob was a swindler, yet still love him and his progeny. Or am I safer with the Torah’s one-sided commentary, which says that Esau spurned his birthright? Or can I believe both to be true?

I know the story of the birthright doesn’t fully explain the trade for stew. Looking at the context and history, I can better fathom Torah’s conclusion about Esau. The theme of Genesis is the promise God made to Abraham and his descendants – the land of Canaan and many heirs. If Esau gives so little value to his birthright, then he has rejected God’s plan for the world. With that perception, Esau is the far more grievous sinner. Jacob’s offense was between himself and his brother. Esau’s offense is to deny God.

Some today argue that the children of Jacob are aggressors and swindlers.  They condemn Jacob and support Esau. That is their perception. I would say that they aren’t sufficiently immersed in the history and the context. There may be two diametrically opposite perceptions of the war against Gaza. That does not mean that both are equally valid. The reality is that those who adhere to the lessons of the Torah align themselves with God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob while understanding that our heroes are fallible humans.

Rabbi Evan Krame

 

White

We left the King Center in Atlanta just after the group met with nonviolence advocate Vonetta West. Ready to depart for home, we received a warning. There could be protests at the airports. We might be safer putting away anything indicating we are Jewish. Vonetta asked what that meant. I showed her the Jewish star around my neck and tucked it into my shirt. But we could hide our Jewish identities beneath our “whiteness.”  West is not able to hide her skin color. Her identity can never be hidden or tucked into a shirt.

Hebrew

God promised Abraham the land of Canaan. His flocks grew, and his household increased. When Sarah died near Hebron, Abraham sought a cave for burial. He turned to his neighbors, the Hittites, and said, “I am a resident alien among you.” (Genesis 23:4). Abraham was not part of the Hittite people. He felt like an “other” despite having lived among them. The relationship with the Hittites was fraught. Later generations of Hebrews lived and intermarried with the Hittites. Hittites were sometimes allies and sometimes adversaries of Israel. But to the Hittites, the Hebrews were forever resident aliens in Canaan.

Jewish

Jews thought that we had achieved an invisible, marginalized identity. Jews in America had become “white” people. Some identities cannot be hidden, like skin color and body weight. Others can be obscured, like religion or sexual preference. To be identified as Jewish in public, one must don the attributes of being Jewish. And when antisemitic fervor is unleashed, as it is today, some will suffer for their identity. Just look at the college campuses. Students on campuses wearing yarmulkes have been assaulted. A dorm room where a Jewish flag was displayed was set on fire. Jewish students at many American universities don’t feel safe on campus, where university efforts to address antisemitism fall short, or when Jewish students face persistent discrimination. Jewish students might be taking off their kippot and hiding their Jewish stars in their shirts.

Zionist

I am a Zionist. My connection to Israel is part of my identity. Yet, I also belong to a rabbinic organization where many strongly condemn Israel’s government and policies. I identify some of them as anti-Zionist. We have clashed. I have attempted to shame them. They have criticized me. I can withhold my opinions and my judgment. I can refrain from expressing my support for Israel. But I might diminish my integrity if I hide my identity. I will not be an invisible Zionist. My love for Israel will not be marginalized. I will not tuck my Zionism into my shirt.

Rabbi Evan Krame

Evil makes recognizable noises. The firing of a gun. The cry of the wounded. The shriek of terror. When may we eliminate the clamor and outburst of evil? We look to the Torah.

Abraham was a refugee. He fled from Babylon and settled in Canaan.  Abraham heeded God’s word and took possession of land in Canaan. At that time, the outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah was so great that it blasted in God’s knowingness. And God said, “Their sin is so grave. I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

Abraham asked God, “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” Abraham was righteous. He sought to mitigate the pending annihilation for the sake of even a few innocents. Abraham tested God’s resolve.

God heard only the sounds of evil.  The anguish of a woman raped. The cry of a child ripped from its mother’s arms. Evil makes a terrible noise. Even if there were innocent among the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, God determined that the uproar and clamor of evil must be eliminated.

For the sake of ten good people, God would have saved Sodom and Gomorrah.  But ten could not be found. Perhaps they were silent when evil was all around. Maybe they remained silent when God sought them out. Was it their silence that damned them? Perhaps they could not hear because evil is deafening. It drums out the beating heart of goodness. It drowns out the peace of a Shabbat morning.

God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. What lesson should we learn from the Torah? When may we emulate God and sweep away even the innocent to eliminate evil?

Evil swept away innocents. Evil killed saftas and sabas. Evil kidnapped young women.

Messengers said to Lot, who lived in Sodom, “Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere . . .”  Lot fled. God annihilated those cities.

No one stood to condemn God. The nations did not issue proclamations to decry the loss of life in Sodom and Gomorrah. The world was silent then.

Millennia passed. Israel suffers the evil of Hamas and Hezbollah. The outrage was great. But the rage was mixed. Some cried out in grief, and others cried out in anger. Some defended those who stood for evil.

Evil is blinding. Evil is the blast of rockets hurled without warning. The blare of warning sirens announces evil.

Abraham saw the smoke rising from the land like plumes from a kiln. God destroyed and annihilated. God removed Abraham and Lot and returned them to safety.

May evil be uprooted and peace be planted in its place. May the noise of evil be squelched and replaced with harmonies. May the glare of evil be dampened, and may the light of the righteous shine brightly.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

In the time of Abraham, war began among the Kings of Canaan.  Abraham led his Troops to rescue captives. The battle went “well.” The prisoners were rescued. But, Abraham needed a long-term plan to live in a dangerous region.

Today, most Israelis want nothing more than peace with their neighbors.  Sadly, peace will come to Israel only after a devastating war. There also needs to be a plan for coexistence. Torah offers ethical behaviors and tangible goals for coexisting after a conflict.

After Abraham arrived in Canaan, a regional war began.  During that war, Sodom was seized, and Abraham’s nephew Lot was taken captive. Abraham mustered troops from within his “household.” They overwhelmed the enemy, rescued property taken from Sodom, saved Lot, and freed all the captives.

After the war, the King of Sodom offered Abraham the recovered property.  Abraham took not a “thread nor a sandal strap.” Abraham demonstrated that the Torah values human life over property. Had Abraham taken any property, the integrity of his mission would have been impugned.

King Melchizedek came to Abraham, bringing wine and bread from Salem. Melchizedek blessed Abraham, saying,

“Blessed be Abram of God Most High,

Creator of heaven and earth.

וּבָרוּךְ֙ אֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁר־מִגֵּ֥ן צָרֶ֖יךָ בְּיָדֶ֑ךָ וַיִּתֶּן־ל֥וֹ מַעֲשֵׂ֖ר מִכֹּֽל׃

And blessed be God Most High,

Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Israel’s neighbors are unlikely to bless Israel’s success as Melchizedek did.  Yet, Melchizedek’s blessing reminds us to welcome partners for peace.  Abraham appreciated Melchizedek’s gesture of blessings and responded in kind with tangible gifts. By his sharing, Abraham demonstrated the need to be generous with Israel’s neighbors.  Among them might be a Melchizedek. Moreover, the Torah teaches us not to be revengeful but to find ways to share blessings with our neighbors. Israel will have to find better ways to share the blessings of the land with the Palestinians.

We long for the day when Israel breaks bread and drinks wine with its neighbors. We pray that Israelis and Palestinians someday coexist in peace, each regarding their neighbor the way Abraham and Melchizedek honored each other.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Noah, why did you save animals and not people? Couldn’t you fit a few more mothers and babies on the ark? Could you have built a larger ark to protect a few more? How did you make these difficult choices?

And Noah answered, I did the best I could.  I had to think of the future. We needed the animals to repopulate the earth. God created animals before people.  The animals were not unkind the way people can be.

And Noah continued, my neighbors mocked me when I was building the ark. None believed me. None would help me. They were evil and selfish. Who would I have chosen among them? There was no goodness in the world to rescue but animals.

And Noah added, God told me what to do. I obeyed.

But surely Noah, not everyone was sinful.  The mothers and the babies, were they also evil?

Noah retorted sometimes the innocent get swept up with the guilty. The world has always been unfair and inequitable. Good people must make difficult choices.  Who to save and who to kill?  Who to befriend and who to condemn?

And “The earth had become corrupt before God, and the earth had become full of HAMAS (violence)” Genesis 6.

Noah knew that good people would have to make more difficult choices in the future. He could imagine the bloodshed and the agony that would plague humankind. When he reached dry land, he planted fields and vineyards. But his knowledge of the nature of people would haunt him. From the grapes, he made wine, and from the wine he drank.

Noah’s son Ham found Noah drunk and naked, but he did nothing to comfort his father. Ham is the father of Canaan. Ham’s cruel indifference cursed Ham’s descendants.

Torah would tell of God’s wrath with Canaan. “And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the South, heard tell that Israel came by way of Atharim; and he fought against Israel and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow unto the LORD and said: ‘If Thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.’ And the LORD hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. . .” Numbers 21:1-3

God knew that the innocent would die along with the guilty. Israel has always known that there are times to build and a time for destruction. God has reasons. Noah had reasons. The Israelites had reasons. We pray for peace and know that peace is elusive.

If you want to plant for the future, you must uproot the weeds.  If you want to eliminate evil, you must be willing to empower the good. If you want to have peace, sometimes you must wage war.

Evan J. Krame

Israel is under attack. Maybe 1,000 Israelis are dead. Dozens may be held captive. The response will be epic. Hundreds more will die, Israelis and Palestinians. If we thought there was peace, we learned again that peace is an illusion.

Israel and those who love Israel are in shock. Emails from Jewish organizations are flooding my inbox. Facebook is filled with posts of Israeli flags. What can I add? What should I do? My answers are to be realistic about peace and be vigilant about security.

I remembered a story from Jewish literature. The Torah reading for Simchat Torah inspires the story.

On the sixth day, at the beginning of the work of creation, God created humans. The earth, just six days old, would never know peace.

“When the time came for the Holy Blessed One to make the first human being, . .  . the angel of peace said, ‘do not create them, for they will be in constant strife!’ (Bereshit Rabba, 8:8).

Nonetheless, God created humans.  The angels were right. And God was either overly optimistic or overconfident.

“Peace is an illusion. And no matter how tranquil the world seems, peace doesn’t last long. Peace is a struggle against our very nature. A skin we stretch over the bone, muscle, and sinew of our own innate savagery.” T. Kovacs

Jeremiah knew that it was dangerous to claim there is peace where none truly exists. “They offer healing offhand for the wounds of my poor people, saying, all is well, all is well when nothing is well.” Jeremiah 8:11. We have lived under the illusion that the absence of conflict was peace.

There may never be peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. Israel must continually fight for a semblance of peace. Peace is waged on a battlefield. Today, that battlefield is Sderot, Kfar Aza, Zikim, Gaza City, and Khan Younis. Peace lies wounded on the battlefields of Israel and Gaza.

Some Palestinians also want peace. Some of them will also die. Peace is waged at the expense of the innocent. We should also weep for innocent Palestinians who will suffer. As we learned in the Midrash (from Megilla 10), as the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea, “The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning, and you are singing before me?’”

Despite our despair, we need to sustain hope. Hope is the motivation to withstand assaults on peace. If peace is tenuous, then we also need vigilance. Vigilance is fundamental to forestall strife. The events of the Simchat Torah war demonstrate that Israel forgot the words of Jeremiah and Israel was not vigilant.

Once again, Israel needs us. Israel needs military support from the United States Government. Israel needs to bolster public opinion. And Israel will need tourists to support its economy.

Thank your congressmen for supporting Israel. Share your support for Israel proudly. Plan your next visit to Israel. L’Shanah Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim, in Jerusalem, the City of Peace that does not (yet) know peace.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

In the volatile cauldron of the Middle East, Israel’s strategy against Hamas has long revolved around the concept of deterrence. The idea was simple: Israel aimed to convince Hamas to refrain from its violent pursuits by imposing threats and limited force. However, as we now witness, this strategy has proven to be a catastrophic miscalculation.

The core predicament of deterrence lies in its ability to credibly threaten military action or nuclear retaliation despite the significant costs it entails for both parties involved. In this context, Israel’s Achilles’ heel is Hamas, an actor seemingly impervious to the logic of deterrence.

Israel attempted to establish deterrence through coercive measures. Israel wanted Hamas to believe that the failure to maintain peace would have dire consequences. But here’s the rub: Hamas doesn’t care about those consequences. They welcome the violent Israeli response as a propaganda tool to rally their supporters. Incursions and embargoes were employed as instruments of deterrence, yet they failed miserably. Diplomacy was shunned, as Hamas believed war served their cause better than peace. With Gaza already in dire economic straits, the prospect of war with Israel held little economic risk for them. The elites in Gaza safeguarded their families from the conflict’s horrors while leaving the average Palestinian behind—a staggering display of moral corruption.

Israel sought policy changes from an organization whose charter explicitly calls for eradicating Israel. They hoped for a leadership shift from an organization whose leaders are irrevocably committed to destruction.

Instead of bowing to Israel’s attempts to weaken them, Hamas has grown more defiant. Pundits and analysts have suggested that Israel must “cut off the head of the snake.”

Deterrence theory, as a concept, has faced significant criticism from scholars over the years, and Israel’s recent experience highlights some of its fundamental shortcomings. One of the key criticisms revolves around the questionable assumption that decision-makers are always rational actors. In reality, leaders often act irrationally, driven by emotions and psychological biases that can lead to losing self-control and humanity.

Hamas, in this context, emerges as a profoundly irrational actor. The Palestinian cause is in disarray, with competing factions and varying commitments to violence. Hamas’s cost-benefit calculation seems to discount the value of both Israeli and Palestinian human life, making it increasingly difficult to negotiate with or contain them.

Israel has reached a point where it is no longer interested in deterring Hamas. Instead, it appears determined to force the people of Gaza to either expel Hamas themselves or completely eradicate Hamas.

Realistically, the only way to bring an end to the conflict with Hamas may well be the end of Hamas itself. Even then, we must recognize that other militant Palestinian factions will likely fill the void, perpetuating the cycle of violence. Together with the destruction of Hamas will be the death of many people, Israelis and Palestinians.

Warfare kills, and modern warfare kills citizens. The Geneva Convention’s “rule” against killing civilians, and even Jewish law, may be ineffectual and counter-effective to the difficulties of this situation. You can’t end the Hamas reign of terror without collateral losses – the death of innocent people. If you aren’t willing to take that chance, you rely upon a failed deterrence policy and further cycles of death and destruction.

Israel’s leadership appears to have underestimated the true nature of Hamas. Hamas banked on Israel’s extreme reaction to their provocations, and their resolve to bring about war has proven far more potent than Israel’s resolve to secure peace.

We must ask how Israel could have pretended that rational actors governed Hamas. Prior conflicts, as recent as 2021, clearly demonstrated that Hamas actively invited a violent resolution of their differences with Israel.

In confronting this reality, Israel now faces an unenviable choice: to find a way to compel Hamas to change or to prepare for a future where the only resolution is the end of Hamas itself. Whichever path it chooses, one thing is sure: the failure of deterrence has left an indelible mark on Israel’s security landscape, and its leaders must grapple with the sobering lessons of this failure as they chart their course forward in this turbulent region.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

The High Holidays signals time for our personal renewal. We commit to improving ourselves. But what about improving Judaism? Judaism needs an upgrade. Here’s an example.

A family friend passed away in Florida. I spoke with the surviving spouse. She was in distress over the funeral. The rabbi familiar with the family had just backed out of the funeral. Why? Because the decedent was being buried in a mausoleum.

There is NO explicit prohibition against burial in a mausoleum in the Torah. Yes, the Torah says that from dust we came, and dust shall we return. But this is not an explicit requirement of burial in the ground. Throughout Jewish history, we have buried our dead in crypts, caves, grottos, and graves. Mausoleums have been used and approved. Even Maimonides acknowledges the use of mausoleums.

We can honor the tradition by placing dirt in the mausoleum. But more important than keeping the tradition is honoring the living. A widow grieving the loss of her husband should not be further hurt by a rabbi upholding a mere tradition.

Some freely call this a measure of halakhah, often translated as the Jewish law. However, in my training as a rabbi, halakhah is a way, not the way.  Judaism must be mutable to honor God truly. I would never disgrace a family in mourning by critiquing their burial practice against a historically deaf standard.

Mausoleums may be necessary where the water table rises and shorelines flood.  Mausoleums can be a “greener” alternative, often using less land than traditional graves.

At this season of repentance, let’s encourage atonement for the Judaism that fails to honor God. We need a groundswell of interest in a renewed Judaism as a religion. We can hold fast to tradition or create a kinder, gentler Judaism that better reflects God’s love for us.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame