Refugees around the globe are not just a hot political topic but a moral challenge to us all. Today’s headlines represent a historic constant about the nature of those who observe such tragedies. In every prior generation, there were concerned bystanders who could have been rescuers but efforts were often too little or too late. Good intentions are important but action is critical. Such a story is part of Torah too.

In parashat Vayeshev, Joseph is sent off to find his brothers with their flocks. Upon his arrival they plan to kill him. Older brother Reuben heard the plan, interceded and said: ‘Let us not take his life.’ Instead, at Reuben’s suggestion, Joseph is dropped into a pit.  However, Reuben leaves the scene and the remaining brothers sell Joseph into slavery. Reuben returns and says: “The lad is not; and as for me, where shall I go?” Some commentators say this is an internal dialogue not shared out loud by Reuben with his brothers, representing his repentance at his failure to save Joseph.

How much are we like Reuben – expressing concern and then turning our backs on refugees in the pit? How much do we express outrage after they die but do little to help them live?  

For Jews, bystander status is untenable. We, whose history has been the persecuted and the refugee, have been quick to call to task a world that stood by as Jews perished at Nazi hands. Jews have a moral imperative to intercede and not leave the scene. And some of us are rising to this challenge, such as the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief. In Canada, whole synagogues are pitching in to sponsor Syrian refugees. By contrast, U.S. politics (and some U.S. Jewish advocates) rail against Syrian refugee re-settlement, prompting one op-ed writer to ask, “How Can We Call Ourselves Jews and Bar Syrian Refugees?”

We return to the Torah and rewrite Reuben’s question for today, “If we don’t jump in and help, then where are we going?”  I myself have done little more than sign a petition, donate to HIAS, and express concern. I console myself with faint hope that the world will be gracious (but how often has the world been gracious?). I reason that bureaucracy is necessary for security reasons. I reason, I think, I weigh, I wonder, I hope: like Reuben, I go to a largely ineffectual inner dialogue that’s mostly about Reuben and not really about Joseph, sitting in the pit. How many of us similarly respond with inner dialogue that’s mostly about us and not really about war-torn Syria’s refugees?

I am reminded of Hillel’s saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14) Each of us is balancing the need to care for ourselves and care for others.  But if not now, as Reuben learned, then people will suffer. 

Now means now. While we talk within ourselves and among ourselves, refugees are suffering and people are dying. Let’s not be Reuben anymore. (if you agree please share this blog post and take action).

R’ Evan Krame and R’ David Markus

This is the time of year that people either look forward to or dread seeing their families with Thanksgiving, Hanukah and Christmas in the holiday line-up for the next month. In my family, we joke that “family” is the other “f” word. If you ask adults and children for what are they thankful, many will respond “family.” For some though, that is a more nuanced issue and our torah portion gives us some parallels and perhaps some perspective.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, centers on Jacob encounter with his twin brother Esau. This is their first encounter since Jacob ran away to their mother’s family to escape Esau’s wrath at having had their father’s blessing deceitfully stolen from him. In advance of the encounter, Jacob divides his entourage and sends emissaries with all kinds of livestock as gifts or tribute. From our perspective, Jacob has every right to be fearful, many years have passed and the brothers have not made peace with each other.

The early Rabbis disagree on whether Jacob should have appeased Esau. Even some later scholars, such as Sforno (16th century), say that Jacob was “like a reed, able to bend in the wind, rather than a cedar which is strong but can be uprooted by a strong wind” (Ta’anit 20a) in contrast to Nachmanides who believes Jacob should have acted with strength not weakness. For them, these brothers represented warring nations and the dilemma is really how best to make a lasting peace treaty. To what extent is the more powerful thing to do to compromise or to stand firm? Is the answer the same when we narrow our lens and look at families?

There are many families like our ancestors, who experience a major (or minor) hurt that causes a major rift, and a family break occurs. The family gathers for Thanksgiving, all except for the family member who was hurt or caused the hurt. In fact, each party may have a grievance with the other. Who should make the first move to repair the relationship? Does it really matter who apologizes? Like Jacob, can’t we wrestle with our resistance to let go of the hurt and prevail? Can we be at peace if we are not at peace with others? Some hurts can not be reconciled so easily, and carrying the pain is a very heavy burden. Sometimes being at peace with ourselves requires us to let go of those relationships completely.

Thanksgiving is a perfect to time to begin a practice of opening our hearts, becoming more accepting of others, and becoming less judgmental. We can expand our families and “adopt” new family members offering love, hospitality and peace.

JoHanna Potts

Every Jewish house of worship echoes the iconic scene in this week’s Torah portion (Vayetze). Jacob takes a rock and places it under his head for a pillow. He dreams of a ladder rising from there to heaven, with angels ascending and descending along it. Jacob wakes with awe and calls the spot Beth El, House of God (Gen. 28:11-14).  Every synagogue (whether or not named Beth El) claims a hope that it too can lift a ladder to heaven and uplift us to awe.

Awe, what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” is the wow of spiritual life – a quality of mind and heart that transcends itself, a sense of self (or selflessness) that can reorder reality and make life shine.  If awe reliably happened by itself, then every synagogue and every Jew would shine with spiritual glow.  Too often, however, it’s just not so.  Too often, synagogues are dull and spirituality seems elusive or illusive.

So what does it take to cultivate awe?

One path to awe is panentheism.  To modern mystic Arthur Green, the whole world pulses with holiness.  At least in potential, every rock could be like Jacob’s rock, the base of a holy ladder.  Imagine living that way, as if a stairway to heaven might appear at any moment, from any rock, right before your eyes.  Imagining living that way, with a sense of the possible.

Another path is serendipity.  This was the answer of the Sforno (Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550).  The Sforno taught of dreamy Jacob that he’d wandered to a place that he hadn’t intended to go.  It was precisely Jacob’s openness to serendipity – to receive unknown gifts of an unknown place on a road less traveled – that opened Jacob to awe.  Imagine living that way, with a sense of spiritual adventure.

A third path is surrender.  This was the answer of the Radak (David Kimchi, 1160-1235).  The Radak taught that Jacob spent the night in that spot because he was too tired to walk any further, so he surrendered to both sleep and to trust that he would be safe there.  It was precisely Jacob’s surrender – to not try to control what might happen – that opened Jacob to awe.  Imagine living that way, with a sense of trust.

So which is it – possibility, spiritual adventure or trust?  Which is it – feeling everywhere and everything pulse with holiness, being spiritually playful, or surrendering to what might unfold spiritually?  Maybe all of these?

The story of Jacob’s ladder maybe doesn’t offer a clear answer, but it asks a clear question of everyone who cares about spirituality and Judaism: where is awe in your life?  Whether with philosophy, adventure or trust, that kind of spiritual life is worth seeking.  Who knows: maybe from every rock a spiritual ladder really can uplift you into awe.

Rabbi David Evan Markus


The mere act of asking is emotionally challenging. We don’t want to seem weak or stupid or be an imposition on others. So we hesitate to ask. We can update our perspective on asking based upon the Torah reading for Toldot, which shifts some of the focus to the person being asked.

Isaac is 40 years old and asks or entreats God on behalf of his wife Rebecca to have a child. The text says something simple and yet striking,  יהוה לו וַיֵּעָתֶר  God lets God’s self be asked. The response from God presumably results in Rebecca conceiving twins. Simply understood, the act of Isaac asking is met with God allowing God’s self to be asked.

If we consider the stress we feel when asking a question, we can also appreciate that same level of anxiety others feel. The key then to alleviating the tension is for all of us to give notice the way we receive questions. We can show kindness to each other by allowing ourselves to receive questions. It is God-like to invite questions.

I think of this as I embark on fundraising efforts.  I was once taught that asking for a donation to a charity is giving another person an opportunity to do a mitzvah or a holy act.  That helps relieve some of my stress in asking, but not all of it.  Rather, the loving-kindness of another person to invite the question truly makes asking for a gift a moment of Godliness.

In the approaching year-end and holiday time charitable solicitations reach a peak.  According to our CPAs this is vital year-end tax planning time to get income tax deductions. Certainly, we will be asked in one way or another to give – whether it is the red suited Santa outside of a supermarket or the robo-caller asking for used items to be donated. We cannot possibly give to everyone who asks. But we can be kind in receiving the request and acknowledge the holy sparks that are present when one person offers another person the opportunity to be of help to others. And rather than taking umbrage at being asked, we can at least give the person asking the honor of being acknowledged for the difficulty of their task. A little kindness in receiving a request is already giving something back.

R Evan Krame

New corporations like Uber and Air BnB remind us that the essential factor for an economy to exist is trust. Not capital, not skills, but trust. Certainly, the sharing economy doesn’t work without buyers trusting service providers. This week’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, demonstrates how trust is not only a necessary element of economic transactions but also an expression of Godliness.

After Sarah dies, Abraham turns to the neighboring Hittites to purchase the cave of Machpelah for Sarah’s burial. Ephron the Hittite owns the cave. Before a crowd of Hittites, Abraham seeks out Ephron to make the purchase. Ephron offers him the cave as a gift. Abraham insists on paying. Ephron agrees to the arrangement. Why does Abraham insist on paying? Perhaps he doesn’t trust that a gift of land will result in a lasting transfer. Rather, a purchase witnessed by a crowd creates sufficient trust that guarantees the acquisition in perpetuity. Why wouldn’t Abraham have trust in his neighbor, Ephron the Hittite? Perhaps, the element of tribalism, that characteristic of people to identify with a group and demonize the other, has contributed to Abraham’s doubt. With the story’s emphasis on Hittites, tribalism is a factor in establishing trust.

Tribal affiliation remains a factor in creating trust.  Jews trusted Jews in economic transactions but sometimes lacked trust in their “gentile” neighbors. Now, Jews living as white people in the United States generally trust almost anyone of another ethnicity in an economic transaction.  Perhaps not completely.  Might you resist being the client of an Indian doctor?  Would you hesitate to purchase from a Muslim vendor?

The new “sharing economy” exposes again the issue of trust. An Uber driver summoned on your smart phone takes you to the airport.  A couple in California offers their home for your vacation through Air Bnb. We rely on YELP, Trip Advisor and social media to provide information with reviews on line. We entrust our safe travel and our vacations to people we have never met and whose offerings are lightly regulated.

Yet, tribalism remains a factor.  To the positive, young African Americans who have had trouble hailing a cab can use Uber as the ride is summoned without references that indicate race. On the other hand, Air BnB allows for prescreening by the homeowners through an application process that requires personal information and sometimes a photo. Accordingly discrimination occurs in the Air Bnb marketplace. Some African Americans have perceived discrimination in Air BnB transactions.  Trust seems to have its limits when it comes to race.

Our currency says in God we trust.  Where is God in economic transactions besides on our coinage?  Perhaps we can find Godliness in a nation where people of totally different backgrounds, religions, or races who have never met can entrust one another to drive us to the airport or rent us their home.  Concurrently, there is a lack of Godliness when people suffer because of prejudice.

Where do you place your trust when procuring services? What factors limit your trust in others? Can you imagine a world that is built on trust because all people aspire to Godliness even in economic transactions?

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Be honest: at pivotal life moments – maybe when you thought nobody else was listening – you bargained with God. Maybe it was immature jitters (“Lemme get an ‘A’ on this test and I’ll be good forever!”); maybe it was mature worry (“Let the test results be negative and I promise to quit smoking”). Whether faith, emotion or desperation, it’s human nature to bargain with God (or the Universe, or Fate, or Something) amidst challenge. The issue isn’t whether we bargain with God, but what our bargaining means and what we make of it.

In this week’s Torah portion (Vayera), Abraham bargains with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah: would God save the cities for 50 righteous? 40 righteous? How about 10?(Gen. 18:23-33). The Rosh Hashanah morning Haftarah finds Hannah bargaining with God: if God gives me a son (Samuel), I’ll dedicate him to God’s service (1 Sam. 1:11). Jacob, on waking from his dream of an angelic ladder, also bargains with God: if God protects me my journey, I’ll tithe all I have for God (Gen. 28:20-22).

Our biblical bargainers seemed to fare well: Abraham couldn’t save Sodom but did get a personalized dialogue with God. Hannah got a son. Jacob felt God protecting his journey. Other bargainers don’t fare so well: modern hospitals and courtrooms overflow with pleas seemingly unheeded and bargains seemingly rejected. And still, we bargain.

In her landmark 1969 treatise, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross called bargaining one of the five stages of grief (like denial, anger, depression and acceptance). In its wake, some imagine bargaining to be a behavior of desperation, or a psychological stage to get past like a bad part of town en route to somewhere better. It’s tempting to suppress bargaining instincts in service of reason and playing it safe. (After all, bargaining with God is risky business: how would losing, or feeling ignored, affect what we think and feel about God?)

We probably can’t know whether God hears and answers our pleas on the terms we bargain for: not everyone is cured, not everyone is exonerated, not every bargain is honored. But the fairest measure of bargaining isn’t always winning an outcome: the Integrative Theory of Bargaining includes our emotions as bargaining outcomes. We feel better speaking our hopes and fears aloud – as Kübler-Ross confirmed, it’s good for us psychologically. And as Narrative Theorists teach, bargaining is part of who we are as humans (and, perhaps stereotypically, as Jews): calling out to God (or the Universe, or Fate, or Something) is part of our emotional and spiritual DNA. To suppress our bargaining instinct is to suppress an essential part of ourselves. Speaking to God, even bargaining with God, is sound spirituality.

So take a page from Abraham, Hannah and Jacob: feel free to bargain with God. We may or may not get what we bargain for, but we’re sure to come away with more of ourselves.

R’ David Evan Markus

A journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step. How does a journey of three thousand years begin?

When Abram’s father, Terach, leaves Ur to go to Canaan, there is no obvious motivation for this journey. In fact, he settles down before reaching his intended destination. Did he, like many of us, just get too caught up in living his day to day life, to finish his journey? Was he, unlike Abram, unable to see the possibilities of what lay ahead? Abram’s journey, prompted by Y-H-V-H, takes him to a new place, physically and spiritually, that makes him a new person, evidenced by him receiving a new name. The Torah shows us a mature relationship between Abraham and God that includes questioning, obeying, confiding and making covenants with each other. 

The Torah portion, Lech Lecha, (Genesis 12:1- 17:27) begins Abram’s journey toward self-discovery and his deep relationship with Y-H-V-H. There were other journeys described earlier in Genesis of a distinctively different kind. Adam and Eve must make a journey out of Eden; Cain must journey after he kills his brother; the Tower of Babel builders are dispersed. What all of these earlier travels have in common is that they were undertaken as what may be construed as disciplinary acts or punishments, while Abram’s journey was a response to a divine invitation. 

The God Abraham is involved with is very real to him. And the story of this relationship has seemed real for many who have heard it over the millennia. More recently there are those who are on their own spiritual journeys to find a way to experience this story as real, to come to have a relationship with the divine that provides guidance and strength, that helps give meaning to the words “a life well lived.” 

Two such spiritual journeys are described by the authors Nancy Ellen Abrams and Aviya Kushner. Their books, “A God That Could Be Real” and “The Grammar of God” respectively, come from nearly opposite perspectives. As different as they are, both tell of personal challenges that sparked each of the authors’ journeys. They begin with very different questions, travel different paths, and yet share the desire and an appreciation of the complexity of the journey to knowing God. 

Each of us has our own spiritual journey to traverse. Sometimes, like Terach, we stop along the way feeling we’ve gone far enough. Sometimes, we need a little push to keep on the journey. Sometimes we need an invitation. And sometimes, we want guides or companions to journey with us. 

Are you ready to continue your journey? Do you want a push, an invitation, a guide, or a companion? A journey of three thousand years begins with a single question.

 JoHanna Potts

I found one of the most absurd moments in Torah in the reading for this week, parashat Noah. One particular verse made me lose my appetite and tested my theology. That’s a lot for one Torah reading.

We read that for forty days and forty nights Noah, his family, and an assemblage of the animals rode out the waves of a rain-swollen planet. The journey continued until they found dry land.  Upon alighting Noah makes a barbeque. “Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar.” (Genesis Ch. 8 v. 20).

After rescuing all of the animal species on the planet (but for the unicorn said Shel Silverstein), Noah starts firing up the grill and eats kosher animals. These are the same animals that Noah had rescued from the flood! God’s reaction was to receive the sweet smell and promise to God’s self never to destroy humankind again. As a religious tradition, the Jewish people kept on sacrificing animals until the Second Temple was destroyed. After the destruction of the Temples we tried prayer instead of animal sacrifices to get God’s attention. However, I’m not sure prayer alone is working out sufficiently well for this world. Perhaps we are reminding God not to destroy again. But while God may have kept God’s promise not to destroy humankind, it seems like we have been doing a good job of destroying this planet on our own.

For example, think about the food we eat and the way we obtain our food.  I recently watched the movie Food, Inc. The movie provides far too much disturbing information about how we mistreat animals and disregard human rights in the process of feeding ourselves. I’m now wary of red meat, conventional fruits, and processed foods. We’ve abandoned sacrificing animals as ritual and now we have a system of food production that is irreligious.

I remain disturbed about the way we treat animals, the way we manage our food supply and the damage we have done to the environment. I take the issue of food production as a theological challenge. In Jewish Renewal circles we call this eco-kosher. I’m here to remind you that the promise not to destroy all humankind because of the smell of a barbecue isn’t working out so well. Our practices certainly haven’t been good for the animals, our own health is harmed and our planet is suffering. The planet is literally becoming the altar upon which our environment is burning up. The odor is not pleasing. The promise of salvation is fading.

All that’s left is for the prophets of today to call out to the world; if God isn’t preserving our world, we have to do the job. Perhaps the point is that God put us here to do God’s work. We can and must do a better job of curating this planet. Let’s start by focusing on food. What will you do this week to affect safer food production? Can your food choices make the world safer, cleaner, or better? And what should I do with the steaks in my freezer?

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Beginnings tend to be messy: ask anyone who’s ever given birth, tilled the soil, sculpted, composed, or built something to last. By their nature, beginnings tend to begin unformed and void, at first dark and uncertain, then haltingly lurch toward something-ness.

Each year, Jews recycle Torah and begin its reading anew. This week we again start at the very beginning (a very good place to start), with the story of Genesis – creation, unformed and void, dark on the face of the deep, light, goodness, evening and morning, time and space, sun and moon, life and death, humanity, a garden with two special trees, an apple, a showdown, an expulsion…. The story is mother’s milk to theology itself. Except for cosmologists embracing the Big Bounce rather than the Big Bang Theory of Everything, we can understand Genesis as a pre-scientific (or extra-scientific) theology of beginning-ness.

If we look closer, however, we see that the Biblical creation starts with a false start – and maybe more than one. Torah’s first chapter recites a first creation, but then Torah’s second chapter tantalizingly suggests a second creation story. The first story posits six days of creation; the second story just one day. The first story evolves humanity at the end of the creation narrative; the second story creates humanity upfront before plants. The first story chronicles humanity’s creation equally in both male and female form, both in the divine image; the second story creates first a male and then a female from the male’s side.

Torah’s creation story is a mess. Biblical exegetes ascribing to the Documentary Hypothesis reason that the Genesis narrative must combine two separate tellings, by two separate narrators, redacted and mushed together into our codified Torah. Creation sure is a messy business.

There’s more. Jewish mystics imagine not two creations but seven (Zohar 1:24b). And why not? If there could be two creation stories, and if creation can be wiped out later (tune in next week forNoah and the Flood), then why not more? Better yet: why not imagine that creation happens each instant? So teaches quantum mechanics, which aligns with traditional Jewish morning liturgy that praises the force “that in goodness constantly renews the work of creation.”

We may never fully unlock the secrets of the universe: there’s plenty of Jewish wisdom that counsels us mere mortals not to try (Talmud, Chagigah 14b). But as to what we ourselves create, we have an important choice to make. We can deem our creations made once, over and done; or we can choose to scrap some of them and start over. Or, we can see each moment literally as pregnant with possibility, a whole universe waiting to unfold by our attitude, word and deed. Which one we choose will shape the kind of creators we are and can become, and with it our own human power to renew our world for good.

Rabbi David Evan Markus

Sukkot – the holiday called the time of our joy, Z’man Simchateinu. The sukkah, the structure which we erect for the holiday of sukkot evokes both the time of wandering in the wilderness during which time God provided us with food and protection and the huts used during the harvest season, the culmination of a great deal of work.

As one of the three pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot most captures for me the power of God’s creation. A successful harvest is dependent on planting the right crop in the right soil at the right time with the right amount of sun and the right amount of rain. Even with the great technology of irrigation, we can see that having rain at the right time is critical. A temporary dwelling like a sukkah is not that dissimilar from the kind of dwellings many people on the planet live in for 52 weeks a year. A dwelling that is vulnerable to fire, earthquakes, and torrential rains.

So we decorate our sukkot with fruits and vegetables, grateful for the bounty in our lives. We invite friends and neighbors to share meals with us in the sukkah, grateful for the love in our lives. On Sukkot, we temporarily move back outside into nature, feeling more vulnerable to nature and delighting our senses – smelling the fall leaves; hearing the wind, birds, and crickets; using our hands to build the sukkah; eating delicious foods and drinking good wine; and seeing the sky.

The roof of a sukkah must permit a person to see the stars through it. The millions of stars that form constellations are predictable from season to season showing an underlying order to the world of creation. There are times when it seems that that order is missing and the world is out of balance, that the power of nature is destructive rather creative. We have the ability to correct to that imbalance: we can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless.

The story of sukkot describes the Israelites as refugees on their way to a new home.  Sukkot is also an opportunity to act as the “image of God” and offer protection to those who are seeking better lives.

JoHanna Potts