Miracles and Humility

art by Laya Crust

This year, 2017 or 5777, we read the Torah portions for Tazria and Metzora on the same Shabbat. Both of the protions deal with the laws pertaining to an affliction called “tza’arat” which is commonly translated into the English word “leprosy”. It isn’t the same as leprosy however. It was a condition that affected people’s skin. But it could also affect their homes and their walls. It was a punishment for certain sins,particularly speaking negatively about another person.

The haftarahs take place during the time of Elisha the prophet. Jerusalem was under seige and the Jews were starving due to fammine. In the haftarah  Tazria, a young Jewish slave recommends that her Aramean master go to Elisha to be cured. Her master, Naaman.  follows her advice and is indeed cured.

art by Laya Crust

The second haftarah tells the story of four lepers who are sent outside the gates of Jerusalem- they are essentially in quarantine. They are starving as are the Jews in the city. They come across an abandoned Aramean camp filled with food, clothing and precious goods. After having their fill of food they tell the city about the camp and this alleviates the starvation.

One element the two stories have in common is that the lowest, most overlooked members of the population are key to saving the protagonists. In Tazria a young slave girl helps an Aramean army captain become cured of tza’arat. In Metzorah four banished men save the people of Jerusalem.

art by Laya Crust

Yom Ha’Atzmaut- Israel’s Independence Day- is a reminder that the smallest can overcome greater forces. Tiny, unprepared Israel overcame huge enemy forces in 1948. In 1967 once again Israel conquered the attacking surrounding countries. It happened again in 1973. These victories were miraculous, and are evidence of God’s invisible help. To recognize that we say the “Hallel” prayers on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. 

The victories, although miraculous, did not come easily or without a steep and painful price. Many lives were lost defending Israel- most of them the lives of young soldiers cut down at the beginning of their paths. The day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut we observe Yom haZikaron and recognize the sacrifices of those who died defending  Israel’s sovereignity and right to exist; and defending the lives of Israeli citizens. Following is an 11 minute film dedicated to those fallen heroes, posted by United With Israel.

https://unitedwithisrael.org/watch-a-moving-tribute-to-fallen-idf-soldiers/

Throughout Israel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut there will be barbecues, music, parties and celebration. Light up YOUR barbecue- and celebrate too!

With blessings for peace, Laya

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Shemini

art by Laya Crust

Haftarah: Samuel II :  6:1- 7:17

The Torah reading of Shemini and the accompanying Haftarah both describe two tragic events. In the parsha two of Aaron’s sons- Nadav and Avihu- die because they have offered sacred sacrifices at the wrong time. In the haftarah one of King David’s attendants, Uzzah, is afraid the Ark of the Covenant will fall. He reaches out to steady it and dies as a result of this action.  In both cases the men who died were trying to serve God but were punished because they were serving God but not within the proscribed boundaries. These incidents are examples of crossing boundaries with extreme results.

Within the haftarah we read how King David leads the ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem with great exuberant dancing and leaping. His wife Michal looks out of her window disparaging him for his less than regal behaviour. I based the painting at the top of this page on illustrations from a 19th Century book written and illustrated in Meshed, Persia. The book is a love story of Yusuf and Zulaikha  (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife) as recounted in the Koran. The Sufi poet Jami (1414- 1492) wrote a passionate love poem about them which became very popular with the public. The painting below is from a Yusuf and Zulaikha book created in  Meshed, Persia in 1853.

illustration from Jamil’s Yusuf and Zalaikha, collection of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York

 The text is written in Persian transliterated into Hebrew letters. The text was presumably written by a Jew but it is unknown whether or not the illustrations were painted by Jews. The patterning is lovely with the interlocking swirls inspired by leaves and vines. The clothing is interesting, very different from the styles we see in Western manuscripts art of the same period.

Meshed and Isfahan were two communities in Persia that had strong artistic Jewish communities.  They produced illustrated Judeo-Persian books such as  Yusuf and Zalaikha featured above;  Ardashir-nameh -a book about Esther and Ahashveroshand  Musa-nameh which is the story of Moses.

Ardashir -Nameh, collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary,  New York

The Jews had a long history in Persia, dating back to 700 BCE.  The Jews continued to live there although their conditions varied depending on the forces in power. For instance from 1656 – 1663 there were forced conversions. The Jews, called “anusim” (forced converts), practised their Judaism in secret.

In 1839, almost 200 years later,  Muslim riots burst into the Jewish quarter of Meshed and forcibly converted the entire  community to Islam. Again the anusim lived outwardly as Muslims but continued to practice Judaism in secret. It wasn’t until after WWII Jews began to practise their faith openly.  
Jewish manuscripts and ketuboth from Isfahan, Meshed, and other Persian communities are interesting and unique.  It was fascinating to come across these beautiful illustrations and I had the wonderful experience of looking at the original books in the JTS library. They are colourful and evocative. It’s beautiful to see Jewish art done in Eastern style.
 I hope you enjoyed this little taste of Persian Jewish culture. 
Laya

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Charoset

Image result for charoset

photo courtesy of enwikipedia

This year Pesach begins on Monday night, April 10. There is a lot of preparation for Pesach- cleaning, shopping and preparing. Charoset is one of the fabulous unique flvours we have on that most special night.

Charoset (חרוסת) is a sweet brown paste generally made of fruits, nuts, wine and spices. The word Charoset is 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.

Image result for charoset

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 Ahkenazt 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 nuts, fruits, spices mentioned in the Song of Songs.

Below I have listed the fruits, nuts and spices mentioned in Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) with their sources- you can try your own recipe. I have also included a number of different charoset recipes from around the world, so try something new. If you want to send on YOUR charoset recipe it would be lovely to find out what you do.

Have a sweet and meaningful Pesach,

Laya

 

Ingredients for a Shir haShirim Charoset  (with sources 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.
  • 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

  • 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

 

Yemenite — food.com

  • 1cup slivered almonds
  • 12 cup dried apricots
  • 1cup figs dried quartered
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons  finely grated lime or lemon rind
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 3 -4 tablespoons sweet white wine
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds – optional

 

PERSIAN CHAROSET- HALEK    food.com

  • 1cup dates
  • 1cup shelled pistachios
  • 1cup almonds (shelled)
  • 1cup raisins
  • 1 each: apple, orange, banana-finely  chopped
  • seeds from 1 pomegranate
  • 1cup sweet wine
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1teaspoon black pepper 

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Va Yakhel and Pekudei

Va Yakhel – Pekudei

Exodus (Shemot): Chapters 35 – 40

The Torah readings of Va Yakhel – Pekudei are often described as the most boring parshas of the year, as an obsessive investigation of detail, and as parshas that are difficult to regard as giving important lessons. Why would these particular parshas be considered so boring? Aren’t there sections of the Torah that are lists of names, lists of battles or lists of the order of sacrifices? When I read the parshas and paid close attention I came to my own conclusion. These two readings from the bible are about art, craft, and aesthetics. We live in a society that seems to value economics and technology. Therefore the unadventurous reader doesn’t appreciate the insight and spirituality that goes into creating holy objects.

Va Yakhel explains that Gd chose Bezalel to be chief architect and designer, “and filled  him with the spirit of Gd, in wisdom, and in understanding and in all manner of workmanship, to contrive works of art…” (Exodus 30: 3). This quotation shows that those trusted with creating the holy space should have spiritual depth and understanding beyond the average individual. The parsha describes the collection of all the materials that would be needed to create the Tabernacle, the “Tent of Meeting” that would hold the two tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

We see that everyone was invited to participate in building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The only proviso was that they had to be “wise” or “willing hearted”. Phrases like “wise hearted” and “willing of heart” appear 15 times in this parsha. The construction of this holy place was incredibly democratic.

Gd understood ( and still understands) the importance of beauty in life. In the midst of the wide expanse of desert and rugged mountains He gave detailed instructions to create a place of beauty where people could focus prayer and thought. Just a beautiful place wasn’t enough. True beauty has a foundation of wisdom and goodness. To that end Bezalel and his assistant Aholiav were imbued with wisdom and understanding. Furthermore  people from B’nei Yisrael- a group of rag tag people traversing a desert- would be contributing. Gd said, “In the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom that they may make all that I have commanded thee.” (31:6)

As we go forward in life let’s remember to be wise hearted and introduce integrity and beauty in order to elevate our lives and the lives around us.

Have a good week,

Laya

The illustrations I painted are based on manuscript paintings from 1299, Perpignan, Aragon. There were a number of beautiful manuscript pages done in the 14th and 15th centuries featuring the Temple’s holy objects.

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Toledot 5777

P1100804Red lentil soup, like Jacob used to make

 This week’s parsha is Toledot  (Generations). The parsha deals with the birth and sibling rivalry of Esau and Jacob- the twin sons of Rebecca and Isaac. Those babies were fighting even before they were born, to the point that Rebecca asked God what was going on with her pregnancy.

Esau loved being outside and hunting while Jacob stayed home, cooked, and according to the commentaries learned Torah. Esau traded his “birthright” for a bowl of Jacob’s soup – showing Esau’s impatience and disregard for tradition, and also showing Jacob’s desire to take advantage of his brother. The climax of the story is Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac. Rebecca convinces Jacob to masquerade as his brother in order to fool Isaac into giving Jacob the special blessing for the first born.

The story introduces all kinds of questions and puts flawed family dynamics into relief. Why did Isaac favour Esau while Rebecca favoured Jacob?  Why did Rebecca fool Isaac instead of talking to him? Was Isaac really taken in by Jacob’s deception? Maybe he suspected the truth but realized that Jacob was more suited to the blessing. Did the two brothers end up with the fates that most suited them in the long run? Esau would be a man of the field and Jacob would become the leader of the nation of Israel.

What seems to hold true is that poor family dynamics and communication skills certainly continued from generation to generation.  We see that this deception had repercussions that continued and echoed in the lives of our ancestors. Jacob fooled Esau and was fooled in turn by Lavan.

Toldot Sigart by Laya Crust

Although Jacob was promised Rachel as a wife he was presented with Leah. Lavan justified himself by slyly announcing, “It is not done in our place to give the younger before the elder…” (Genesis 29:26) The favouritism Isaac and Rebecca showed each of their sons was echoed in the favouritism Jacob showed Joseph, favouring him above his brothers. The sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau was repeated in the rivalry between Jacob’s twelve sons. Jacob’s sons lied to him as he had lied to Isaac.

The picture above  shows the “family dynamics. The blind, deceived Isaac is blessing his son Jacob. Rebecca is delaying Esau from coming in until the blessing is complete.  When Rebecca was pregnant Gd had told her that “the elder shall serve the younger”. She wanted to ensure that the prophecy came true.

Can we learn anything from this? There are many, many lessons. One is that hurt and dishonesty don’t disappear. They continue to spread like dust in the wind. The climactic story of the Isaac-Rebecca nuclear family was Rebecca and Jacob’s deception. It tore the family apart, causing Jacob to leave for many, many years. The two brothers never really solved their differences. Esau’s marriages never satisfied his parents. Deception and white lies were an undercurrent in Jacob’s own home.

I believe Jacob would have been the leader of our nation even without the ruse in today’s parsha. Without the ruse honesty and communication may have become a more utilised tool in our world.

IP1100803f you would like the recipe for this fabulous Red Lentil Soup you can find it at an earlier post of mine:https://layacrust.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/toledot-red-lentil-stew/

Scroll down past the text and the ingredients are all listed.

Have a wonderful (and deception free) Shabbat.

 

Let’s pray for more peace and less vitriol!

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

 

 

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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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