Pikudei- the Accounting

Sacred Vessels by Laya Crust

This parsha is the last reading in the Book of Shemot also known as the Book of Exodus. The book begins with a description of the Israelites who suffered under Egyptian slavery and ends with the construction of the “Ohel Moed”, the Tent of Meeting, where God would “reside”, where the holy priests would carry out their duties, and where Moses would communicate with the God of Israel.

It is quite a stunning progression of events. It was only a year from crossing the Red Sea to the dedication of the “Ohel Moed”. The Israelites had lived enslaved for 430 years. By some counts over 2 million Israelite slaves escaped after witnessing miraculous yet terrifying events in nature. They followed Moses through the inhospitable desert. They experienced the overwhelming thunder, lightning and smoke at Mount Sinai. They were convinced to accept a new philosophy and set of laws in the form of the Ten Commandments. A mere nine months later, in the time it takes to carry a child, the Israelites had accepted the Commandments and crafted an exquisite collection of sacred vessels, furniture and structures.

It was a stunning accomplishment and transformation.

Washing cup and basin by Zahava Lambert
Embellished hand cloth by Temma Gentles

The people were longing for order and for higher leadership. When Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights a minority of the Israelites were frightened that Moses wouldn’t return. They took their gold to Aaron to be fashioned into a golden calf. However the majority of the nation didn’t participate in building the idol.

These people had lived in poverty in Egypt. They had taken precious gifts from their neighbours as they left. It is a testament to their desire for God’s leadership that the rest of the Israelites willingly brought their newly acquired riches to fulfill God and Moses’ instructions. They brought so much gold, silver , gems and other materials they had to be told to stop.

Priestly Vestments by Laya Crust

God understands the thirst for and comfort of beauty. The wise hearted and generous of heart were invited to participate in the creation of a beautiful space. The master craftsman, Bezalel, had the appropriate name meaning “in the shadow of God”. He directed and created while the Israelites wove and sewed and built and crafted precious vessels. They dedicated that beautiful space to the values of justice, respect and integrity – the attributes inherent to the Judaism that God demands from us.

The Book of Shemot charts the journey out of the depths of slavery in Egypt, a land that had everything except respect for humanity. The Israelites followed God’s chosen tour guide into the desert and up into the mountains. There they accepted the leadership of God. They embraced concepts of perfection and beauty through Torah values, and they unfurled those values with the building of beautiful clothing and vessels to elevate the values. These readings illustrate how people find beauty elevating. The roots of “Hiddur Mitzvah”, beautifying the laws, are here.

Shabbat Shalom- and חזק חזק ונתחזק
Laya

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Va Yak’hel

Inspired Va Yikahel sig

“Inspired Workmanship” by Laya Crust

In the previous Torah reading, “Ki Tissa”, we read about the sin of “the golden calf”. Just to remind you, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God and bring them down to the Israelites below.  When Moses didn’t arrive at the expected time the nation grew worried and anxious, fearing that something bad had happened. They demanded a god, an idol,  to pray to. Breaking off their jewellery they fashioned a golden calf. The nation was punished by God. The golden calf was destroyed and three thousand men were killed.

In this week’s Torah reading Moshe invited all the people, whoever was generous of heart, ” נדיב לבו“, to bring forward gold, silver, brass, dyed linen and goats’ hair, wood, oil, spices, and precious gems. All these materials would be used to craft holy objects for the mishkan. The items to be crafted were listed and described, and  the people came forward with all that had been requested. The magnificence is described close on the heels of the sin of fashioning the golden calf. 

Wasn’t it contradictory- to punish the people for creating a golden calf but then command them to make expensive objects to be used in religious observance? The Israelites loved ornamentation and beauty. They gave their gold and precious jewelry to Aaron to make an idol to replace the absent Moshe. The answer to this seeming contradiction is in the wording.

Phrases like “wise hearted”  and “willing of heart” appear 15 times in this parsha. Only individuals who were wise hearted and generous could see past the expense and glitter of the materials through to the purpose of  prayer and service to God.  Those who are wise and generous can understand and facilitate elevation of spirit.

Beauty feeds the soul and God understood- and understands this. This parsha acknowledges the need the Israelites had for something beautiful and tangible to help them find comfort and help the on their journey.

Image result for 1299, Perpignan manuscript illumination

1299, Perpignan

Bezalel was chosen to be head architect and designer. He was filled with the spirit of God, with creativity, with understanding and with the knowledge of all kinds of craft. His aide, Oholiab, was also filled with wisdom of heart. Men and women were all invited to contribute and participate in the building of the mishkan and all the objects within it as long as they were generous of heart.

The value God places on creativity is the theme of my illustrationThe vessels are the brass pieces used in the mishkan. The painting is based on a  beautiful and timeless illumination from 1299, Perpignan, Aragon.  The two quotations are from the parsha:  “Take from among you an offering of the Lord, whoever is of a willing heart let them bring it…” (35:5)     “And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing of heart.” (35:22) The sparkling watercolour wash behind the quotations represents imagination and spirituality.

So, artists, artisans, wood workers, poets, musicians, playwrights, weavers, silversmiths,  authors, painters, dancers, photographers and potters, when you work with integrity and inspiration remember that it is God’s gift to you. This is your contribution to the spiritual beauty of the world.

Have Shabbat Shalom- one full of beauty and joy and of course – creative thinking. Hoping for peace and equality in the world,

Laya

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Laws – Mishaptim

The Ten Commandments by Arava and Eleanore Lightstone

Mishpatim, which means “Laws” is a parsha that seems out of place. The previous five Torah readings have been full of drama and excitement. The giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, with lightning and thunder was last week’s Torah reading. Following that we expect something more colourful than lists of laws that discuss slavery, murder, and theft.

Rashi points out the the parsha begins with the words “ואלה המשפטים” – “and these are the laws.” The word “and” indicates that the text is a continuation of the previous passages. Rashi is telling us that the laws presented in this parsha are here because they are elaborations of the Ten Commandments from Yitro. We will see that most of the commandments are expanded upon.

God introduced Himself and His position in the first three commandments. Each of the remaining Commandments are clarified and elaborated upon in one degree or another in parshat “Mishpatim”. We read a variety of punishments related to various acts of murder- premeditated and accidental. There are references to honouring one’s parents, enlargement of the observance of Shabbat, details about types of robbery, and attention to the treatment of slaves.

Freeing the Slave by Laya Crust

The concept that parshat Mishpatim is a continuation of parshat Yitro is further supported by the way the two readings are bracketed visually and textually. Before the Ten Laws are announced to the Israelites there was thunder and lightning around Mount Sinai. “And the people perceived the thunder and lightning and the voice of the horn and the mountain smoking.” (Exodus 20: 15)

A Pavement of Sapphire Stone by Laya Crust

After the elaboration of the Commandments, Moses and the elders were invited to “come up.” It says, “and they saw the God of Israel and under His feet there was a likeness of a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very sky for purity.” (Exodus 24:10) This is a breathtaking image. Moses, a few chosen leaders and 70 elders were invited to the heights to witness God. The pavement of sapphire stone. The variety of translucent blues ranging in the skies above. The colours of peace, spirituality, calm, and the hues of the vastness of the firmament. Such a vision those chosen few were invited to witness!

That vision was just before the bracketing occurrence of pyrotechnics. “When Moses ascended the mountain the cloud covered the mountain…the presence of the Lord appeared …as a consuming fire on top of the mountain.” (Exodus 24: 15, 17) Here we read the visual bookends of lightning, thunder and cloud, dramatically encompassing the Laws that we , the Jews, are commanded to follow.

The narrative is also bracketed by the Israelites stating in slightly different ways ” כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה ונשמע” “All the God says we will do and we will hear”. (Exodus 24:7, as well as similar phrases in 19:8 and 24:3)

I hope this has been interesting to you. I had not connected the unity of these two Torah readings until I listened to a talk by Rabbi Alex Israel of Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. I hope, too that you enjoy the visuals and affirmations given to us through these parshiot.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

P.S. Parsha food idea via Eleanore Lightstone of Jerusalem..- A gingerbread Mount Siani with cranberries for the fire and ice cream for the clouds. What a great dessert!

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Respect: Parshat Yitro

Receiving the Torah by Laya Crust

This parsha presents the Ten Commandments, the outline for life that God presented to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are the base rules for interacting with God and man. These rules can be encapsulated by one word- respect. It’s not just respect for God, it is respect for God, respect for all people, their families, and their property.

Three individuals take the centre stage in this week’s Torah and haftarah readings. The three are Moses, his father-in-law Yitro, and the prophet Isaiah whose words are read in the haftarah. The theme of respect connect the three men.

Moses was a person who, from his early days, cared for others and sought justice. Our first meeting with him as an adult was when he stepped in to stop a Hebrew slave from being beaten by an Egyptian slave driver. Then he saw two Hebrew slaves fighting and stepped in to stop that violence. Rather than sit back and be comfortable in his wealth and position as a member of Pharaoh’s household he ended up leaving the Egyptian dictates of brutality and regal order. When he came upon Yiro’s daughters being bullied at a well he again stepped in and protected them. He helped the weaker from the stronger, unjust men.

His desire to activate respect for all may be the trait that caused God to choose Moses as His messenger to lead the Israelites out of slavery.

Yitro had some of the same traits. Unlike Jacob’s father-in-law Lavan, Yitro truly embraced Moses as a friend, a son-in-law, and a partner. Although Moses ultimately decided on a path different from Yitro’s after encountering God’s presence at the burning bush, Yitro was supportive of Moses’ decision. Indeed, Yitro recognized HaShem as the one true God although he did not follow b’nei Yisrael on their journey to Canaan.

When we met Yitro at the beginning of this parsha he gave Moses incredible advice. With Yitro’s own trait of wanting good for those around him he told Moses how to change his judicial approach to difficult tribal issues. He saw that Moses stood from morning to night advising all the people of Israel who had a question or problem. Yitro told Moses to create a heirarchy of “able men such as fear God, men of truth hating unjust gain; and place  such over them to be rulers of thousands, fifties and tens”. (Exodus 18:21).  He continued by suggesting that only the most difficult cases that couldn’t be decided by the appointed judges be brought to Moses. Yitro wanted Moses to understand that to lead the people well and strongly Moses had to take care of his own self and health.

Isaiah and the Seraph by Laya Crust

The haftarah begins with Isaiah’s vision of God on a throne. This is a reflection of God’s magnificence in the Torah reading. God wanted to choose Isaiah as a prophet but Isaiah demurred, saying his lips were “unclean”. A seraph touched Isaiah’s lips with a coal and cleansed them allowing Isaiah to have the confidence of heart to preach the correct way to live to the children of Israel.

The three men were chosen because of their own integrity and their desire to help those around them led lives of respect and integrity.

That’s what the Ten commandments are about. They are a gift God created for us,. They are a template for righteousness, fairness and goodness to ourselves and all those around us. Shall I add- the rest is commentary?

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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The Last Meal in Egypt

Moses and Pharaoh by Laya Crust

This week’s parsha, “Bo”, recounts the last three plagues God inflicted on the Egyptians. It also describes the last meal in Egypt. The story of the Ten Plagues and the escape of the Israelites from Egypt was the beginning of a new epoch for the Israelites. This exodus would be the event that forged a new nation.

I was struck by the God’s explicit instructions. He told the Israelites what to wear, how to paint the doorposts with blood, not to go outside the family compound, and to be ready to leave in haste. I tried to picture the situation. How would the Israelites feel, being told to brazenly roast a lamb- an animal deified by their oppressors, gather a huge group together in order to eat the Egyptian deified food, and eat it while dressed to flee? It sounds daunting.

The Israelites were told “…take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share with a neighbour who lives nearby, in proportion to the number of persons:” (Exodus 12: 3,4). This instruction made sure not to waste any food, but to share in both the preparation and the food. Every single family – men, women and children- would make their own offering. To use it all they would have to share. It was to be a special and memorable meal officiated not by a priest or leader but by the entire family.

According to one recipe an entire roasted lamb can feed up to 45 people. So how could so many people gather to roast and eat an entire lamb? They couldn’t leave the house to eat outside. Anyone who stepped through the doorway that had been marked with blood would be subject to the punishment of death visited upon the Egyptians.

In many communities there might have been six or eight connected houses built around a courtyard. Each house was inhabited a relative with his family. Families met to eat and cook in the central courtyard. The patriarch’s house would have an entrance to the town thoroughfare. This could explain how a group of 30 – 45 people could gather together in an enclosed space to eat an entire lamb.

The Israelites were told, “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded,your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand: and you shall eat it in haste, “בְּחִפָּזוֹן”. ( Exodus 12:11) The word “חִפָּזוֹן” is used only three times in Torah. The second time “חִפָּזוֹן” is used is in Deuteronomy 12:3. Moshe was describing the Passover observance of the future, which would mirror the meal from the night of the exodus.

He said ,”You shall slaughter the Passover sacrifice, from the flock and the herd…you shall eat unleavened bread, bread of distress – for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly (בְּחִפָּזוֹן)- so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live”. To make the memory even sharper and more accurate Moshe added, “none of the flesh of what you slaughter on the evening of the first day shall be left until morning.” (Deuteronomy 16:4)

What a scene. Bustling and fevered preparation beginning at midnight, followed by a huge group of people eating roasted lamb in the common courtyard behind the doors to the streets. Dressed in sandals, holding their staffs as they ate meat and herbs, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. And this was under the noses of their slave masters and the Pharaoh. This is a view of that night, a scene of excitement and trepidation.

Maybe that’s something that should be brought to our seder tables at Pesach. Maybe we should try to communicate to our children and even to ourselves what astounding preparation and activity was going on behind closed doors.

As mentioned above the preparation was outlined “so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live”. And that is what the Pesach seder does. It brings together families and friends, unites communities and Jews all around the world. So these are my thoughts this week. Thoughts about preparation, uncertainty, the organization of the home and sharing of space for meals, and how בְּחִפָּזוֹן is a rarely used word (in Torah) that was used for a specific type of panic and haste.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

Here are some food ideas for your Shabbat Bo table. 3 plagues: locusts, darkness, and death

Locusts

Darkness

Death of the first born-
broken hearts

You can make your own roasted meat (lamb if you want) by marinating it in olive oil and curry powder with onions, then frying or barbecuing it. If you want, eat it wearing sandals, and holding a staff! Bon Appetit.

Image result for israeli shawarma

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VaYigash

Joseph by Laya Crust

This painting was done for a boy named Joseph, named after his grandfather Joseph. He celebrated his Bar Mitzvah reading parshat VaYigash, about Joseph.  

The colourful story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax in this week’s parsha. The brothers and their father, Jacob, had survived the famine in the land of Canaan but could not survive much longer. Against the heart broken patriarch’s intuition the brothers traveled to Egypt to get more food. They had gone before and met the Pharaoh’s second in command- and had a strange experience there. But this time they went with troubled hearts because they had to go with their youngest brother, Benjamin.

 Joseph was playing a game with his brothers, and it’s difficult to understand exactly why he made the demands of them. This parsha begins just after Benjamin had been “framed”. Joseph’s personal silver chalice had been “planted” in Benjamin’s belongings, and the Israelite brothers had been told that Benjamin will become enslaved to Pharaoh’s court as payment for the infraction.

English: Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brot...

Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot 
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The beauty/ pathos of the story unfolds from here.  Judah steppped forward and begged for understanding. He poured out his heart, recounting the family history to this great Egyptian before him. Judah hoped that by telling this leader of his father’s frailty the leader may accept Judah as a slave rather than take his youngest brother.

Joseph could carry on the charade no longer. He cleared all the Egyptian attendants from the room. The text says, “and he cried, ‘Cause every man to go from me.’  And no man stood with him while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And his voice cried out with weeping, and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.”

When I read those phrases I imagined a stately, handsome regent who was always in control. He was a man who had faced one challenge after another but had always kept his wits about him, analyzed, strategized, and succeeded.  He had played with his brothers, waiting for just the right time to reveal his identity.  I think he was “undone”, hearing Judah’s humility and love for Yaakov, the father Joseph hadn’t seen for decadess and possibly thought he never would see again. The narrative set the scene in a compelling way. Joseph was so overcome that he losts his controlled facade. Alone with his brothers he let out such a cry of anguish that the entire land of Mizrayim (Egypt) heard… What powerful text.

Foster Bible Pictures 0054-1 Joseph Kissing Hi...

 Joseph Kissing His Brother Benjamin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story had begun many years earlier. Fraternal jealousy instigated a cruel joke at best or a malicious death wish at worst. That behaviour broke a family apart and had a ripple effect on the generations that followed.

As time went on  Judah would become one leader of the tribes and the other brothers would unite  as a group called “Yisrael”. We know from the text in the Bible that just as the brothers separated when Joesph was sold, their descendants- the tribes of Israel – would once again separate and form two kingdoms.

The conflict in the history of the Jews- the competition for leadership, the separation of the nations – was foreshadowed in the story of Abraham’s sons, then Isaac’s sons, and now again in the story of Jacob’s sons.

VaYigash,  “Reuniting”  by Laya Crust

The hafatarah for this week is Ezekiel 37: 15 – 28.  Ezekiel the prophet lived in the early part of the 6th C. BCE.  He was among those exiled to Babylon. In this haftarah he is told by G-d to take two sticks. On one he should write the name of Joseph and his “house” (kingdom), and on the other the name of Judah and his “house” (kingdom).  The two sticks should then be held together signifying that the two kingdoms should and can be reunited. The people of Israel will be gathered from among the nations, they will live righteously , and they will live as one nation. 

We have seen the story played out over and over again. Now we have our own country of Israel. Jews are immigrating there from the four corners of the world. Yet we are divided by traditions, dress, levels of observance, and internal politics. We’ll see how our next chapter unfolds.

Let us pray for unity and peace among our people, and peace in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,  Laya

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Yosef and Yehuda

Joseph’s Dream by Laya Crust

This week’s parsha- “VaYeishev” (and he dwelled) is the beginning of a long, long narrative devoted to the life and adventures of Joseph, Jacob’s favourite son. In unusual detail 4 weeks of Torah readings, 13 chapters of text, are dedicated to Joseph’s trajectory from being a shepherd’s son to becoming second in command to the ruler of a large and powerful nation. In this parsha we do get another story as well, the story of Yehuda and Tamar. What I will do today is compare the paths of these two brothers.

Jacob’s Gift to Joseph by Laya Crust

Our parsha begins stating that Isaac loved Joseph more than all his other children, and made him a striped, or multi -coloured, coat. Joseph’s brothers were jealous and aggravated by him, especially after he shared his dreams of grandeur with his brothers. Not only had he been given a regal coat by his father, but shared the dream in which his entire family bowed down to him. The brothers were so angry they decided to kill him. Yehuda was the one sibling who spoke up and convinced them not to murder Joseph, rather they should sell him to passing traders.


  by Laya Crust

As the stories play out we witness certain events in the lives of Yehuda and Yosef.  Yosef was the favoured son, given a regal gift by his doting father. He had dreams of grandeur then was abruptly thrown into a pit and sold into slavery. In Egypt he was bought by Potiphar, rose to a position of responsibility within Potiphar’s home, then was thrown into jail because of Potiphar’s jealous and conniving wife. In prison he once again rose to a position of influence where he interpreted two dreams. Ultimately he was taken out of jail to again interpret two dreams for the Pharaoh. Through his correct interpretation of the dreams he became Grand Vizier over of all of Egypt. He became a leader, and a man of power.

Yehuda had a very different path. He iwa the fourth son of Isaac and Leah and barely mentioned until the incident where he saved Yosef from death. There is an unexpected story in the midst of this parsha featuring Yehuda and Tamar, his daughter-in-law.  Yehuda “went down from his brothers” and married an unnamed Canaanite woman. They had three sons. The oldest, Er,  married a woman named Tamar. Er was punished by God and died, so Yehuda had his next son, Onan, marry Tamar. Onan also sinned and was punished by God and died. Yehuda thought the deaths were Tamar’s fault. Instead of taking care of her he sent her away ostensibly until his third son, Shuah, could marry her. When years passed and Tamar realized she would forever be forgotten she took matters into her own hands. She dressed as a lady of the night.  Yehuda, not knowing her identity, slept with her. It’s an interesting story. Ultimately Tamar was to be punished for being a harlot. When Tamar proved to Yehuda that her situation had been untenable due to his  wrongful actions Yehuda took responsibility.  Tamar gave birth to twins. Her son Perez was the first of the Davidic line. Later in the Yosef narrative Yehuda took a lead role in Egypt and attempted to alleviate and solve difficult issues.

These different paths of Yehuda and Yosef are thought provoking. Yosef was the favoured and talented son. He consistently became a leader wherever he lived. Each time he was toppled from his position he would rise again, becoming an advisor, an interpreter, and a leader. It would have been logical for him to be seen as the next leader of the Jewish people. Why did that role fall to Yehuda?

When we look at Yehuda’s life we see that he made some challenging decisions. He disagreed with his brothers and convinced them to let Yosef live. He left his father’s home to marry a Canaanite woman. This seems to have been against the family culture. Remember, Isaac went to Padan Aram in order to avoid marrying a Canaanite. It is possible that he wanted to leave behind the fighting and jealousy rife within his family. By separating from them and marrying a Canaanite he could live a more straightforward life, one without bickering and rivalry. His integrity is obvious in how he honoured Tamar’s testimony and how he was the first of the brothers to step forward and try to negotiate with the Grand Vizier of Egypt. In contrast Yosef was a product of circumstance. He didn’t take strong initiative. His intelligence, talent, and of course God’s guidance helped him through each step of his interesting life.

We are called “Yehudim”- Jews- named after Yehuda, the fourth son.

King Solomon by Laya Crust

King David, our greatest king, and King Solomon who built the Temple in Jerusalem descended from Yehuda. And the Messiah is from that same line. Yehuda was the son who knew that to lead a life of observance and truth he had to separate himself from the pettiness and jealousy that weakened his birth family. He retained his identity and love of God while separating from the in fighting. He joined in the family events and family crises while preserving his integrity.

I hope we can all learn to do the same, to retain our identity and Jewish faith while separating ourselves from what is petty and negative. And like Yosef- may we be able to interpret our dreams for good and follow our dreams to create a better world.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

 

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