Chayei Sarah 5777

Related imagelithograph, Marc Chagall

This week’s parsha begins with the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham. Sarah and Abraham were partners in their lives. They were ten years apart in age. They probably grew up together- Abraham told King Avimelech that they were married but they were half siblings- they had the same father.

The Torah focuses on Abraham. He follows Gd’s instructions and leaves his birthplace, he makes a covenant with Gd, bargains with Gd, travels throughout the land, and agrees to circumcision as a proof of his allegiance to Gd. Throughout all this Sarah is at Abraham’s side, almost a silent partner.

Sarah was a beautiful woman. “Behold now, I know you are a beautiful woman to gaze upon…” (Genesis 11: 11) Abraham was afraid  he would be killed if another leader wanted to marry Sarah. They discussed it. Sarah agreed to say she was Abraham’s sister. “And it came to pass that when Avram came to Mitzrayim [Egypt], the Mitzrim [Egyptians] beheld the woman that she was very fair. The princes of Par’o saw her and commended her to Par’o and the woman was taken to Par’o’s house.” (Genesis 11: 14, 15) Abraham had been correct. Sarah was very beautiful and she was taken by the Par’o- and that happened twice! (Spoiler- Gd intervened each time and she was returned to Abraham by each of the two rulers)P1140345

Sarah, etching by laya Crust

The point is that it seems Abraham and Sarah were true partners. They started their life’s journey together and discussed things as situations arose. They stayed together as a couple even though Sarah was barren. She accepted Gd’s word. When she understood that Abraham needed to have a son to build a nation she offered her handmaid Hagar to Abraham. Her understanding of situations was broad and deep. She said, “…when she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived , I was despised in her eyes.” (Genesis 16:5) Sarah realised at that point that Hagar would not allow her son to be raised by Sarah and Abraham in order to be an appropriate leader with Gd’s message. Instead Hagar felt superior to Sarah and would, in that case, naturally retain the molding of her baby’s character and behaviour.

It is hard to understand the breakdown in communication when Abraham is directed to take Isaac to Mount Moriah in order to  sacrifice Isaac. How could Abraham not have discussed this with his wife, the mother of their son, the visionary always at his side?

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests that Sarah did know what was happening. He suggests that Sarah heard Abraham in his preparations early in the morning. When she looked and saw Abraham packing a knife for “shechita” (ritual slaughter) and planning to take Isaac with him, she was concerned. Rabbi Riskin writes, “Sarah demands to hear G-d’s precise words, saying: “He didn’t say that you should slaughter our child; He merely said to lift him up, to dedicate him to Divine service. G-d could not possibly have commanded you to slaughter an innocent child!”

P1150568drawing by Laya Crust

While Abraham and Isaac were climbing up  the mountain for the sacrifice Sarah went in another direction. She went to Kiryat Arba/ Hebron to the place where, according to midrash, Adam and Eve were buried. There she prayed to Gd to stay Abraham’s hand and save her son.

She died there. Neither Abraham nor Isaac saw her again.

Abraham and Isaac didn’t see each other again after the “akeida” (binding of Isaac), and Gd didn’t speak to Abraham after that incident. It seems Abraham lived out the rest of his life quietly with no further leadership moments. He remarried, had 12 more sons and was buried beside his beloved Sarah by Isaac and Ishmael.

Sarah was the partner, the sounding board and support to Abraham. She accompanied him from their birthplace steeped in idol worship to a new land. She established a home open to visitors and partnered in nurturing a new belief system. Sarah knew how fragile their mission was. She did all she could to  shield her son- the future of the nation- from negative influences. When she died the matriarch of Gd’s new nation died, and Abraham was left without his equal and partner.

At the end of “Chayei Sarah” we read that Isaac married Rebecca. “And Isaac brought her (Rebecca) into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebecca, and she became his wife. And he loved her, and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)

And so it goes. And the story continues.

Shabbat Shalom.

Laya

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Lech Lecha 5777

Image result for remembrance day poppy

Remembrance Day and the remembrance poppy

Parsha- Lech Lecha (Genesis 12- 17)

Haftarah: Isaiah  40:27 – 41: 16

This year the parsha of Lech Lecha coincides with Remembrance Day/Armistice Day (11 November) in  Canada and the United Kingdom and with Toronto’s Holocaust Education Week. Toronto’s Holocaust Education Week is scheduled to correspond to the anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass” (November 9-10, 1938). Kristallnacht was seen as the beginning of the Holocaust.

There are over 100 educational programs during Holocaust Education Week. This year I attended a number of lectures and movies. They related the stories of some of the heroes who sheltered, protected and fought to save  Jews and other peoples being liquidated by the Nazi regime. It was humbling and emotional to watch the stories of teens who put their lives at risk because they were horrified by Nazi actions and philosophies. People of all ages risked death to help others.

The partisans, the spies, the messengers thought not of themselves. They knew the Jews were caged in and marked for death. Those heroes were determined to fight the evil around them and save as many people as possible.

pesach-rishon-sig Jewish partisans from Vilna,      art by Laya Crust

It is fitting that “Avraham avinu” (Abraham our father) is featured in our Torah reading this week.

We have read about the chaos and evil that prompted Gd to flood the world and start a new group of people through Noah. Unfortunately it didn’t seem that the new people who populated the earth were much better. In this week’s parsha we read that Abraham saved his nephew Lot from the men of Sodom who had captured him and his family.

Gd chose Abraham to become the leader of a new nation, a nation that would model morality to the rest of the world.  He was told that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Those descendants, through his son Isaac, were to be the models of morality in the world. .

Lech Lecha sig

 art by Laya Crust

 There are a number of qualities that separated Abraham from the people around him and indicated that he had a humanitarian and caring personality. Abraham and his wife Sarah are seen as the exemplars of hosting and caring for strangers. This is based on the narrative we will read next week when they entertain three men who, it turns out, are angels sent by Gd.  Next week we also read the story of Abraham’s argument/ negotiation with Gd. Abraham was told that Sodom and Gemorrah were two cities so corrupt and evil that Gd was going to destroy everyone in them. Abraham was horrified. He argued with Gd, begging Him to reconsider. He negotiated with Gd to the point that Gd agreed that if He could find as few as ten righteous people within the city the entire population would be saved.

Until that incident the people profiled in the Torah had, at best, thought only of themselves and had, at the worst, murdered others. This was the first time we saw someone willing to risk his life to save a relative.We see someone having the boldness to challenge Gd’s will. In addition we see the generosity towards strangers and a yearning from Abraham and Sarah for family.

Those are qualities that the heroes profiled during  Holocaust Education Week shared with Abraham. We can learn  so much from holocaust survivors and from their stories. Their strength and experiences are not to be ignored or forgotten. Unfortunately, as we all know, atrocities against humanity and genocide continue to this day. It has to be fought on many fronts in a variety of ways. We have to make ourselves aware of what is happening in the world and fight evil, fight for freedom, each in our own way.

If you are interested in watching some of the movies and programs that were showcased this past week I would suggest you look at the HEW program: http://holocaustcentre.com/HEW

You can see the list of movies they showed.. Many are available on you tube, in libraries, or in Holocaust Education Centres.

May this be a week of peace and memory.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Once Upon a Time

11the-earth-gathered-ad0011art by Laya Crust

The stories we read to children often begin with that catch phrase, “Once upon a time”.  It is a signal that we are starting a new adventure, taking a path into an world filled with mysterious landscapes, unfamiliar people, and unknown experiences. But there is one very popular book that begins with, “In the Beginning…”

Last week we reopened an old book (or scroll)- the Torah, ready to start reading it once again from the beginning. In just one week we read about the creation of the cosmos, the rising of the mists and grasses from the earth and the emergence of human kind. We were pulled into jealousy, and the consequences of it with the recounting of the first murder.

humanity art by Laya Crust

The stories we read in the Bible/ in the Torah are written in a very spare style. A few well chosen words paint an entire scene . Without even realizing it we imagine a landscape and the details of an interaction. We build a rich novella based on a few short sentences.

This week, in parshat Noah, we read about the lives in a country or world beset by immorality, disdain for human life and a lack of decency. We also read about a Gd who makes an agreement with mankind. The promise is illustrated in a magical, wondrous way. Gd bends light and shows all the colours in the world to the mortals who walk the earth. That beautiful sight- a half circle of colour in the sky after every rainfall- is the symbol Gd gives humanity to remind humans of Gd’s pledge.Rainbow_02

 Of course- this is just the beginning. We have hundreds more stories to read and hundreds more lessons to learn and adventures to take. So settle down with the “good book” and enjoy.

Fun facts:Number of copies of the Bible published? 5 – 6 billion

The full Bible has been translated into 554 languages, and 2,932 languages have at least some portion of the Bible.

Have a great week and a great Shabbat,

Laya

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The Etrog- NeHedar! (Splendid!)

Image result for lulav and etrog
photo by Fort Tryon Jewish Center

It is the holiday of Sukkot, a beautiful holiday when we eat in a sukkah (a small structure with tree boughs in place of a roof) and make blessings over the lulav and etrog. It says in the Torah, “And you will take on the first day fruit of splendid trees, (עץ פרי הדר), branches of date palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook…” The Rabbis put the elements together to create the lulav and etrog as we know it. A palm branch is gathered into a bundle with myrtle and willow branches. And of course the עץ פרי הדר- the splendid fruit- is the etrog or citron.

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art by Laya Crust

The question is, how was the etrog chosen? It is not native to Israel and it’s inedible. Where did it originate, how did it arrive in Israel, and why was it chosen to be used as the splendid and magnificent fruit?

It seems to be widely agreed that the etrog didn’t reach Israel until the period of the Second Temple. It was native to Persia- archeologists have found evidence of it dating back over 4,000 years.  There are references to the etrog in Indian literature dating to 800 BCE. It was taken to Greece by traders. It seems it made its way to Israel after the campaigns of Alexander the Great.  It was so unusual, beautiful and aromatic it isn’t surprising that it was chosen to be the beautiful fruit to accompany the lulav.

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Bar Kochba coins

 

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Mosaic from Tiberian Synagogue

 

 

Those who have tried to eat an etrog or make etrog jam know that it is beautiful and smells heavenly, but the fruit is bitter and needs a lot of help to become edible. I wondered how it was used in Indian and Persian cooking. It seems that it is used mostly for medicinal purposes- in teas, and mixed with oils to use as ointments. The fruit is never eaten on its own since it’s so bitter. But it is used for tea infusions, made with sugar for etrog jam or marmalade, the zest is used in rice and as a colourful accent, and some people candy it then dip it ion chocolate…that sounds like fun!

lulav-etrog

photo by Fort Tryon Jewish Center

I hope you enjoyed this little peek into the history of the beautiful, perfumed etrog. Enjoy your Sukkot, and maybe try something new with your etrog- but use an organically grown one !

Chag Sameach, Laya

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Yom Kippur 5777

ShabbatShuva sigart by Laya Crust

I love the image above- the image I painted for Shabbat Shuva. I used this painting (based on artwork by Ben Shahn) for last week’s reflections on the Shabbat preceding Yom Kippur.

It exemplifies the grandeur of Yom Kippur. The shofar is a central and defining sound of our supplications to Gd.  Jews of all colours and races, Jews with different traditions and approaches to life gather and recognize Yom Kippur in their own way. The menorah represents the religious objects that guide us through our observances. Above all we see the hand of Gd, immersed in flames. The strength and power of Gd are beyong our simple understanding but still we strive to get closer to Gd.

Yom Kippur Minchaart by Laya Crust

The second day of Yom Kippur, during mincha (the late afternoon prayers) we read the Book of Jonah. It’s a great adventure story.  Jonah warned the inhabitants of the town of Ninevah that they would be destroyed if they didn’t change their evil ways. Evreryone- from the King to the animals(!) fasted and prayed in order to avert the punishment. They did repent and change their behaviours and Gd pardoned them.

The text refers Gd’s attention to all living things. Gd cared for the inhabitants of Ninevah who weren’t Jewish. The message is that we, who are created in the image of Gd, also are to care for all living beings around us and treat all living beings with compassion and understanding.

The story of Jonah also shows each person’s struggle with him or her self.

That is Yom Kippur. A conversation between oneself and Gd. It is an accounting of behaviour and motivation. Each person’s path and value is different and we must each examine ourselves- not judge others.

I hope you have – or had- a meaningful fast and meaningful prayer. May this year be one of health, peace, love, and joy for you, your family, and the world.

גמר חתימה טובה וצום קל

Laya

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Days of Awe 5777

ShabbatShuva sigart by laya Crust

Haftarah:   Hosea 14:2-10,   Micah 7:18-20,   Joel 2:15-27

This year I was at my wonderful little shul where we have the most beautiful tefillot (prayers) imaginable. Every year we are treated to the niggunim  (tunes) and heartfelt prayers that come from the souls of two wonderful brothers. Aaron and Jeremy have been leading us in prayers and shofar blowing for many years.

I based my painting at the top of the page on a piece by the American Artist Ben Shahn. His life was dedicated to human rights and social action, and he expressed that through his prolific art works. 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. I love the music and the movement he brings to his compositions.

Image result for ben shahn paintingsImage result for ben shahn poster

Shahn’s work communicates the struggle of the human spirit to succeed, not just to survive. He paints individuals and groups overcoming the destruction of their homes and their belongings…but continuing in spite of it. He represents those who are trodden upon but rise up in spite of it. 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.

I take it back to the painting at the beginning of this post. The sound of the shofar is the sound of remembrance. It is the sound of Gd’s “still, small voice” that resides inside us. It is the sound of faith and of fighting for what is right. We all- regardless of race or colour- can hear the still, small voice, and carry it with us.

 Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are “The Days of Awe”.  They are a gift that we as Jews were given in order  to reflect on our values and our goals.

Enjoy this time and have a wonderful Shabbat.

with blessings for a good year of peace, joy and health,

Laya

 

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A Sweet New Year

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Next week, on Sunday evening,  we greet  Rosh HaShana  – the Jewish New Year

Pomegranates are in the stores- they are in season in Israel- and we buy them to grace our tables, and use in recipes.

I published this recipe previously but am doing it again because I think it makes a delightful Rosh HaShana dessert treat. I call it “Pomegranate Bark”. It’s the same idea as almond bark but it’s chocolate with pomegranate seeds, fresh ginger and a sprinkling of salt.

20150201_115733[1]You’ll need:

1 cup of semi sweet chocolate chips

a pomegranate

fresh ginger root or candied ginger

a sprinkling of salt (I would suggest Malden or kosher salt)

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Remove the seeds from the pomegranate. Put them on a piece of paper towel to absorb any moisture that may be on the seeds.

Peel a 1 inch section of ginger. Slice the ginger and dice it into tiny pieces. (You can toss the ginger with a small amount of potato starch to absorb  the moisture from the fresh ginger.)

20150201_122338[1]Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler.

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Combine 1/3 cup of pomegranate seeds with 1 Tbsp. of ginger, and stir into the melted chocolate.

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Pour onto parchment paper and smoothe it out. Sprinkle with a little kosher or Malden salt.

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Chill the pomegranate bark in the refrigerator or freezer. Serve and enjoy.

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Have a wonderful Rosh HaShana.  May it be a year blessed with sweetness, love, peace, health, and good fortune of all sorts.
Good wishes from my family to yours,

Laya

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