VaYikra: Willows and Water

Vayikra sig“Willows and Water” by Laya Crust

Vayikra : Haftarah- Isaiah 43:21 -44:23

This week we read the first parsha in the Book VaYikra- the Book of Leviticus. VaYikra means “and He called”. The English name, Leviticus, is a Latin word meaning “from the Levites”. The theme of Leviticus is one of holiness, and holiness is described in different forms throughout the book.   

The haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah lived and prophesied in the Southern Kingdom of Judah from around 740 – 681 BCE.  At the beginning of his life both kingdoms were successful and prosperous. During his lifetime the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed.  The Southern Kingdom of Judah barely survived a takeover by Assyria.

At the time of this haftarah the Jews were in exile. They were worn down, defeated, and turned from God to worship idols. Isaiah told them that God had noticed the abandoned the altars and sacrifices. Even though they were offering sacrifices to man-made gods. God told the Israelites He would not abandon them.  He said, “Even as I pour water on thirsty soil and rain upon dry ground, So I will pour My spirit on your offspring”.

I wanted to show that although the Jews had forgotten God, He is waiting for them to return and resume their observance of God.  In the text God said, “And they shall sprout like grass, Like willows by watercourses…”  In my haftarah painting at the top of the page there is a willow tree by a river. Although there are sheep grazing in the background, abandoned altars overgrown with grass are in the foreground. God waits until the Jews return and and then He will bless them and their children.

On a historical note, many scholars think the Book of Isaiah was written by more than one person. Dating back to the 12th Century Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra was convinced that chapters 40 – 66 were written by one or more prophets who lived in exile in Babylon, after the destruction of the the Southern Kingdom. That would have been about 150 years after Isaiah died.  This second section is often called “Deutero Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah”.


I hope you enjoyed the artwork and the post.  Many people have asked when I am going to turn my haftarah paintings into a book. I have decided to take the plunge and I’m working on one right now. I’ll keep you posted on how things progress.

Shabbat Shalom, Happy new month of Nissan, and all the best,


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Tu B’Shevat

This week I am posting a wonderful piece by blogger Michael Ordman.  Michael writes a blog called Good News Israel, and this one is, as usual, excellent.  It is about the water shortage occurring in nations around the world, and Israel’s ability and desire to help those nations create solutions. I thought I would share it with you. Please click on the youtube videos. They are incredible.

Bearing Fruit to Those Who Want It   by   Michael Ordman

Image result for treesThe Jewish festival of Tu B’Shvat (New Year for Trees) inspired me to look back over the year at the agricultural and environmental benefits Israel and Israeli companies have provided internationally. But I was only motivated to write this blog when I heard that my cousins in Cape Town, South Africa have been ordered to ration their water usage and from April will have their water cut off.  Why?  Because South Africa has refused Israel’s offers to help solve their water management problems.  As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink.”

Down the road from South Africa, Israeli experts in drip irrigation and crop management trained nineteen educators in Swaziland, which was almost crippled by drought last year. In the same continent, but at the other end of the scale, Israeli NGO “Innovation: Africa” has been providing clean water and aid to millions of Africans, including tens of thousands of refugees living in the war-torn Central African Republic.  The NGO also saved the whole village of Akuyam in Karamoja, Ugandawhere many hadn’t eaten for three days.

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Ironically, in late 2016 (before the South African boycott), Israel’s Fluence installed a potable desalination system to solve dire drought conditions in KwaZulu-Natal – a semi-autonomous region in South Africa. No wonder the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithinii, monarch of 12 million Zulus urged (fruitlessly) the country’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) to retain close ties with Israel.

On the other hand, those countries that have accepted Israel’s help are reaping the benefits. Take water, for example. In India, Israel’s WaterGen has launched a pilot with India’s Tata to generate water out of thin air.

Israel’s water systems are certainly appreciated by the US State of Wisconsin, and by water professionals from Canada, China and the Czech Republic. In Ghana, Israel’s Yam Pro is using water to produce 150 megawatts of wave energy.Meanwhile, Israel’s TaKaDu is preventing major water leakages from Australia toVietnam, not forgetting Spain, the UK and the USA.

Appropriately, for the Jewish New Year for Trees, here are just a few agricultural items. Israeli charity KKL-JNF was asked by Kenya to help turn its deserts into forests, using Israeli technology that can conserve soil, capture rain runoff, monitor precipitation and promote conservation. Then, just over a month ago the municipality of Jerusalem (Israel’s capital) gave away free fir trees to those Christian residents who wanted them. Finally, take a look at the FarmZee app from Israeli startup Farmster, which is saving Tanzania’s crops from going to providing farmers (without Internet access) with a special SMS link to buyers for their crops.

There are many South Africans that speak the truth about Israel’s work to benefit humanity. They agree with what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his recent speech to the United Nations.  “So many countries around the world have woken up to what Israel can do for them.” “Israel is the place for cutting-edge technology, in agriculture, in water… You name it, we’ve got it”.

And it won’t cost the earth

Be inspired! And have a wonderful Shabbat.

Laya Crust

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Shabbat Shira- BeShalach


Miriam’s Song by Laya Crust

This week’s Torah reading is given the name Shabbat Shira- the Shabbat of Song. We read three songs-  Miriam’s song after crossing the Red Sea, Moshe’s “Song of the Sea”,  and Devorah’s song of victory.  Not only do women sing and play music in both the Torah and haftarah readings, they are major figures in these biblical stories.

Miriam is called a prophet in this parsha. She accompanied her younger brothers, Moshe and Aaron, leading b’nei Yisrael to freedom. Miriam was the female role model for the nation. She exemplified strength and leadership and the confidence that God has in the abilities and wisdom of women. After crossing the Red Sea, Miriam led the women with a celebration of song and dance.

h shabbat shiraDevorah and Barak by Laya Crust

 Devorah was a judge and prophet who led the Israelites  for 40 years. She would sit under a palm tree to meet with her people. The haftarah tells of a battle waged by the Canaanites against the Israelites. The Jewish leader, Barak, asked Devorah to lead the battle with him. She warned Barak that a woman would be credited with the victory if she went, but he still insisted on her help.

Maciejowski Bible, ca 1240

Yael, the other major woman in the haftarah was not a Jew, but a Kenite. After the battle Sisera, a general fleeing from the Jews,  sought refuge with Yael. She gave him warm milk to drink, covered him with a blanket, then drove a tent peg through his temple, killing him. The hafatarah is unusual in that it features two women- Devorah and Yael- as the heroic characters.

hallelu 1Hallelu  by Laya Crust

Devorah wrote a song of praise mentioning herself as a mother of Israel, Barak as a leader, and Yael as a heroine. The end of the song is powerful. Devorah described Sisera’s mother waiting at the window for her triumphant son to return home from battle.  Devorah sang, “…The mother of Sisera…moaned…’Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why are the  hoofbeats of his steeds so tardy?…Have they not found spoils and treasure? Have they not divided the prey; to every man a damsel or two; to Sisera many kinds of plunder…?”. Devorah described the scene- a mother waiting for her son- all the while knowing Sisera had been murdered. The mother’s confidence and pride that her son had been successful in killing, looting and abducting the Israelites is disquieting.

The women in the parsha and haftarah showed strength and leadership. God chose Miriam to be one of the three leaders of the children of Israel as they trekked towards freedom. God appointed Devorah and later Hulda to be prophets, and made Yael a hero. We must remember this and take it forward as we progress in religion, culture and politics. 

Have a joyous and tuneful Shabbat,


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Parsha Foods

Image result for 10 plaguesTen Plagues from Haggadot. com

There are many ways to get your family, children, or students involved with narratives from the bible. One method that’s used is “parsha foods”. Each week the creative food thinker looks at the parsha and figures out a way to bring the story to life through food.

Eleanore Lightstone, cook extraordinaire, lives in Jerusalem with her family. She created a Shabbat menu featuring the plagues from the story of the Exodus. Her two assistants, Faygle Train  and Arava Lightstone helped with the preparations. 

Their menu was as follows-

blood–  dipping sauce      frogs– cucumber and pickles     lice–  olives with cloves for pincers     wild animals–  pizza in the shape of various animals        pestilence– sushi with black sesame seeds      boils– cherry tomatoes       fiery hail– ice cubes with pomegranate seeds             locusts– butterscotch cookies                darkness– black liquorice         death of the firstborn–  broken heart cookies


The next three plagues, the just desserts are below.







It’s fun to create a meal that includes scenes or ideas from the parsha. Here is the recipe for the broken heart cookies:

2 eggs                             2 tsp. baking powder

3/4 cup sugar                3 cups of flour

1/2 cup oil                      dash of salt

1/4 cup water

Preheat oven to 375 o F  or  190 o C

Combine the eggs, sugar, oil and water until blended. Add the dry ingredients and combine. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Sprinkle some flour on a counter and roll out a piece of dough to about 1/8″ thick. Cut the dough into shapes using a heart cookie cutter. Place on a cookie sheet. Repeat using all the pieces of dough. Bake for 8 -10 minutes, until slightly golden.





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A Perfect 10

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10 is the number that is often used to describe perfection. We use that scale whether we are talking about judging a gymnastics competition, getting 10 out of 10 on a spelling test, or rating an event (“On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate this shopping experience/ hotel stay/ trip to Florida?”) Can we talk about 10 as a perfect number when we are talking about the Torah reading Va’Eira? That’s the reading where the 10 plagues begin to be rained down on the Egyptians.

We all have heard of the 10 plagues. When God commanded Moses to go to Egypt and liberate the enslaved children of Israel, He didn’t set Moses up with an army. Instead, He described how ten plagues would be visited upon the Egyptian people. The horror of one plague after another would build up until the Pharaoh couldn’t stand it any more.  Finally, God told Moses, the Pharaoh would let the Israelites go – to their own land and to freedom.

Va’Eira by Laya Crust

The number 10 is a significant number in Judaism and in western culture. In the story of creation the phrase “And God said” is repeated 10 times.  Within the seven days of creation, 10 categories of being were created. There were 10 generations between Adam and Noah- the generation that was destroyed by the flood. Abraham was given 10 tests. God required 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorra in order to avert divine punishment. Most important of all, God gave us the 10 commandments.

The “yud” is the first letter in God’s Hebrew name, י-ה-ו-ה.  Each letter in the Hebrew language has a numerical value. The letter “ י ” has the value of  10.  The letter yud gets its name from the Hebrew word יד  “Yad” which means hand.

Image result for history of letter yud

In the earliest writing a yud looked like an arm with a hand at the end of it. And of course, we have 10 fingers on our two hands. (or 10 digits, if you want to be more accurate). Those 10 digits are the basis of our counting and mathematical structures. The metric system is completely based on values of 10. The “yud”, 10, is therefore the foundation to both our language and commerce systems.

As mentioned before, God when created the world, the phrase, “And God said” was used 10 times.  When the God spoke to Moses He used the term “outstretched arm”. We read about “the hand of God “and the “finger of God”. Moses and Aaron stretched out their hands before a plague appeared. The image of hands with their 10 fingers occurs over and over again.

Going back to the plagues, it appears that God specifically visited 10 plagues on Egyptian society. The use of 10 to achieve good when surrounded by evil underlines the power of God in the details and in the large picture .

Rosh Hodesh by Laya Crust

God established a people through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob which was to be a “light among the nations”. God gave us the 10 commandments as our guidebook for good and moral behaviour – the opposite of slavery and cruel dictatorship. The beautiful world that God created was (and still is) to be enjoyed by humankind, and was (and still is) to nurture humanity.

God used the plagues to undo the ancient Egyptian civilization. Visiting 10 plagues on tyrannical Egypt carried the pointed message that ethics and justice can, and will, undo evil.

Creation and the 10 commandments are the good that infuses the world. The symbol of that righteousness and beauty encompassed in 10 is symbolized by the letter “yud” which appears in every letter of the Hebrew alphabet and therefore every expression of creation, law,  justice and beauty.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, and may at least 10 good events come your way!



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Shemot- Nameless

Shemot by Laya Crust

“Shemot”, meaning “Names”, is the title of the second book of the Five Books of Moses.  The book begins with the names of the patriarch Jacob and his sons, and tells how Jacob went down to Egypt with an entourage of 70 people. It says, “And the children of Jacob were fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied and grew very very mighty, and the land was filled with them.” (Shemot/ Exodus 1:7)

The Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians. Not slaves, not taskmasters, nor nobility are named in the narrative. The first names we read are those of two heroic midwives, Shifra and Pua, who had the courage to ignore the edict to drown every Israelite boy at birth.  The next name we read is that of Moses- not when he was born but after he was rescued by Pharaoh’s (nameless) daughter, then taken by his own (nameless) sister to be nursed and raised for three years by Moses’ own (nameless) mother.

Although we read of Moses’ entanglement with an Egyptian taskmaster and three Israelite slaves, the next person who is named is Re’uel (Jethro), the Midianite priest who kindly took Moses in.

There is a pattern here. The people who are named are those who stand up against the norm of apathy and acceptance. The midwives risked their own lives because they didn’t want to kill innocent baby boys. The adopted boy Moses grew up to rail against the injustice he witnessed. Jethro the priest took in a needy stranger from a rival country.

photograph by Malcolm Peterson, 2003

But names are important. When Moses met God at the burning bush surprisingly Moses asked for God’s name. He demanded a name from a powerful, unknown, force. God complied and furnished Moses with a name – “אהיה אשר אהיה“, “I Will Ever Be What I Will Be”.

Names are a key to identity and self determination.  The Israelite slaves were nameless. Black slaves were stripped of their birth names and given new monikers. Victims of the Nazi regime were numbered in order to add one more level to their dehumanization.  Victims of famine and genocide; and victims of large natural disasters like tsunamis, mudslides and earthquakes, are unnamed. Missing indigenous women needed their names shared in order to be noticed, and for their disappearances to be investigated.

Moses knew that the Israelite slaves needed a name for God in order to believe.Let’s read about it.When we see a face or hear a name we are more capable of empathizing with a person or an unfolding tragedy.  That is why, when a memorial is set up for fallen soldiers or victims of the Shoah (Holocaust), the  invisible  individuals can then be remembered.

Image result for ai weiwei children's backpacks, toronto, AGO

Snake made out of children’s backpacks, Ai Wei Wei, Art Gallery of Ontario, 20013

Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese dissident artist, took another approach in one of his installations.  In 2008, thousands of school children were killed by an earthquake in Sichuan, China, in shoddily constructed government schools. Wei Wei has produced a list of all the victims of the earthquake on his blog. He also created a number of art pieces made from thousands of children’s backpacks to memorialize their lives.

The thousands of victims have been given identities.

Referring to the narrative from the bible, it may seem that calling this story “Shemot” or “Names” is ironic, but on second thought it is a lesson. The people who were named were doers and helpers. They were people who stepped beyond normal expectations to change a condition and make it better.

When we see people in need it may help US to find out their names and then it may make it easier for us to see them as individuals and allow us to reach out more quickly.

Have a good week,  Laya





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Image resultJacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph,  by Rembrandt, 1656

The Torah reading, Va’Yechi, describes the last days of Jacob’s life. He led a complicated life. He  balanced the challenges of marriage and supporting a large family with his God given role as the third patriarch of a new people. He used strategy and manipulation to reach his dreams and accomplish his goals.

The word Va’Yechi  means “and he lived”,  emphasizing that Jacob had really lived and learned, that he had not merely coasted along in life and survived. In a way his life began when he had to run away from his brother Esau. At the end of his life we see how experience taught him deep wisdom and the clarity to understand people.

Jacob was raised in a family where his father, Isaac, loved the older brother Esau, and Rebecca, the mother, favoured Jacob, the younger brother. Although the two boys were twins Esau (the elder by only minutes) was expected to be bequeathed the greater inheritance and family rights. The parents’ preferential treatment towards different children and Jacob’s desire for some of his brother’s rights led to mistrust and maybe even hatred. The family splintered because of it.

Jacob repeated the preference of the younger over the older throughout his life. He chose  to marry Rachel, the younger of two unmarried sisters, countering common practice. Jacob presented Joseph, his favoured son, not Reuben the first born, with a regal tunic.

Jacob and Joseph, by Laya Crust

The choices led to a fractious relationship with his brother Esau, a bitter life with competitive wives, and the disappearance and supposed death of his favourite son. The family challenges coupled with a famine must have mellowed Jacob and increased his empathy and understanding of others.

Jacob learned and stood by an important lesson. Do not judge people by birth order or by wealth. I suspect he learned his respect for wisdom and leadership over birth order and wealth from his parents. His mother left a manipulative brother to live a new life. His father was a second son who inherited the role to establish a new nation. Jacob, like his father, recognized that he, not his older brother, was to be the leader of the Jewish people. Although it may have been contrary to the norms he and his mother devised a plan to make sure the most appropriate son received the appropriate blessing.

Isaac Blesses Jacob,  by Laya Crust

Jacob  raised Joseph differently from his brothers, possibly recognizing that Joseph needed a different education to fulfill his potential. In a stark replay of history he blessed his grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim, in the “wrong” order- the younger before the older.

At the end of his life he spoke to each of his sons, and seeing each for who they were. He recognized various sons as strong leaders, successful politician, merchant, trader,  warrior, baker, and farmer. The text says,”…and this is that which their father spoke to them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.” (Genesis 49: 28)

In the secular calendar we are beginning the year 2018-    20 “chai” or “life”. It is almost 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and now, once again, we live in our homeland of Israel. Let us hope that this year brings all of us the wisdom that Jacob showed – the wisdom to recognize each person for whomever he or she is, the wisdom to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of those around us, and the wisdom to recognize and value our children and friends for who they are.

May this be a year of peace, honesty, and goodness. I hope everyone will have the wisdom of Jacob to see what is good, what is evil, and to fight the right battles.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya


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