Balak- Vision and Truth

Balak, Morning Dew art by Laya Crust

This parsha features a non-Jewish prophet and his conversation with a donkey. It contains lessons about seeing what is in front of you and the judicious use of speech.

The parsha is unusual in a number of ways. No Jews are featured in the reading. Gd and His angel speak to a non-Jewish prophet – a sorcerer. A donkey is the literal voice of reason. The anticipated curse becomes a blessing, and a form of the word רואה, “see”, is figured 19 times in the reading, creating an overlay of vision to the story.

The Moabite king, Balak, was afraid of the Israelites. He had heard about their previous victories against the Amorites and Ammonites. He either exaggerated or was under the impression that the Israelites were a huge nation and said, “[they] will lick up all that are around us as the ox that licks up the grass of the field.” ( Bamidbar 22:4). These are very negative words, chosen to create fear of the Jews among the Moabites. He called for the well known pagan prophet to curse the Israelites. Bilaam was willing to curse them until Gd warned him not to. Ultimately Bilaam blessed the Israelites. Included in the blessings were the following phrases, “It is a nation that will dwell alone and will not be reckoned among the nations” (23:9) and “those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed” (24:9) .

This story reminds me of politics and attitudes today. Balak was fearful of the Israelites. He did not look to see what instigated the battles that the Israelites had won. He did not care whether or not the Israelites were defending themselves against enemy forces. Instead he saw an imagined scenario where the Israelites were the aggressors. He aggrandized and vilified them using inflamed terminology. Having been offered money and power Bilaam was willing to curse the foreign nation.

Bilaam’s donkey is the one player in this story who spoke with reason. Her eyes were open. She saw the angel of Gd and knew to stop in her tracks. When Bilaam said he would have liked to kill her for stopping, she pointed out that Bilaam was willing to ignore a long history of good service without investigating the reasons behind the donkey’s action.

Balaam and the Donkey by Gustav Dore

The rhetoric is high these days. The Prime Minister of Luxembourg has publicly insulted Israel and the Israeli ambassador because of a negative remark by Israel’s Minister of Education. Rather than looking at Israel’s entrenched policies supporting LGBTQ rights, and praising Israel’s policies PM Bettel chose to do the popular thing, He shamefully boycotted a dinner honouring the Israeli ambassador.

At the same time the western media and vociferous public applaud anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric because it is presented under the guise of , “I can’t be prejudiced because I am an immigrant/ woman / person of colour/ part of a minority.” The media and talking rabble are so invested in protecting the rights and freedoms of the above they refuse to look at the basic objective facts of a situation. They drink up the incendiary language and half truths that are presented. It’s time those who do the popular reporting look at underlying facts. They should stop and listen to the voice of reason, even if it seems to be coming from a donkey. Israel and Jews are castigated, and true to Bilaam’s words seem to be “… a nation that will dwell alone and will not be reckoned among the nations” (23:9)

In the haftarah the prophet Micah says, “The remnant of jacob will be in the midst of many nations like dew from the Lord, like raindrops on the grass.” (Micah 5:). It’s true. Like the dew we are a small element in the vastness of the world and the nations. But like the dew and the raindrops we nurture, create, and make the world a better place. From ethics and morality to medical and technical innovation we bring goodness to the world.

in these painful times it is important to remember these words , also from Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justly and to love true loyalty, and to walk humbly with your Gd.” (Micah 6:8)

Iam saddened by the blindness of the media and the lack of respectful discourse in politics. But, let’s act justly and withtrue love and loyalty, and maybe we’ll tip the scales.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya Remember: Come to the exhibit of my haftarah series and other art works at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue, on until October 24, 2019. The exhibit is open during synagogue hours, 7 days a week . For more information e-mail me at layacrust@gmail.com

Compass Rose by Laya Crust. Haftarah for Lech Lecha

Remember: Come to the exhibit of my haftarah series and other art works at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. It continues until October 24, 2019. The exhibit is open during synagogue hours, 7 days a week . For more information e-mail me at layacrust@gmail.com

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Hukkat- Leadership

Hukkat “Yiftach”  art by Laya Crust

Haftarah   Judges 11: 1 – 33,  focusing on  Yiftach (Jephte), a warrior,  12th- 11th C. BCE

I haven’t posted a blog for a while, and I hope write more regularly again. I’ve been busy working on a book and on an exhibit.

The haftarah for Hukkat focuses on the story of a man named Yiftach (Jephte) who led his tribe to victory against the Ammonites. This echoes the parsha where we see Moshe leading b’nei Yisrael against the Ammonites and the Amorites, conquering the latter. In both cases the leaders, Moses and Yiftach, tried to reason with the Ammonites before going to war, showing a desire to refrain from bloodshed and come to a fair solution to an issue.

Yiftach was an accomplished fighter. He had been driven out of the family by his half brothers- the “legitimate” sons of Gilead. They did not want to share the land inheritance with Yiftach because he was the son of Gilead and a prostitute. When the Ammonites made war against B’nei Yisrael, the sons of Gilead begged their half-brother Yiftach to lead them to battle. They promised him that if they were victorious he would become their leader. Yiftach agreed to lead them although he had previously been treated so poorly.

He tried to negotiate with the enemy but they would neither negotiate nor compromise. Yiftach led the Gileadites to victory and subsequently led his people for six years. (The story continues with an ill-fated and unnecessary oathe he made to God.  The result of this oath is a well known and  tragic story that is not included in this week’s haftarah.) 

I tried to find images of Jewish warriors to paint Yiftach leading his fighters into battle. I looked at ancient paintings, medieval haggadot and early manuscript paintings confident that I would find something- after all b’nei Yisrael was involved in many battles in throughout the bible.  I couldn’t seem to find historical images of Jewish soldiers.

I finally came across this beautiful rendering from “The Duke of Sussex Pentateuch”.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is duke-of-sussex-5.jpg “V’Yedaber”  Duke of Sussex Pentateuch, c. 1300, artist- Hayyim

 The Duke of Sussex Pentateuch was written and illuminated in southern Germany around 1300 by a scribe-artist known only as Hayyim. The carpet page shows four knights drawn in fine line work and with surprisingly delicate features. Each represents one of the tribes that camped around the Tent of Meeting, displaying their tribal  flags. The fantastical beast with human faces are quite amazing.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is duke-of-sussex-4-1.jpg                          This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is duke-of-sussex-2-1.jpg                      This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is duke-of-sussex-3-2.jpg

I gave the warriors weapons and the flag of the Tribe of Menashe. It is intriguing that the Jewish artist had painted the leaders of the tribes of Israel as crusaders. I assume that was the only context the Jews of Germany had for soldiers. Now, of course, we can be proud of our Jewish soldiers in a Jewish army fighting for our Jewish State of Israel.

Moses and Yiftach, the two leaders in the Hukkat narratives, both tried to negotiate with the leaders of the Ammonites and the Amorites, the opposing forces. Neither men were successful in avoiding war because their enemies wanted conquest, not reason. B’nei Yisrael conquered their opponents in both situations. From this week’s readings we can learn that when conversation and thought are discarded there are always negative results. These narratives show how diplomacy and negotiation could have solved issues whether regarding family relationships, land disputes or thirst and fear. Lessons for us to remember.

About the exhibit:

The Exhibit:  The haftarah images that I have presented over the last number of years in my blog are currently on exhibit at the Beth Tzedec Max and Helene Dennis Museum in Toronto, Canada. There are 88 haftarah prints for sale, as well as other artwork including ketuboth, handmade books, the Megillat Esther I created for the Gilbert-Schachter family, and more. The exhibit is up until October 24, 2019

Location:  Beth Tzedec Synagogue    1700 Bathurst St., Toronto, ON M5P 3K3 phone: 416-781-3511

Hours:  7 days a week,   whenever the synagogue is open………………………………  8:00 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.
Take a peek and let me know what you think!!!!
Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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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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