Halfway through the Torah

Flames of Division by Laya Crust

A couple of weeks ago we read parshat Shemini on Shabbat. It is an unexpected combination of two very different narratives, and the break between the two narratives occurs pretty much in the middle of the reading. Similarly, the parsha itself appears right in the centre of the Torah cycle. Coincidently we are experiencing an unprecedented break in the functioning of the world. I want to explore this dividing of text and experience.

In the first half of parsha Shemini we read about the sacrifices that Moses and Aaron offered to Gd. In the second half of the parsha we read about which animals are kosher (acceptable for Jews to eat) and which are treif (not acceptable for Jews to eat).

Aaron and his sons had spent weeks purifying and spiritually readying themselves to perform these important offerings. The sacrifices were accepted. Dramatically, Gd’s fire consumed the sacrificial remains and His flames ascended to the heavens.  In a moment of religious fervour Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offered their own (unholy) fire to Gd. In anger, Gd sent down flames that killed the two men. It was a shocking and tragic incident.

Following this distressing event, the Israelites were told which animals were kosher and which were non-kosher. The two narratives are very different- one is a drama the other is a list of guidelines. Yet they are united by a phrase at the end of each of the 2 sections.

After Nadav and Avihu died Aaron and his sons were tasked with being able לְהבדיל בּין הקדשׁ ובין החֹל ובין הטמה ובין הטהור -to distinguish between holy and common, between impure and pure.

Later, when Israelites were told what they could eat and what they could not eat, we read: לְהבדיל בין הטמה ובין הטהור. They were “to separate between the impure and the pure”.

The phrases of separation are obviously very important, and fire is used in Torah as a means of separation. HaShem formed a pillar of fire to light the way of the nation of Israel, and to separate and protect them from their enemies as they traveled through the desert. We, ourselves, use Aish (fire) to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. We light candles before Shabbat begins and at Havdalah when Shabbat ends. So, to restate, Aish or fire is used as a device to divide and separate.

Fire is mysterious, beautiful, and threatening. If flames come too close they are dangerous- destroying and killing what is in their path. It is a contrary force, and ambiguous one. We need fire for light, for warmth, and in historical times humans needed fire to protect them from wild beasts at night. And yet this protective force can suddenly, without warning, rage out of control.

Differentiating, “לְהבדיל”, creates awareness. That is a theme in this Torah reading. The list of acceptable and unacceptable animals makes us conscious of our dietary choices. The dire punishment of Nadav and Avihu remind us of the sacredness of HaShem’s commands and words. Boundaries create awareness. Without boundaries all things are equal. With limits, there is greater focus and the focus makes everything more precious.

The world is experiencing a time of separation. Due to the danger of COVID-19 we are forced to separate from others in order to keep ourselves and others safe. The separation allows us time to reflect on what is necessary and what is unnecessary. Let’s use this time wisely and make our lives and the world better.

Be safe, be well, be healthy and be kind.

Laya Crust

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More Haroset Recipes

Seder table- Sarajevo Haggadah

Pesach is rapidly approaching. Many people are concerned with house cleaning, buying new pots, and unpacking the Pesach dishes. I’m most concerned with haroset recipes. I love having a variety of flavours at my seder table and integrating traditions from other cultures. haroset is a tasty way of doing both.

The making, distributing, and eating of haroset is a feature in a number of historical haggadot- so I’m not the only person devoted to that detail of our seder. Even the Rambam (Moses Maimonides) had a recipe for the tasty treat.In his 11th century Mishneh Torah, Moses Maimonides gives one of the first written recipes for charoset in which it is said to look like clay mixed with straw: In the Mishneh Torah he instructed [crush] “dates, dried figs, or raisins and the like…add vinegar, and mix them with spices”. stringy spices would help the fruit and nut mixture have the texture of straw.

The following interesting bit of history is from Moment Magazine, The Sweet Story of Charoset, Spring 2009. “The clay interpretation saw its most extreme expression in 1862 when some 20 Jewish-American Union soldiers in an Ohio regiment put a brick on their Seder plate. One of them, Joseph Joel, recalled the experience in the March 30,1866, Jewish Messenger, a New York weekly. He writes that although stranded in the “wilds of West Virginia,” the men in his regiment were able to obtain matzos and Haggadahs and successfully foraged for a weed “whose bitterness…exceeded anything our forefathers enjoyed,” as well as lamb, chicken and eggs. But they could find no suitable ingredients for charoset. “So, we got a brick,” Joel wrote, “which rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purposes it was intended.” “

Making Haroset – Bird’s Head Haggadah

The last time I posted, I included two recipes for haroset. This week I am including recipes from a variety of places. Maybe you’ll try something new.

Making Haroset – Nuremberg Haggadah
French Provencal Style 
(about 8 cups)

1 pound chestnuts
1 cup blanched almonds
2 medium tart apples, cored and chopped
1 cup pitted dates
1 cup dried figs
1 cup raisins
1 to 3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
wine vinegar

1. Cut an X in the shell of chestnuts. Place in boiling water and cook for 15 minutes. Drain. When able to handle, peel off shells.
2. Finely chop chestnuts and almonds. Add fruits and finely chop. Stir in enough wine vinegar to make a thick paste. Add ginger.

Source: Sefer Ha’Menuha, a work of the 13th century Provencal scholar, Rabbi Manoach, as cited in an article by Gil Marks in the Jewish Communications Network archives

Distributing Haroset – Sister Haggadah

Curacao Charoset Balls (Garosa)

14 pitted dates 10 pitted prunes

8 figs, stems removed

cup golden raisins cup cashew nuts lemon, unpeeled and cut in chunks

cup sweet red wine cup honey, or more as needed

2 tablespoons cinnamon to coat

Place dates, prunes, figs, raisins, nuts and lemon in food processor.

Chop coarsely.

Add the wine and cup honey. Process to chop finely.

Mixture should be moist but firm enough to shape. Add a little extra honey if needed.

Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Toss in cinnamon to coat. Cover and refrigerate until needed. Makes 25 to 30 balls. Note: If you prefer, the mixture can be spooned into a serving dish and dusted with cinnamon before serving.

Source: “Celebrating Passover with dishes of Curacao” Ethel Hofman and Myra Chanin PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER (on-line edition), 3/25/99

Italian Style

3 apples, sweet or tart
2 pears
2 cups sweet wine
1/3 cup (50 g) pine nuts
2/3 cup (50 g) ground almonds
1/2 lb (250 g) dates, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup (100 g) yellow raisins or sultanas
4 oz. (100 g) prunes, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar or * cup (125 ml) honey or to taste
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Peel and core the apples and pears and cut them in small pieces. Put all the ingredients into a pan together and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour, until the fruits are very soft, adding a little water if it becomes too dry.

Variations: Other possible additions: chopped lemon or candied orange peel, walnuts, pistachios, dried figs, orange or lemon juice, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves.

Source: The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden

Israeli Style
(makes 10 side-dish servings)
2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 bananas, peeled and chopped
Juice and grated peel of 1/2 lemon
Juice and grated peel of 1/2 orange
15 dates, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup ground pistachios
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup sweet Passover wine
5 tablespoons matzo meal

In large bowl, combine apples, bananas, lemon juice and peel, orange juice and peel, dates and nuts; mix well. Add cinnamon, wine and matzo meal; blend thoroughly.
Source: “A Passover Seder With Israeli Flavor,” from the St. Louis Post Dispatch by Judy Zeidler

Surinam—Seven Fruit (Sephardic Style)
(makes 5 cups)

8 oz. unsweetened coconut
8 oz. chopped walnuts or grated almonds
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
8 oz. raisins
8 oz. dried apples
8 oz. dried prunes
8 oz. dried apricots
8 oz. dried pears
4 oz. cherry jam
sweet red wine

Combine everything except the jam and wine in a pot. Cover with water and simmer over low heat. Periodically, add small amounts of water to prevent sticking. Cook at least 90 minutes. When it is cohesive, stir in the jam and let stand until cool. Add enough sweet wine to be absorbed by the charoset and chill.

Source: The Jewish Holiday Kitchen by Joan Nathan

Enjoy your Pesach preparations.

Be healthy, be positive. All the best to you and yours. By the way, if you love haroset and all its history you will love the book “Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History” by Susan Weingarten.

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Charoset or Haroset

photo from Wikipedia

This year we are preoccupied with the covid-19 virus. Everyone is worried, careful, and wondering how long the anxiety will last. However, covid-19 virus notwithstanding, Pesach will begin on Wednesday night, April 8, 2020. In preparation for that day, I am thinking a lot about charoset. Charoset is one of the fabulous unique flavours we have on that most special night. Maybe it’s an escape, but at least it’s an innocent escape.

Charoset (חרוסת) is a sweet brown paste generally made of fruits, nuts, wine, and spices. The word Charoset may be from the word cheres- חרס, the Hebrew word for clay. The brown sticky spread is designed to remind us of the mortar that the enslaved Israelites used in ancient Egypt. There are many recipes from all over the world each delicious in its own right.

Ashkenazi charoset from Wikipedia

Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe tend to have a charoset made of chopped apples, chopped walnuts, cinnamon, sweet red wine and honey. Whether your family came from Russia, Poland, Romania or Hungary, they probably made it that way and that’s what you grew up eating at your seder table.

Mizrachi Jews – whose families come from the Middle East and North Africa Have many different recipes. It seems that each community made its own style of charoset, one that is very different from the Ashkenazi flavour.

Hardy apples walnuts are the main ingredients in the European version. Dates are a staple in the Arab world, and so they are found in nearly every Mizrachi recipe. The European version uses cinnamon as its spice. The Mizrachi flavours include ginger, cardamon, and nutmeg. The Eastern charoset recipes will use pistachios, almonds, pine nuts and/or hazelnuts in the mix.

Figs, cinnamon, cardamon, lemon, ginger –
perfect if there is a nut allergy

Each year I make a few different recipes for charoset. I do the traditional Ahkenazi flavour, a Mizrachi flavour, and my favourite- a Shir haShirim creation. Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), is read on the Shabbat during Pesach. It is a very romantic love song which describes two lovers seeking  and longing for each other. (In traditional Judaism it is regarded as an allegory for God’s love toward the Jewish people.) Throughout this love poem there are numerous descriptions of nature. One of my favourite verses describes the scent of spices wafting on the soft breezes.  Rabbi Yitzchak Luria  from Tzfat, who lived in the 16th Century suggested making charoset from the nuts, fruits, and spices mentioned in the Song of Songs.

Over each of the next weeks leading up to Pesach I will include a recipe from another culture. Below I have listed the fruits, nuts and spices mentioned in Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) with their sources- you can create your own recipe. I have also included the traditional Ashkenazi recipe.If you want to send on YOUR charoset recipe it would be lovely to find out what you do.

Stay safe, and be healthy. This too shall pass. Have a good week and a good Shabbat, Laya

Ingredients for a Shir haShirim Charoset  (with quotations from the original text. )

  • APPLES 2:3  Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men.
  • APPLES 2:5  Feed me with dainties, refresh me with apples
  • FIGS 2:13  The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
  • POMEGRANATE  4:13  Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates     GRAPES 2:15  … our vineyards (grape vines) are in blossom.
  • WALNUTS  6:11  I went down into the walnut grove…
  • DATES 7:7   This thy stature is like to a palm-tree…
    ADDITION OF WINE 1:2   For thy love is better than wine.                       SPICES 4: 13, 14  henna with spikenard plants,  Spikenard and saffron, calamus and  cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spice

Traditional Ashkenazi Charoset

  • 3 medium apples- Canadians prefer macintosh (!) peeled, cored, and finely diced
  • 1 1/2 cups walnuts coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup sweet red wine
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon honey

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Dvir, Devorah and Hamantaschen

Yahrzeit photo by Laya Crust

This has been an emotional week. My husband and I recently returned from Portugal where we witnessed the results of the forced conversions and Inquisiton against our people in the 16th century. Hearing about the torture and death that Jews faced in the time of the Portuguese Inquisition was horrifying. Witnessing the lack of historical Jewish culture and architecture was sobering. The Coversos (secret Jews) of Portugal held on to their traditions as much as they could. Secretly, covertly, they retained the laws and traditions they could practise without being caught.

Purim was a very important time for the secret Jews. They identified with the antisemitism Jews faced in Shushan because of Haman and his influence. Just as Queen Esther fasted for three days the Conversos would also fast for three days and meet secretly to hear the story of Esther saving her people. Some people took shifts for the three day fast and sometimes one person fasted the entire time.

The Portuguese women were the caretakers of the religion. They remembered certain prayers and over time adapted them or created new prayers. They carried on whatever they remembered of the holidays and led Passover observances. Esther the queen saved the Jews, and the women of the Converso communities saved whatever vestiges of their former religion they could.

I began this post with the words “It’s been an emotional week”. While we were in Portugal a beautiful little baby boy was born into our family. His brit milah and naming were on Adar 6 (Monday, March 2), just before my mother’s yahrzeit. A few hours after Dvir Yisrael was named I lit a candle in memory of Devorah z”l.

Dorothy and Joe Crust’s wedding day, 1945

My mother (aka Bobba Dobby- Dobby from her Hebrew name) was an exceptional woman. She spoke three languages fluently, headed volunteer organizations, produced a television program, and hosted dignitaries. Dorothy’s love for Judaism and tradition was transmitted to everyone she met. She had a wonderful way with words and taught with humour and stories. That love of words is an aspect of Dvir’s name.

Dvir Yisrael

The word “Dvir” is found in last week’s haftarah of Terumah. Dvir refers to the Holy of Holies- the innermost and holiest sanctuary in the temple to which the Kohen would enter only on Yom Kippur. The root of the word דביר is דבר which means word/speak. The Holy of Holies is named such because it is the source of the Word of Gd in the tangible world.

I hope Dvir will have his great-Bobba Dobby’s sense of humour, wisdom, and love of family. I hope that he will grow to Torah, chuppah, good deeds, and in that way make the world a better place as did Bobba Dobby and Esther the Queen. And may the world never again witness horrors like the Inquisition which the Conversos had to experience.

Photo of Hamantaschen from My Jewish Learning

Bonus Prize: Bobba Dobby’s Hamantasch recipe:

3 eggs 1 cup water

1 1/2 cups sugar 2 tsp baking powder

pinch salt 4 -5 cups of flour

Combine the first four ingredients, Add the flour, stirring it in, until the dough is soft but not sticky. It should roll out well on your rolling surface. Divide the dough in quarters. Roll one of the batches on a floured surface to almost 1/4 ” thick. Cut it into circles about 31/2″ in diameter. Place a spoonful of filling in the centre of each circle, pinch the three corners towards the middle. You can brush with beaten egg. Bake on a lightly floured baking pan at 350o for 30 minutes until golden brown.

Bobba Dobby’s Date Filling

3 full cups of pitted dates – cut them up first

1/4 cup sugar 1 1/2 cups water

lemon juice to taste grated rind of one lemon

Cook this on a medium heat or in a double boiler until it is like a thick jam.

Thanks for letting me share my week with you. Let me know if you try the hamantaschen. I hope you like them! later this week I will be posting about Shabbat Zachor. Best, Laya

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Shabbat Shira – it’s music

Halleluhu by Laya Crust

Parshat B’Shalach                        Haftarah: Judges 4: 4 – 5: 31

Music is magical. We can’t see it, touch it, smell it or taste it. We can hear it and magically it can transform our mood and take us to other places in our imagination. We all know about love songs (a billion), break-up songs (2 billion), songs of tribute (“Starry Night” about Vincent Van Gogh) and patriotic songs (“La Marseillaise”and “HaTikvah”). All our secrets can be unearthed (“Killing Me Softly”) and raw emotion can be exposed (Stravinsky’s compositions).

Music is a beautiful union of art, science, math, and imagination. I remember a friend of mine- a physicist- being amazed and unbelieving when I told him I loved music. “How is that possible? ” he asked. “You’re an artsy.” I was really surprised by that comment because I had always thought that music was art and emotion. That was when I found out that there is a close relationship between science and music.

Miriam’s Song by Laya Crust

Music is an integral part of joyous Judaism. In the Torah portion B’Shalach we read “The Song of the Sea”.  It is Moses’ song of praise to God that was sung after the Israelites safely crossed the Red (or Reed) Sea, and were saved from the angry Egyptian army. The women, led by the prophet Miriam, sang and danced and made music on their “tof”, a handheld drum. There is a beautiful painting of the women led by Miriam playing their drums in The Golden Haggadah, and another lovely rendition in The Sarajevo Haggadah.

Devorah the Prophetess by Laya Crust
(inspired by a painting from a 17th C. Judeo-Persian book)

This Bible reading describing the escape into the desert, across the sea, and the ultimate Song of the Sea is paired with an adventure story in the Book of Judges. Led by the prophet Devorah the Israelites won a battle against Sisera’s Army. A woman named Yael completed the defeat by killing Sisera. Devorah then sang a song of praise about the triumph and Yael’s conquest.

 When we are happy, when we are sad, when we want to remember or forget, when we want to meditate or pray, be left alone or celebrate with others we often turn to music. Because it is a comforting, joyous and spiritual medium the most beautiful parts of prayer are often paired with music. The painting at the top of the page shows biblical instruments mentioned in “psoukei d’zimra”, prayers we say in the morning.

On this Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, pay attention to the songs and music composed by Moses, Miriam, and the prophetess-judge Devorah. Enjoy the art, the sounds, and the music around you and have a Shabbat Shalom.

Laya

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Va’Eira, Brotherhood

Moses and Pharaoh by Laya Crust

This week’s Torah portion presents the first wave of plagues against Pharaoh and the Egyptians. At the beginning of the Torah reading Gd talks to Moses tracing His relationship back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Gd points out to Moshe that He is more open to Moshe than He had been to his forefathers. This link between Moshe and Gd is allows Moshe to fully act as an agent of redemption and miracles.

There are parallels and contrasts between the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus. The most glaring contrast is the role of family in the two books. There are many stories of brothers and their relationships with each other.

Cain murders his brother Abel. Isaac is kept away from his half brother Ishmael. Jacob and Esau have a relationship founded on deceit.

The other story we all know is the jealousy of Jacob’s 10 sons toward his favourite child, Joseph.

At first they plan to kill Joseph but then soften their stance and merely sell him into slavery. Of course, slavery was probably a death sentence.

That is the family dynamic in the history of the fledgling Jewish nation. Abraham was selected to lead a new people who would follow Gd’s laws and ethics. The story we read in Va’Era, this week’s parsha, is about Abraham’s descendants enslaved in Egypt, but with a change in that family dynamic.

In the Book of Shemot we are introduced to Moshe, a man who risks everything to save his brethren. He is not jealous or arrogant and welcomes his brother Aaron as an equal. Aaron, three years older than Moshe, takes the lesser role, allowing his younger brother to lead the way. The two men accept Gd’s direction. Their partnership allows them to stand before the ruler of Egypt and free their brethren. Later Miriam, their sister, joins and becomes a leader in her own right.

It is a beautiful contrast to the painful relationships in the Book of Genesis. It is a lesson that if we act as caring partners, and work in cooperation for the good of the community/ city/ country/ world, we can make monumental changers for freedom and equality.

Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Shemot- Those Who Are Nameless

Hopeless Desperation 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. Neither slaves, taskmasters, nor nobility were 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.

We read of Moses’ entanglement with an Egyptian taskmaster and three Israelite slaves, yet 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 were named were those who stood 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. Moses knew that the Israelite slaves needed a name for God in order to believe. 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.

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, and why the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem is called Yad V’Shem (“A Monument and a Name”).

Ai Weiwei's Snake Ceiling, a serpentine form made from children's backpacks, is currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum's "According to What?" exhibit. It commemorates the thousands of students who died in poorly constructed schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Snake made out of children’s backpacks, Ai Wei Wei, Hirshhorn Museum, 2008/ photograph by Cathy Carver

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. That may make it easier for us to see them as individuals and allow us to reach out more quickly.

May this be a Shabbat of welcoming and hope, of reaching out to help the other- the nameless and those in need. And through our actions may we bring peace and healing to the world. Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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VaYechi- And He Lived

King David and Saul by Laya Crust

VaYechi is the last Torah reading in the Book of Beresheit (the Book of Genesis). It is just that- the story of the beginning, or genesis, of the world and of a people. The parsha begins with a word that in biblical Hebrew means “and he lived”, and in modern Hebrew means “and he will live”. It is appropriate because this word refers to Jacob who died in this parsha but created the family legacy which would continue, living as the Jewish nation.

Our forefathers and foremothers did not have perfect family lives. There was jealousy, jostling for power and attention, and lifelong resentments. We read about favouritism. There was very little tenderness exhibited in the harsh lives they led. However, tenderness does appear in this parsha.

When Jacob was 137 years old he had been living in Egypt with Joseph and his other 11 sons for 17 years. He knew he was about to die and called Joseph and Joseph’s sons to his bedside. “…he kissed them and embraced them. And Yisrael said to Joseph,’ I had not thought to see your face: and lo, God has also shown me your children.’ ” (Genesis ch 47 v..11) Yaakov was expressing the longing he had felt for decades, never believing he would see his son Joseph again. Neither Abraham nor Isaac had ever spoken to their children with such honesty and warmth.

We go on to read the first ethical will ever recorded. Jacob spoke to each of his sons, and to his two favourite grandsons. He foresaw how they were going to navigate the world. The prescience could have been see by the sons either as warnings or as guidelines for how to lead their lives in the best way possible. As well as speaking about the children’s’ attributes Jacob also made it clear that when he died he was to be buried in Canaan in the same place his wife Leah, his parents Isaac and Rebecca, and his grandparents Abraham and Sarah had been buried.

This scene and this request- he actually insisted that it be an oath- were the greatest lessons of all. By gathering the sons together in one room and speaking to each of them one by one Jacob was cementing the family unit. It wasn’t a speech to all the servants and to those Egyptians who respected him, it was a speech only to his sons. This showed them how he valued them as a family unit with common roots, and that they would retain their nationhood and integrity if they stayed together.

The insistence that he be buried in Canaan was an indication that Canaan, not Egypt, was his and their homeland. That being said, Joseph was the only one of the twelve sons who made an oath that he too would be buried in Canaan.

As always there are many lessons in the parsha. Communication in family, showing love to our children, expressing our deepest wishes, seeing each child as an individual, the power of the ethical will, unity, and being in the right place are all lessons from this reading.

We live in a frightening world with too much hatred and too much violence. If we stand together as a unified nation, if we live with the integrity laid out in halachah (Jewish precepts and law), and if we know who we re as Jews and where we belong, maybe we can help heal our nation and heal the world more effectively. As we go forward we might also be able to learn from Yaakov Avinu (our father Jacob’s) ethical will to us, his descendants.

With blessings for goodness and peace, Shabbat Shalom.

Laya

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Reunited

Joseph by Laya Crust

           

Parsha: VaYigash                                   Haftarah:   Ezekiel 37: 15-28

For the last number of weeks we have been reading about our ancestors,  Jacob’s children. More specifically, we have read about Joseph’s trajectory from favoured son at home, to being a slave, and then to becoming viceroy of all Egypt. By the time he was thirty years old Joseph ruled Egypt. He ran the finances and oversaw all of Egypt’s policies.

In this week’s Torah reading Joseph’s brothers still did not know that the leader they were speaking to was their brother. 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 would become enslaved to Pharaoh’s court as payment for the infraction. Joseph was playing a game with his brothers. 

English: Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brot...Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother, c. 1896-1902
 by James Jacques Joseph Tissot    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 
Judah, the same brother who decades earlier had suggested that Joseph be sold rather than be killed, stepped forward and begged for understanding. He poured out his heart, recounting the family history to the 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 no man stood with him while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And his voice cried out with weeping, and Egypt heard…” Joseph forgave his brothers. He feasted with them, gave them gifts of clothing and food, and convinced them to return to Egypt and live in comfort. He told them how to get land so they could raise cattle.

Although the story had begun many years earlier with fraternal jealousy, the brothers reunited and rebuilt their family. This was contrary to the patterns we had seen before. Cain killed his brother Abel. Isaac grew up without his brother Ishmael.  Jacob and Esau never truly reconciled. In this story we see Joseph and Judah build the unified family which would become a nation.

VaYigashReunited  by Laya Crust

The haftarah features the prophet Ezekiel. He lived from around 622 BCE – 570 BCE and was among the 8,000 Jews exiled to Babylonia. God told Ezekiel to take two beautiful branches, carve phrases on them and display them. One branch represented the nation of Judah and the other represented Joseph’s lineage, the nation of Ephraim. Ezekiel wrote phrases about the two Jewish nations onto the branches and held the two branches together. The action was to indicate that just as the branches could be rejoined, the Israelites could be reunited and grow together as one unified nation. 

beit horon passagephoto by Yoni Lightstone, tour guide

Ezekiel also told them that God would gather them from among all the nations and bring them back  to their own land. The text reads, “Behold I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them to their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel.” (v.  21, 22)

Both readings are about unity. In every era and in every generation there are disagreements between different sectors of Jews. We are stronger as a united people. I hope we can learn to discuss, consider, and be united for the benefit of all.

The painting “Reunited”, showing Ezekiel writing on a branch,  is one of the images in my forthcoming book, “ILLUMINATIONS: The Art of Haftarah”. Stay tuned for more information!

Shabbat Shalom,  Laya

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Picnic in Dothan

VaYeishev SigIllustration by Laya Crust

The last number of weeks we have been reading about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Jacob was the proud father of 12 sons and one daughter, and moved his family from Padan Aram back to Canaan. In this week’s Torah reading we find out more about the dynmics in Jacob’s family.

Jacob left his father-in-law’s home a wealthy man with huge herds of cattle and flocks of goats. The sons were shepherds. Joseph was favoured by Jacob, and was given a beautiful coat. While his brothers were out iin the hot fields for days at a time Joseph stayed at home with their father. There was a lot of jealousy for more than one reason.

At one point in this week’s Torah portion Joseph was sent out to the fields to look for his brothers and report back to Yaakov (Jacob). They had gone to Shechem with their flocks, and then traveled further.  Joseph went to Shechem but couldn’t find them. A man- we suspect that he was an angel- redirected Joseph to Dothan. The brothers saw him approaching. To paraphrase Maurice Sendak, they “made mischief of one kind and another”.  They threw Joseph into a pit and gave him to Midianite traders who then sold him to Ishmaelite traders.

I’ve often wondered about the brothers out in the fields, sleeping and eating there. What did they have for lunch? What were they eating as Joseph approached? Many Israeli cookbooks feature eggplant recipes, and I thought- could the brothers have enjoyed something like roasted eggplant?

Roasted Eggplant with Silan and Tomatoes

P1120421

Ingredients:

1 medium eggplant                                                        1 – 2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 Tbsp. raw tehina                                                          1- 2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 Tbsp. yogurt                                                                   sprigs of fresh parsley, cilantro or hyssop leaves

1 tomato halved, cored, and diced                            1 crushed clove of garlic

1Tbsp. silan or dark honey                                           sea salt and crushed pepper to taste

Bake the eggplant. You can roast it over a bonfire, a gas flame or, as I have here, an electric element. It gives a wonderful smokey flavour.
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Slice in half and drizzle with tehina, yogurt, silan (or honey), olive oil and lemon juice. 
P1120437Season with salt, pepper, and garlic. Garnish with parsley, cilantro or hyssop.

The roasted eggplant is delicious with warmed or toasted pita and a good glass of beer.  (P.S. To be honest, the brothers wouldn’t have been eating eggplant or tomato. Eggplants are indigenous to India and tomatoes to South America. But, they are popular in Israel now! )

Enjoy, and Shabbat Shalom.

Laya

This illustration for the parsha VaYeishev is based on a beautiful panel from the Sarajevo Haggadah. The haggadah was created in 1350 Spain, and has beautiful paintings illustrating the Bible from the story of Creation to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This particular image shows the brothers selling Joseph to Ishmaelite traders. Joseph is portrayed as a young boy begging his brothers not to sell him.

I have created pictures for each haftarah and parsha of the year and am currently working on a book, showcasing each painting. Stay tuned for updates! Please always feel free to comment. Pass the posting to your friends. If you like my blog sign up and “Follow” me. You will receive the current blog by e-mail.

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