Tag Archives: Chagall

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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Ethics and Power

An explanation  of the artwork is at the bottom of the postI See an Almond Branch and a Cauldron by Laya Crust

The prophet Jeremiah was born in the small town of Anatot, outside of Jerusalem the same year King Josiah began to reign over the Southern Kingdom of Judea.  While Josiah was in power a scroll was found in the Temple containing laws that the Jews had forgotten. King Josiah began to introduce and enforce religious reforms based on the scroll. Jeremiah was about thirteen years old when this happened, and was appointed by God to be a prophet.

Jeremiah was not accepted or liked by his fellow Jews. He witnessed the rise and fall of other Jewish rulers and the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. He ended his life in exile in Egypt. Jeremiah’s words and trials are fitting for the Weeks of Rebuke before Tisha B’Av.

The Calling of Jeremiah by Marc ChagallImage result for jeremiah chagall

On the three Shabbatot preceding Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we read “Haftarot of Rebuke”. This is the first “Reading of Rebuke”, taken from Jeremiah ch 1-2:3.  Jeremiah, like Moses, was a reluctant prophet. He told God that he was young and couldn’t speak. God tried to give Jeremiah confidence, saying, “Be not afraid of them for I am with you to deliver you.” (1:8) That did not reassure Jeremiah, so God touched Jeremiah’s mouth saying He had put words into Jeremiah’s mouth. Moses, too, was afraid to speak and tried to reject God’s request. ( spoiler alert- it didn’t work.)

Both men had been chosen by God for a certain roles and had been chosen before they were aware. In this week’s haftarah God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you came out of the womb I sanctified you; I have appointed you a prophet unto the nations.” (1: 5)

Jeremiah and Moses were leaders who taught morality-  not politics and not war. They didn’t speak of who should be the next leader. Instead they communicated God’s wishes and preached ethical behaviour. Throughout our teachings we are told that it is not might that will win wars against our enemies. We are taught that it is faith in God and adherence to ethical and moral behaviour that will allow us to triumph over our adversaries.

Just as Jeremiah and Moses were chosen before they were born and given a role before they were born the same is true for each of us. We each have been blessed with specific talents, strengths, insights and abilities. It is up to each of us to recognize what is within ourselves and use those abilities to make the world a better place. We need to look at what we can do and use our tools to help make our society healthy, safe and accepting. It seems that respect and ethical behaviour are seen as weaknesses. Guns, bombs and threats are preferred methods of negotiation.The fights and wars we see around us today will never allow the people of the world to live in peace and security.

Let’s endeavour to make words, art, music, poetry and scientific improvement our preferred currency over hatred and insults.

Have a good Shabbat and let’s make the world happier!

Laya

The drawing for this haftarah was inspired by Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. I have shown a despondent Jeremiah looking out of his barren room  at the sacking of the city. It looks like any modern city  but represents Jerusalem. In the corner of the room are an almond branch and a steaming cauldron representing the enemy coming from the north. This illustration and others will be featured in my forthcoming book.

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Jacob and His Angels

Jacob and the Angel by Laya Crust

Of all the individuals in the Torah, Jacob had the strongest relationship with angels. He first encountered those ethereal beings when he left his home and traveled to Cana’an. When he fell asleep Jacob dreamt of a golden ladder reaching to heaven with angels traveling from him on the ground to the heavens above. Jacob had further encounters with angels- they bumped into him at an encampment. An angel wrestled with him when he was alone, on the night before he was to meet his brother Esau after decades of separation.

That fight with the angel was dramatic. It was a fight that lasted all night, injured Jacob permanently, and culminated with a new name for Jacob. He was given the name Israel and his descendants have been called “The Children of Israel” until to this day.

Jacob’s struggle at the river is probably the most represented by artists. Each presentation shows a slightly different perspective of the confrontation.

Inline images 1Those of you who have been to Toronto may be familiar with this sculpture by Nathan Rapoport. The Angel is swooping down from heaven with huge velocity, but Jacob stands his ground, holding his own. They are very evenly matched.

Inline images 2

 

This piece by Don Saco shows Jacob pulling the angel down. Jacob is struggling to keep the ethereal being earthbound, and winning.

Phillip Ratner created this piece which looks like two dancers- waltzing. They areImage result for jacob and the angel

evenly balanced and seemingly each  is trying to gauge the worth of the other.

Image result for jacob and the angelGustave Dore is known for his hundreds of engravings of biblical stories. This engraving shows Jacob literally on the brink of survival. He is struggling with all his might against the strong and relaxed angel who definitely seems to have the upper hand.

 

The painting below by Chagall shows Jacob on his knees, possibly at the point when he is given the blessing by the angel. In the text Jacob doesn’t seem to be asking or begging. Chagall has given the angel a stance of superiority whereas in the text Jacob is acting as if he is in control of the situation. Related imagePossibly the most intriguing piece I have seen is this sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein.

Image result for jacob and the angel  Image result for jacob and the angel

Both figures are large. Heavy. Monumental. The angel, with his fine, strong features and flowing hair seams to be squeezing the air out of Jacob. The 2500 kilo marbled brown stone is beautiful and adds a feeling of power to the composition. It appears to be a fight almost to the death- a struggle between two enormously strong equals.

There are questions about this struggle with the angel at the Jabok River. Was the angel sent by God to give Jacob a blessing but Jacob was too suspicious so that’s why the fight ensued? Was it actually a dream? Was it Jacob’s conscience and he was fighting himself?

Every part of Jacob’s story is a struggle. He seems to have been a man who wanted a quiet life but was thrown into strife every step of the way. It’s true that he did traded his stew for Esau’s birthright. But he had to be convinced by his mother to deceive his father. He was sent away to find a wife; essentially exiled. He had to find a profession, learn it, and work for a begrudging and selfish father-in-law. Rather than stay near his parents’ successful herd and home he left to support two wives, two concubines, and a large family. When he achieved financial success God told home to return to Cana’an.

Jacob needed the encouragement of God and God’s angels. Each step of the way they were there to accompany him- in essence hold the door open. The struggle at the Jabok River was a struggle within Jacob, looking at his history with his brother and fearing to face the consequences. It was the opportunity for Jacob to reflect on his years in exile with the difficulties between his two wives. It was the point in time where he faced his challenges and accepted with full heart his position as patriarch- leader of a future nation.

We all have angels and we all have struggles. Hopefully we can recognize and remember the angels in our lives and access them with growing strength and wisdom.

With prayers for peace and wisdom, have a Shabbat Shalom.

Laya

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