Tag Archives: bible

Sarah and the Divine

VaYeira Sig
art by Laya Crust

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

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

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

etching by Laya Crust

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

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

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

Abraham and Sarah by Marc Chagall

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

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

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

Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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

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

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Lech Lecha and Respect

Compass Rose by Laya Crust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laya

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Noah, a righteous man

The Promise by Laya Crust

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

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

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

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

Cover of “Noah’s Ark” by Lisbeth Zwerger

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

Image result for peter spier noah's ark
Noah and his wife in the ark by Peter Spier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laya

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Yom Kippur – In Search of Self

Jonah by Laya Crust

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yom Kippur by Laya Crust

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

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

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

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

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

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Mattot- Masei

Jeremiah’s Despair Laya Crust

It is the height of summer and we are observing a period of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. There are three “Haftarahs of Rebuke” which are read in the three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av, all words from the prophet Jeremiah. On this week’s Shabbat we read two parshas: Mattot and Masei.

Jeremiah was a prophet whose life spanned the reign of 5 kings. It was a tumultuous time in Jewish history, a time of idolatry and war. Jeremiah warned B’nei Yisrael that they were going to be punished for their idol worship, . At the end of his life, in 586 BCE, Judah was destroyed and Jerusalem was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah, who was reviled for his messages, escaped to Egypt but the majority of Jews were exiled to Babylon. The illustration I created for Mattot is an homage to Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”. I have drawn Jeremiah looking out of his window watching his beloved city’s destruction.

The path the Israelites followed from Egypt to Canaan is described in great detail in the first 49 verses of the parsha Masei. It was a long and arduous journey for the Israelites and they strayed from Gd’s lessons throughout.

The Perilous Desert Journey Laya Crust

In the haftarah of Masei the prophet Jeremiah reminded B’nei Yisrael how Gd led His people “out of the land of Egypt, through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and pits, through a land of drought and of the shadow of death…. And into a land of fruitful fields…” (ch.2: 6,7). 

There is negativity and sadness in the haftarah. Jeremiah reminded B’nei Israel of the difficult trek through the desert and how Gd protected and took them to the Promised Land. Then Jeremiah describes B’nei Yisrael’s sins. At the very end of the haftarah Jeremiah mitigates the message slightly by telling the people that if they return to Gd “in sincerity, justice and righteousness nations will bless themselves by you and praise themselves by you.”

The word “איך”- How? is used twice in the haftarah asking how Israel can have changed so much, turning to sinning and base behaviour. This reminds us of the word “איכה”- the Hebrew word for “Lamentations”. On the Ninth of Av we will read the book of “Lamentations”.

Messages from the haftarah still resonate today. We are blessed to be in the “Land of Milk and Honey”, creating, cultivating, and helping nations in need. During these three weeks Jews all over the world will read Jeremiah’s words and hopefully try to improve themselves and society around them. Have a good week, and let’s look forward to a time of jubilation and more positive growth.

The artwork featured in this and most of my blogs is part of a collection of art created to illustrate the haftarahs read throughout the year. Currently the collection is on exhibit at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. It is a great exhibit of my work and will be on display to the end of December, 2019. And, to let you know, I am currently working on a book of the art pieces and accompanying commentary. Exciting!!!! Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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Pinchas- Changes in Leadership

Pinchas- The Silent Voice art by Laya Crust

The Torah reading “Pinchas” deals with different types of leadership seen through Moses, Pinchas, Joshua, Zelophehad’s daughters and Elijah.

In this parsha Moshe was once again told that he would die before reaching the Promised Land. Knowing this Moshe asked Gd to appoint someone to take over his role as leader. Beautifully he said, “…so that Gd’s community will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Numbers 27:17). Gd told Moshe to appoint Joshua, son of Nun , to take over to take over the leadership.

This choice may have been unexpected. The Torah reading begins by focusing on Pinchas, a Levi and Aaron’s grandson. He was a passionate and zealous man who killed two idolators in front of the אוהל מועד, the holy Tent of Meeting. It was a shocking act but it averted Gd’s wrath. Gd rewarded Pinchas by giving him hereditary priesthood and also gave him “My covenant of peace”. Pinchas and his descendants were given the honour because of his zealousness for Gd. Why was Joshua chosen rather than this hero and man of action?

Joshua appears a number of times through the Torah. The first time he appears he was appointed to lead a group of refugees from Egypt in war against Amalek. He must have had leadership qualities and experience to have been chosen for the task of leading untrained men into battle. Later, when Moshe went up Mount Sinai, Joshua accompanied him and waited 40 days and 40 nights until his leader descended. In addition, when Moshe appointed 12 leaders to spy out the land of Canaan Joshua and Caleb were the two men who were enthusiastic about the the land and confident in b’nei Yisrael’s ability to conquer their enemies and settle there.

These qualities- as well as Joshua’s experience of traversing difficult land and situations, and witnessing Moshe’s leadership qualities made him an excellent choice as leader.

Image result for zelophehad's daughters by Gustave Dore

The narrative includes a story which shows insight to two other leadership qualities. As the division of land is being discussed five sisters, Mahla, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah from the tribe of Menashe came forward and asked for the portion of their father’s land. They told Moshe their father Zelophehad had died. There was no son to take the land. They asked for their father’s portion in order to preserve their father’s legacy and name.

Their confidence in coming forward and questioning what they felt was an unfair law shows insight and leadership. Moshe’s reaction as judge and arbitor also shows wisdom in leadership. He was unsure how to answer and turned to Gd. Gd answered that the women were correct and should receive their father’s portion.

V’Zot haBracha by Laya Crust

The haftarah also addresses a change in leadership. Elijah appoints Elisha to take over from him

We see different types of abilities, strengths, and skills in the players who take part in this week’s parsha and haftarah. It helps us to recognize how one set of abilities may be appropriate for a certain task or role. That same skill will create a leader in one situation but not another. We also see that a person who acts on his or her own is not necessarily fit for the larger role. The leaders should act in concert and with the support of others.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

Remember: Come to the exhibit of my haftarah series and other art works at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. It continues until October 24, 2019. The exhibit is open during synagogue hours, 7 days a week . For more information e-mail me at layacrust@gmail.com

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Balak- Vision and Truth

Balak, Morning Dew art by Laya Crust

This parsha features a non-Jewish prophet and his conversation with a donkey. It contains lessons about seeing what is in front of you and the judicious use of speech.

The parsha is unusual in a number of ways. No Jews are featured in the reading. Gd and His angel speak to a non-Jewish prophet – a sorcerer. A donkey is the literal voice of reason. The anticipated curse becomes a blessing, and a form of the word רואה, “see”, is figured 19 times in the reading, creating an overlay of vision to the story.

The Moabite king, Balak, was afraid of the Israelites. He had heard about their previous victories against the Amorites and Ammonites. He either exaggerated or was under the impression that the Israelites were a huge nation and said, “[they] will lick up all that are around us as the ox that licks up the grass of the field.” ( Bamidbar 22:4). These are very negative words, chosen to create fear of the Jews among the Moabites. He called for the well known pagan prophet to curse the Israelites. Bilaam was willing to curse them until Gd warned him not to. Ultimately Bilaam blessed the Israelites. Included in the blessings were the following phrases, “It is a nation that will dwell alone and will not be reckoned among the nations” (23:9) and “those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed” (24:9) .

This story reminds me of politics and attitudes today. Balak was fearful of the Israelites. He did not look to see what instigated the battles that the Israelites had won. He did not care whether or not the Israelites were defending themselves against enemy forces. Instead he saw an imagined scenario where the Israelites were the aggressors. He aggrandized and vilified them using inflamed terminology. Having been offered money and power Bilaam was willing to curse the foreign nation.

Bilaam’s donkey is the one player in this story who spoke with reason. Her eyes were open. She saw the angel of Gd and knew to stop in her tracks. When Bilaam said he would have liked to kill her for stopping, she pointed out that Bilaam was willing to ignore a long history of good service without investigating the reasons behind the donkey’s action.

Balaam and the Donkey by Gustav Dore

The rhetoric is high these days. The Prime Minister of Luxembourg has publicly insulted Israel and the Israeli ambassador because of a negative remark by Israel’s Minister of Education. Rather than looking at Israel’s entrenched policies supporting LGBTQ rights, and praising Israel’s policies PM Bettel chose to do the popular thing, He shamefully boycotted a dinner honouring the Israeli ambassador.

At the same time the western media and vociferous public applaud anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric because it is presented under the guise of , “I can’t be prejudiced because I am an immigrant/ woman / person of colour/ part of a minority.” The media and talking rabble are so invested in protecting the rights and freedoms of the above they refuse to look at the basic objective facts of a situation. They drink up the incendiary language and half truths that are presented. It’s time those who do the popular reporting look at underlying facts. They should stop and listen to the voice of reason, even if it seems to be coming from a donkey. Israel and Jews are castigated, and true to Bilaam’s words seem to be “… a nation that will dwell alone and will not be reckoned among the nations” (23:9)

In the haftarah the prophet Micah says, “The remnant of jacob will be in the midst of many nations like dew from the Lord, like raindrops on the grass.” (Micah 5:). It’s true. Like the dew we are a small element in the vastness of the world and the nations. But like the dew and the raindrops we nurture, create, and make the world a better place. From ethics and morality to medical and technical innovation we bring goodness to the world.

in these painful times it is important to remember these words , also from Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justly and to love true loyalty, and to walk humbly with your Gd.” (Micah 6:8)

Iam saddened by the blindness of the media and the lack of respectful discourse in politics. But, let’s act justly and withtrue love and loyalty, and maybe we’ll tip the scales.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya Remember: Come to the exhibit of my haftarah series and other art works at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue, on until October 24, 2019. The exhibit is open during synagogue hours, 7 days a week . For more information e-mail me at layacrust@gmail.com

Compass Rose by Laya Crust. Haftarah for Lech Lecha

Remember: Come to the exhibit of my haftarah series and other art works at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. It continues until October 24, 2019. The exhibit is open during synagogue hours, 7 days a week . For more information e-mail me at layacrust@gmail.com

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