Tag Archives: Bible stories

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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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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Conflict and Strength – VaYishlach


P1140396
art by Laya Crust

Va Yeishev: Bereshit (Genesis) 32:4 – 36

Haftarah:  The Book of Ovadiah

This week’s Torah reading takes us on Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) journey through the country of Edom towards Bethlehem and Efrat. He was a successful man. He had huge flocks, 2 wives, 2 concubines, 11 sons and a daughter, yet he was nervous. He knew he had to travel through his brother’s landholdings but did not want to face his twin because of  their unresolved history. Would Esau be angry at Yaakov? Did Esau still want to kill his brother?

The narrative begins with Yaakov sending messengers to his brother, announcing his approach. The report came back that Esau was coming to meet Yaakov, accompanied by 400 men.  Yaakov, frightened and anxious, sent his messengers ahead with many expensive gifts. He sent his family to the far side of the Jabok River for safety and he himself slept on the closer side of the river, possibly to be on the alert for any attack.

A man came and wrestled with him through the night. Finally at dawn the stranger told Yaakov to let him go. Yaakov demanded that the man give him a blessing and the blessing came in the guise of a new name- Yisrael, “because you have striven with beings Divine and human” (כּי שׂרית עם אלהים ועם אנשׁים).

Image result for jacob and the angel golden haggadah
Golden Haggadah, c. 1320

Who was the man Yaakov fought with? An angel sent by Gd? An adversarial angel representing Esau? Or was it an inner battle that Yaakov was struggling within himself? At the end of the battle Yaakov had a new name and an injury that stayed with him the rest of his life.

Yaakov’s name has many meanings. It can mean follow, heel, or deceive. When he was born Yaakov followed his brother into the world, holding on to Esau’s heel. As they grew up he deceived his brother and his father, and in turn was deceived by his father-in-law.

He left Canaan to avoid confrontation with Esau and to seek a wife. Many years later he left Lavan’s estate in the night, also hoping to avoid confrontation. He may have been a successful man in terms of his career but he was afraid to face the consequences of his actions.

Yaakov couldn’t avoid wrestling with the angel and he refused to give up or give in to the aggressor. He was given a name that represented his strength and position.

Image result for jacob and the angel
by Gustave Dore, 1855

The night of struggle heralded a new beginning. He faced himself and the enemy across from him. That incident strengthened him in his role as leader of a nation. He could carry on and deal with whatever life put in front of him. The struggle with the immortal being took place between sending a message to Esau and actually facing him. Maybe the fight itself influenced Yaakov’s interaction with Esau.

These days we are facing anti-Semitic attacks- verbal and physical, hurtful and deadly, overt and covert, on a frightening level. We are witnessing anti-Semitism from the British elections to UN resolutions, to terrorist attacks in kosher grocery stores and in synagogues, and unconscionable displays of hatred against Israel and Jews on campuses. Like Yaakov we have to face our fears rather than run away from them. Strength as a people and a nation is the only way to combat the hatred.

Like Yaakov let’s struggle with the adversaries and stand firm for what is right. May we see peace soon,

Sabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Yosef and Yehuda

Joseph’s Dream by Laya Crust

This week’s parsha- “VaYeishev” (and he dwelled) is the beginning of a long, long narrative devoted to the life and adventures of Joseph, Jacob’s favourite son. In unusual detail 4 weeks of Torah readings, 13 chapters of text, are dedicated to Joseph’s trajectory from being a shepherd’s son to becoming second in command to the ruler of a large and powerful nation. In this parsha we do get another story as well, the story of Yehuda and Tamar. What I will do today is compare the paths of these two brothers.

Jacob’s Gift to Joseph by Laya Crust

Our parsha begins stating that Isaac loved Joseph more than all his other children, and made him a striped, or multi -coloured, coat. Joseph’s brothers were jealous and aggravated by him, especially after he shared his dreams of grandeur with his brothers. Not only had he been given a regal coat by his father, but shared the dream in which his entire family bowed down to him. The brothers were so angry they decided to kill him. Yehuda was the one sibling who spoke up and convinced them not to murder Joseph, rather they should sell him to passing traders.


  by Laya Crust

As the stories play out we witness certain events in the lives of Yehuda and Yosef.  Yosef was the favoured son, given a regal gift by his doting father. He had dreams of grandeur then was abruptly thrown into a pit and sold into slavery. In Egypt he was bought by Potiphar, rose to a position of responsibility within Potiphar’s home, then was thrown into jail because of Potiphar’s jealous and conniving wife. In prison he once again rose to a position of influence where he interpreted two dreams. Ultimately he was taken out of jail to again interpret two dreams for the Pharaoh. Through his correct interpretation of the dreams he became Grand Vizier over of all of Egypt. He became a leader, and a man of power.

Yehuda had a very different path. He iwa the fourth son of Isaac and Leah and barely mentioned until the incident where he saved Yosef from death. There is an unexpected story in the midst of this parsha featuring Yehuda and Tamar, his daughter-in-law.  Yehuda “went down from his brothers” and married an unnamed Canaanite woman. They had three sons. The oldest, Er,  married a woman named Tamar. Er was punished by God and died, so Yehuda had his next son, Onan, marry Tamar. Onan also sinned and was punished by God and died. Yehuda thought the deaths were Tamar’s fault. Instead of taking care of her he sent her away ostensibly until his third son, Shuah, could marry her. When years passed and Tamar realized she would forever be forgotten she took matters into her own hands. She dressed as a lady of the night.  Yehuda, not knowing her identity, slept with her. It’s an interesting story. Ultimately Tamar was to be punished for being a harlot. When Tamar proved to Yehuda that her situation had been untenable due to his  wrongful actions Yehuda took responsibility.  Tamar gave birth to twins. Her son Perez was the first of the Davidic line. Later in the Yosef narrative Yehuda took a lead role in Egypt and attempted to alleviate and solve difficult issues.

These different paths of Yehuda and Yosef are thought provoking. Yosef was the favoured and talented son. He consistently became a leader wherever he lived. Each time he was toppled from his position he would rise again, becoming an advisor, an interpreter, and a leader. It would have been logical for him to be seen as the next leader of the Jewish people. Why did that role fall to Yehuda?

When we look at Yehuda’s life we see that he made some challenging decisions. He disagreed with his brothers and convinced them to let Yosef live. He left his father’s home to marry a Canaanite woman. This seems to have been against the family culture. Remember, Isaac went to Padan Aram in order to avoid marrying a Canaanite. It is possible that he wanted to leave behind the fighting and jealousy rife within his family. By separating from them and marrying a Canaanite he could live a more straightforward life, one without bickering and rivalry. His integrity is obvious in how he honoured Tamar’s testimony and how he was the first of the brothers to step forward and try to negotiate with the Grand Vizier of Egypt. In contrast Yosef was a product of circumstance. He didn’t take strong initiative. His intelligence, talent, and of course God’s guidance helped him through each step of his interesting life.

We are called “Yehudim”- Jews- named after Yehuda, the fourth son.

King Solomon by Laya Crust

King David, our greatest king, and King Solomon who built the Temple in Jerusalem descended from Yehuda. And the Messiah is from that same line. Yehuda was the son who knew that to lead a life of observance and truth he had to separate himself from the pettiness and jealousy that weakened his birth family. He retained his identity and love of God while separating from the in fighting. He joined in the family events and family crises while preserving his integrity.

I hope we can all learn to do the same, to retain our identity and Jewish faith while separating ourselves from what is petty and negative. And like Yosef- may we be able to interpret our dreams for good and follow our dreams to create a better world.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

 

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Bill Glied z”l

Image result for bill gliedBill Glied z”l,  1930 -2018

We are reading the first stories in the Book of Genesis, ספר בראשית.  After creating the world and creating humankind with the gift of free will, God saw that free will wasn’t a trait that always would be used for good purposes. Rather than using their choices for beauty and good, some of humanity showed themselves to be envious, greedy, violent,  and, well murderous. God found a man, Abraham, who had integrity and searched for truth. Together Abraham and his wife Sarah were chosen to begin a new nation, God’s chosen people the Jews.

In the Torah readings of “Lech Lecha” and VaYeira” we read some of the challenges that God put before Abraham. One of those tests was “Akeidat Yitzchak” the binding and threatened sacrifice of Abraham and Sarah’s precious son Isaac. There were personal repercussions, but Abraham retained his faith in God and his descendants are the Jewish people of today.

Bill Glied wrote the following poem which he read when he led groups to the concentration camp of Majdanek:

Bill Glied z”l was a wonderful man of faith. He was born  in 1930 in the town of Subotica, Serbia. In April of 1944 Hungarian gendarmes rounded up more than 400,000 Jews. Bill Glied and his family were among those Jews and were transported in cattle cars to Aushcwitz. His mother and 8 year old sister were killed immediately. He and his father were sent to a camp in Bavaria where they worked for 12 hours a day to build an underground airplane factory. Bill survived the camps and the war but tragically his father died of typhoid fever eight days before U.S. troops liberated the camp in 1945.

Bill was not a bitter man and devoted a great deal of time to teaching youth about the Holocaust, and making sure that the tragedy will not be forgotten.

He wrote a beautiful poem, “I AM A JEW” as a wake-up call and an inspiration to others.”I AM A JEW” is a lesson, a guideline, for what we, as Jews, are. It describes the best that we can strive for. It outlines the traits we should cultivate and can achieve.

I was honoured to be asked to write out the poem,  With the family’s permission I am reprinting it and showing the illustrated poem.

Bill Glied came to Canada in 1947,  and married Marika Nyiri in 1959. They had three daughters, Sherry, Tammy, and Michelle, eight grandchildren, and a great grandchild. His family carries on Bill’s love of the world and let’s all ensure that his name will be remembered as a blessing.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,   Laya

bill glied_20181025_0001 (3)

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Living in a Wall- Shelach Lecha

Shelach LechaRahav and the Spies by Laya Crust

Joshua 2: 1- 24

This week the Torah relates the story of Moshe sending twelve spies into Canaan to see what the land was like. Joshua was one of those spies. The men came back from their mission laden with grapes, pomegranates and figs but were afraid to face the people who occupied the land. The spies called the people “giants” and thought the Israelites would be slaughtered. Only two men, Joshua and Caleb, believed that the Israelites would be able to possess the “land of milk and honey”.

In the accompanying haftarah Joshua was the leader of the nation. Two spies were sent to Jericho to investigate the city and the surrounding countryside. They went to an inn at the fortress wall owned by a local woman named Rahav. She hid them from the city guards in bales of wheat on her roof, then lowered them from a window so they could escape. The two spies gave her a red rope to hang from her window so that when the Israelites attacked Jericho her home and all those in her home would be saved.

Rahav didn’t only live by the wall, she lived in the wall- the defense wall surrounding Jericho at that. I wondered how that was possible. Defense walls are thick and were built so that soldiers could stand at the wall and fire defense weaponry on attackers. There were openings in defense walls so that the fighters could shoot arrows, guns, cannons, pots of boiling oil, or whatever their preferred weapon was. I didn’t understand how Rahav lived next to a wall with populated with soldiers, and she even had access to the open country.
I spoke to a historian about the walls. He told me that at times the walls were made 4 – 6 feet deep, with open space in that 4- 6 foot area. People would live there, probably those who were on the poorer end of the spectrum. They lived in smaller spaces farther from the centre of commerce and social life.
1_Jericho-walls-falling-earthquake[1]

This is a drawing based on an excavation of Jericho. It reconstructs the moment when
the trumpet players blew their horns and the walls of Jericho began to crumble.

This illustration from the “Biblical Archeology ” website shows how there was room between an interior wall and another exterior wall. It was logical for Rahav to have an inn within or between the walls because it would be an inexpensive inn or drinking place on the edge of town, it would service common people who would be gossiping about the political situation,  it would be convenient for travelers just entering the city, and it would be convenient for a hasty escape or secret rendezvous.

As with so many bible stories this includes adventure, espionage, and bravery. It is fascinating to pay attention to the details and learn about life and circumstance in another age- like learning about living in a defense wall.

Have a good day and a good week.

P.S. The painting of Rahav and the Spies will be in the book of haftarah images that I am working on now. Stayed tuned for future updates!

 

 

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Shemini- Flames of God

shemini“Shemini” by Laya Crust

Parshat Shemini is an unexpected combination of two very different narratives. The first half of the parsha focuses on the sacrifices Aaron and the priests offered to God to make atonement for themselves and the children of Israel. Aaron and his sons had spent weeks spiritually purifying themselves for these important offerings. The second half of the reading describes which animals are kosher and which animals are not. Why would these two very different subjects be combined in the same weekly reading?

The priests (Aaron and his four sons) had been warned to follow their preparations exactly, or they would die. After seven days of isolation and purification Moses called Aaron and told him it was time to offer the sacrifices.  In a dramatic scene “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And there came a fire out from before the Lord…which when the people saw they they shouted and fell on their faces.” (Lev. 9: 23, 24)  God’s fire consumed the sacrificial remains and the flames ascended to the heavens.  In the excitement of the moment Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offered their own fire to God. In anger God sent down flames that killed the two men. It was a shocking incident, especially after the powerful acceptance by God towards Aaron and Moses.

Aaron and his two remaining sons were told to continue their duties, and be an example to the children of Israel. Aaron was told, “לְהבדיל בּין הקדשׁ ובין החֹל ובין הטמה ובין הטהור” –to distinguish between holy and common, between impure and pure. Those were the tenets he was to teach the children of Israel.

Following these extraordinary events the Israelites were told about kosher and non-kosher animals. It seems strange that after an awesome display of sacrifice, flames from heaven, and the death of two priests, the people were given a list of animals. The two narratives are very different- one is a drama the other is a list of guidelines. They are united by a phrase at the end of each of the 2 sections. After the nation was told what it could and could not eat, it was told: “לְהבדיל בין הטמה ובין הטהור”  to distinguish between the impure and the pure. The words are very similar to those spoken to Aaron. But why is it so important?

Differentiating, “לְהבדיל”, creates separation and awareness. That is a theme not only in this Torah reading but in all of Judaism. The list of acceptable and unacceptable animals make us conscious of our dietary choices and separates us from the eating habits of the nations around us. The dire punishment of Nadav and Avihu separated them as priests from their brothers and father who followed God’s directions. The Sabbath separates one day from the rest of the week and we behave differently on that day. Dietary rules, rules about Shabbat and instructions for different festivals separate us from the nations around us, and create limits for us.

The painting of flames above shows the accepted fire from Aaron, Elazar and Itamar reaching up to the heavens. The outer flames are duller in colour. They become blue in tone and disappear before they reach the heavens. The outer flames represent the fire offered by Nadav and Avihu, who had not learned the difficult lessons of discipline, purity and discernment.

In this week’s Torah reading God used fire to separate the holy sacrifice from the profane sacrifice, and taught the nation to separate kosher animals from non kosher ones. On Saturday night we use fire in the “havdalah” ceremony (from the word לְהבדיל in the quotation) to separate the holiness of the Sabbath from the rest of the week.  So, enjoy the distinctiveness of Shabbat. We have this one day that gives us the quiet of nature and time amidst the bustle of regular weekdays and workdays.

The painting for this parsha was part of a project called “Women of the Book”. 54 women from around the world were invited to paint an interpretation of each of the parshiot, To see these extraordinary paintings go to http://womenofthebook.org/artwork/  .

You can click on the flames at the top to see the painting enlarged.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

 

 

 

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