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Sarah and the Divine

VaYeira Sig
art by Laya Crust

Vayeira- Genesis 18 – 22 Haftarah- Kings II, ch. 4: 1-37

This week’s parsha is a series of at least five incredible narratives, each worthy of detailed study. Today I will focus on Sarah, the woman chosen to be the mother of the Jewish nation.

When Gd told Avraham to leave his homeland and that he would become the father of a great people, he left Ur Kasdim, taking his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot with him. Sarai was 75 years old when she and her husband left their home for an unknown destination. She was described as beautiful- so beautiful that King Avimelech took her to his harem. We may wonder how a woman of 75 can be that appealing, but some have an ageless beauty that is enhanced by grace and wisdom.

etching by Laya Crust

Gd chose Sarai to be the mother of His nation. Her name was changed from Sarai to Sarah at the same time Avram’s name was changed to Avraham. Twice Gd protected her from the leaders of alien nations- first from the pharaoh of Egypt and later from Abimelech, the king of Gerar. After Sarah suggested that her handmaiden bear a son to Avraham Gd made it clear to Avraham that Sarah was to be the matriarch of the nation and that no other woman would fulfill that role.

In this parsha, the Lord told Avraham that he and the men in his group would need to be circumcised. Then Gd had told Avraham that he and Sarah would have a child together. It seemed so ridiculous Avraham fell on his face and laughed. Gd declared that the baby would be called Isaac, after the Hebrew word “to laugh”.

The circumcision was, and is, the sign of the covenant between Gd and the Jewish people. Sarah did not become pregnant until after Abraham was circumcised. As a dear friend pointed out, the covenant between Jews and Gd had to be initiated before the line of the Jewish people was created.

Abraham and Sarah by Marc Chagall

Like Avraham, Sarah laughed when she heard she was to bear a child at the age of 90. When Sarah laughed “within herself” Gd asked Avraham why she had laughed. The question was actually two questions. Did Avraham not tell his wife and partner that she was to become pregnant and have a child? Is that why she was incredulous and laughed? The second question was – why did Avraham and Sarah still not believe that Gd can make unusual and unexpected things happen? The Torah and commentaries seem to criticize Sarah for laughing when she heard the news, but the rebuke wasn’t just to Sarah. It was to Abraham as well. That whole incident can be seen as a larger conversation Gd had with Sarah, the future matriarch.

There are many criticism of Sarah and her attitude towards Hagar. We can’t judge. Life and community were very different in biblical times. Recognizing her infertility Sarah offered her handmaid Hagar to her husband, hoping that way he would become a father. Recognizing Hagar’s behaviour Sarah handled the situation as she thought she had to. When the three angels appeared at their tent in the desert Avraham and Sarah worked as a team to create a feast for them. It appears that Sarah ran her community with wisdom and level-headedness.

May we learn from Sarah’s strengths and have wisdom in dealing with our challenges.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya

The illustration at the top of the page is from the haftarah of VaYeira. It shows the prophet Elisha with the Shunammite woman who had a room built for him for when he visited Shunem. This woman, like Sarah, was childless for many years. Her son, like Isaac, almost died. Unlike Sarah, she was able to watch her son grow to adulthood.

The print is from my collection of 82 paintings of the haftarot. The collection is currently on display at Beth Tedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. The address is 1500 Bathurst Street. The exhibit is free and open to the public 7 days a week, 9 a.m. through 9 p.m. I am currently working on a book focusing on the haftarah paintings and their meanings.

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Lech Lecha and Respect

Compass Rose by Laya Crust

The Torah reading For “Lech Lecha” begins, “Gd said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation’…” (Gen. 12:1)

Three weeks ago we read about the creation of the world and the creation of humanity. There were problems. Adam and Eve, the first people, did not listen to Gd’s instructions and were punished. The first children were Cain and Abel. From feelings of anger, jealousy, and shame Cain killed his brother. The negative behaviours of humanity increased until Gd decided to wash the world clean and start again.

Noah, a righteous man was chosen to restart the community of mankind. But once again murder and disrespect became rampant in the civilization. Rather than destroy the world again Gd chose Abraham and Sarah to become the ancestors of a new and righteous nation.

“Turn your gaze towards the heavens and number the stars. if you can count them. And Gd promised him, and so shall your seed be.” (Genesis 15:5)

In Genesis chapter 13 there is a description of a quarrel between Abraham’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. The men were arguing over the grazing fields for their cattle. The situation could easily have gotten out of hand but Abraham used calm and wisdom to find a solution. “There should be no quarrel between you and me, and your herdsman and mine, for we are close kin. The whole land lies before you! Please, part from me. If you go north I will turn south and if you turn south, I will turn north.” (Gen. 13:8,9)

Abraham was the patriarch and Lot’s uncle. It would have been acceptable for him to choose the best land for himself. Alternatively, there could have been a skirmish over ownership of the grazing lands. Abraham’s approach was an example of insight and sympathy delivered with respect, attributes of a good leader.

In Toronto the week leading up to November 11, Remembrance Day, is Holocaust Education Week. There are hundreds of films, talks and presentations throughout the city and neighbouring communities. Millions and millions of people were exterminated because of horrible arrogance and the lack of respect or acceptance of difference. The presentations address heroism, compassion, anger, and resolution.

The understanding and calm Abraham displayed is a model we can take forward to our interactions. If everyone looked at the person across from him/her and said: “What is on their mind? How can I understand them and communicate my position respectfully?”, maybe strikes, fights, and wars could be avoided.

I guess the lesson we can learn is very basic. Everyone has their own story. Everyone has their own approach. By explaining ourselves and listening to others, problems can be solved respectfully, without anger or bloodshed.

May you have a week of joy, peace and understanding.

Laya

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Noah, a righteous man

The Promise by Laya Crust

The story of Noah is a favourite for children’s book illustrators. (I will include a list of some of my favourite Noah’s Ark books at the end of this blog.)

A dove and a raven have leading roles, and we can imagine all kinds of fantastic exotic and not so exotic animals tumbling out of the ark. Coming out in a disorderly fashion (they’ve been cooped up for a looooong time) they smell the fresh air and gaze at the beautiful rainbow in the sky. They accept and appreciate Gd’s promise that there will never again be a flood that will destroy the world. And long-suffering Noah who has worried about his family and cared for the animals is now free to plant vegetables and fruit groves.

We think of it as a joyful story but in truth, it is a very heavy one.

Noah lived in the tenth generation after the creation of the world. His father named him Noah נח, from the verb ינחם, comfort or console. During that time people behaved sinfully and with moral depravity. But Noah was, as mentioned, a righteous man, and at the beginning of this week’s parsha it says that Noah walked with Gd.

Cover of “Noah’s Ark” by Lisbeth Zwerger

Noah was told to gather two of each animal, a male and a female. He was told to build an ark. He was told to gather his wife, his sons, and his daughters-in-law, and to go into the ark with them. All the animals came to him. Then Noah, his family, and the animals went into the ark and made themselves somewhat comfy.

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Noah and his wife in the ark by Peter Spier

There has been much discussion about whether or not Noah was truly a righteous man, or whether he was only righteous when compared to the others of his generation. Looking at the basic text we notice that Noah did not take initiative. Although he didn’t do immoral things he didn’t reach out to others in order to model his behaviour. He built the ark but didn’t ask questions. He was told to put animals into the ark but he himself didn’t gather them. Instead, they came to him. He may have walked with Gd, but he didn’t talk with Gd, as did his ancestor Adam or his descendant Abraham. The first time he spoke in the text is when he cursed his son Ham.

The story of Noah is a story of isolation. Noah was isolated from the society around him. He was a righteous man who walked a righteous path. His lifestyle was foreign to those around him. He seems to have been isolated fro his family as well. When he boarded the ark he walked on “with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives”. (Gen. 7:7) This is notable because he didn’t walk with his wife. He walked with his sons.

After the flood, when the waters had receded, Gd told Noah to “Get out of the ark with your wife, your sons, and their wives”. (Gen. 8:16) Gd specifically enjoined Noah to partner with his wife, his helpmate, his עזר כנגדו. But once again “Noah went out, together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives”. (Gen. 8:18) The text continues stating that the animals “departed from the ark in family groups“. (Gen. 8:19) So it seems that Noah kept himself isolated emotionally from his wife and this was passed on to his sons. It doesn’t say they departed from the ark in family groups.

The Book of Genesis is a description of the beginning of our universe and our nation. Our religion is family and community-based. The stories in Genesis chart the growing pains of family and community. Noah may not have been a communicator or a man who cared about his family and his legacy. But he knew what was moral and what was not and ran his household in that way. That is what Gd saw in him as the progenitor of the new nation.

Noah’s standards of behaviour were passed down through the generations to Abraham, also a man who walked with Gd. In addition, Abraham cared about his wife, his sons, and the strangers who passed by his tent.

When we read the delightful Noah’s ark books to our children and grandchildren we leave out the dark parts. But Noah faced that darkness, lived through it, and was able to expose the light enough for Abraham to take on the next chapter of our legacy.

For good entertainment watch the following link for a great gospel Noah song sung by the Jubalaires. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CLFwW85O20 or this delightful one from Matti Caspi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uxoQZi_oro

My favourite illustrators of children’s Noah books are: Lisbeth Zwerger, Peter Spier, Jane Ray, and Barbara Reid. The books are delightful.

Have a Shabbat Shalom. May we have peace, and just the right amount of rain.

Laya

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Yom Kippur – In Search of Self

Jonah by Laya Crust

Book of Jonah ; Prophet-either 8th C. BCE or 4th C. BCE

Yom Kippur is a day many of us face with feelings of awe, fear, and discomfort. We go to synagogue surrounded by other people, people who are fasting and praying, but that doesn’t necessarily make us feel more confident. The reason is that Yom Kippur, of all days in the year, is a day that we are alone facing ourselves and facing Gd.

We read the Book of Jonah in its entirety on Yom Kippur in the afternoon. From storms at sea to getting swallowed by a “whale” to a gourd that blossoms in one night, there are many unusual events. The best known event is depicted in the lyrical painting above. We see two sailors in a merchant ship. They have thrown Jonah over the side of the boat and he’s being swallowed by a giant fish. It is based on an illustration from the Kennicott Bible, Spain, 1476, painted by Joseph ibn Hayyim.

The narrative concerns the prophet Jonah disregarding God’s orders to warn the sinning people of Nineveh of Gd’s forthcoming punishment. In contrast to the prophet disobeying Gd, the non-Jews of Nineveh heed Him. Jonah is angry that they were forgiven, angry enough to challenge Gd to kill him.

Jonah says, “I know that you are a compassionate and gracious Gd, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please, Lord, take my life for I would rather die than live.”  Gd listens to Jonah’s anger and answers him.

There are a few lessons taught in this haftarah. One is self-realization. We have to face ourselves and our weaknesses in order to correct ourselves and correct our mistakes. Another is facing responsibility and not running from it. And another lesson is the right of all people to live just lives- whether they are like us or choose a different lifestyle or belief system.

Yom Kippur by Laya Crust

And there is the lesson of forgiveness. Gd created humankind and is waiting to see the goodness and uprightness of humanity.

Jonah was upset when “his” gourd withered up. The gourd was a metaphor for God’s relationship with humanity. If Jonah was sad at the loss of “his” gourd- which he didn’t create, how much more would God be bereaved by the destruction of an entire community? The lesson can also teach empathy and forgiveness. Jonah had to realize that the people of Nineveh had as much right to repent and live as he, Jonah had.

On Yom Kippur we have 25 hours in which we pray, reflect and think. We have the time to consider our relationships and our behaviours. Yom Kippur is a gift for self contemplation, for forgiveness, and acceptance. We have to face our weaknesses and decide on how to fix those weaknesses, and then we can forgive ourselves..

This is a great opportunity to speak to our children or friends and reflect on how, if we are a little more forgiving, patient, and understanding, we can make the world a better place.

Have a meaningful day in synagogue and G’mar Chatima Tova- may the coming year be one of health,  peace, and blessings.

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VaYeilech- Shabbat Shuva

VaYeilech- Shabbat Shuva by Laya Crust

Shabbat Shuva is the Shabbat between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur. On Rosh haShana we were in synagogue thinking about our past year and obstacles we faced. Many of us wondered about the coming year and what it would bring. Many of the prayers remind us of the fragility of our lives and the inevitability of death. Who will die? What is in store for us, our friends, and for our families?

The Torah reading begins with Moses’ words, “I am 120 years old today. I can no longer go out and come in, for Gd told me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan’. HaShem your Gd, He will cross before you…” Moses, the greatest prophet and leader, had to face death. But he reminded the Israelites that Gd is the eternal leader of the Jewish people.

The haftarah reading is a combination of texts from three prophets. Hosea, Micah, and Joel. The three prophets, each in their own way, ask us to endeavour to improve ourselves.

I based my painting at the top of the page on a piece by the American artist Ben Shahn. It is based on his painting called Ram’s Horn and Menorah. It illustrates Joel’s words, “Blow a shofar in Zion, consecrate a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, ready the congregation…” The words describe our communities getting ready for the Days of Awe, and Shahn in his unique way used colour and movement to convey the awe, fear and unity of these important days of reflection.

His life was dedicated to human rights and social action, and he expressed that through his prolific artworks. His paintings, graphic art, photographs and essays are devoted to the “human condition”.  The strength of human beings to survive difficulty and stand tall in the face of adversity and unfairness runs through his works. His paintings are gritty, honest, and thought-provoking.

Image result for ben shahn poster
Image result for ben shahn paintings

Shahn’s work communicates the struggle of the human spirit to succeed, not just to survive. He reminds us that we don’t live in a bubble. We must care for ourselves and those around us. Those are among the meditations of Rosh HaShana.

We are reborn each day. Each day we have the opportunity to make new choices and make them good choices. Each day we can forgive ourselves for what we didn’t do yesterday, or what we wish we had done differently. We can begin anew and strive to have a fulfilling day.

May this year be a year of health, growth, improvement and goodness. Enjoy your Shabbat and have a meaningful Yom Kippur. To you and your family from me and my family,

Laya

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Shoftim- A land of justice, a land for Jews

Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue art by Laya Crust

This week I was fortunate to attend a shiur, a lecture, by Rabbi Ari Kahn on the parsha of the week. Rabbi Kahn pointed out that sefer d’varim is a very Zionist book, and this parsha also carries that message. The laws discussed have to do with the way leaders in the land of Israel should behave and laws pertaining to the carriage of justice.

The parsha begins by mentioning that the Israelites will have to appoint judges and policemen. Interesting – not only judges (which we might expect after Jethro helped Moses organize a series of courts back in the Book of Exodus) but also policemen. Rabbi Kahn pointed out that this directive followed the descriptions of holiday celebrations. In these celebrations there would have been wine, food, and singing, and entire communities would be celebrating together. It was reasonable to expect that the revelry might get a little out of hand, so policemen would help to keep things under control.

The point is that Moses and Gd were preparing the children of Israel to have their own land. They were reminding the nation of the responsibilities and freedoms that would be open to them. No more slavery. Social programs to feed the poor, the orphan and the widow would have to be established. The land would have to be respected and cared for. There would be legal and personal disputes so judges and courts with their own safeguards ensuring justice would have to be set up. Referring back to the situation at Mount Sinai when the Israelites were too afraid to hear Gd’s voice and accept His words, Gd and Moses reminded them that they would ask for a king to lead them, and they would get a king to lead them. The text of “Shoftim” outlines pitfalls that would face kings and judges.

The parsha was preparing the Jews for their own land. They had their own land under Joshua. Leadership continued through other prophets and judges and many kings. The kings quickly became corrupt and we ultimately lost our country. The good news is that we have it back again after almost 2,000 years of persecution and exile.

There is an election coming up in Israel in less than two weeks. Rather than wring our hands at the difficulties and corruption taking place in this incredible jewel of a Jewish land, we must look at the positive and build on it.

The front runners in the upcoming election are Zionists. They want a strong, safe, peaceful, vibrant Jewish country. We are not suffering an inquisition, anarchy, yellow stars or judenhats. We live in a democracy beside Arabs, religious and non- religious Jews, and people of other religions who are also allowed freedoms and voices. We must treasure this land and work to make it better.

So- be happy. Be positive. Vote for the best person and then work to make the country strong, fair, and caring. And have a Shabbat Shalom. Laya

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Re’eh- Foundations of Sapphires

Foundations of Sapphires by Laya Crust

This week’s Torah reading begins with the words, “…I am placing before you a blessing and a curse. The blessing [will come] if you obey the commandments of the Lord your Gd, which I am prescribing to you today.” (Deut. 11:16) The reading continues with a number of the laws that the Jews are obliged to observe.

We are lucky to have our land of Israel, and retain it as a Jewish land. However it isn’t “luck”. We have the land, after thousands of years of exile, due to a confluence of circumstances. Bravery, political maneuvering, world opinion, blood and sweat, tenaciousness, religious confidence, and a concentration of faith and observance by Jews within the Holy Land worked together to bring the land to reality.

There is consistent Jewish learning in this beautiful country. The festivals are observed throughout the country as outlined in the Torah and codified by the Rabbis. There is Torah learning in all schools- sometimes in the guise of secular studies of “Eretz Yisrael”, and sometimes through learning Gemarrah. The variety of Jews in levels of observance and cultural backgrounds is vast. The love of land, progress and the gifts of bounty in Israel is huge.

Last night I met with a wonderful young woman who made aliyah a few years ago. She pointed out in a refreshing way how many of the people in the very religious circles can be compared to those meditate all day and see the world from a very high level. A level that the common person cannot understand or even imagine. She talked about how some of these people are keeping a spiritual level constant in Israel without recognition or appreciation, and their vision contributes to the balance of this spiritual land.

Bougainvillea and lush greenery in Israeli pathway.

In the haftarah Gd said, “I will lay red gems as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of precious stones, the whole encircling wall of gems.” (Isaiah 54:11, 12) It was a sentence of comfort which we can witness in our time.

Image result for tower of david

The sapphire stone was used in the quote from Isaiah. According to the “crystalvaults” definition the sapphire is “a stone of wisdom and royalty, of prophecy and Divine favor. It is forever associated with sacred things and considered the gem of gems. ”

We have this beautiful land of Israel. I hope and pray that we will comport ourselves in an upright way according to the laws Gd gave us so that we can continue to enjoy its bounty. And may we enjoy it without bombs and violence but with peace and tranquility with acceptance from all the nations.

Shabbat Shalom from the Holy Land, Laya

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