Tag Archives: dvar Torah

Korach and a Change in Leadership


KorachKorach   art by Laya Crust

I Samuel 11:14- 12:22

Samuel (prophet and judge) 1070 – 970 B.C.E

This Torah reading tells how Korach, a Levi, led a group of people and confronted Moses. They wanted to know why Moses and Aaron were so special and they wanted a change in leadership. The accompanying haftarah is also about a call for change in leadership.

Samuel was prophet and judge and as things turned out he was to be the last of the judges of Israel. The Israelites asked for a King so that they would be like the neighbouring nations. In this haftarah Samuel reluctantly anointed Saul as the first King of Israel. He reminded the people of all that God had done for them, and how he himself had been an honest and caring prophet and leader. He told the children of Israel that if they did not listen to God and obey His commandments they would be punished.

The image I painted shows Samuel advising Saul.  My painting is based on a woodcut in a book from Southern Germany, 1450 called “Meshal ha-Kadmoni” (The Ancient Proverb) written by  Isaac ben Solomon ibn Abi Sahulah.  He was born in 1244 and lived in Guadalajara, in Castile. Isaac ben Solomon was worried about the influence of secular writings on his fellow Jews.  He noted that Jews were reading and being influenced by non-Jewish books. For example The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor  and Kalila and Dimna- fables from India- were translated into Hebrew and read extensively by Jews in the Middle Ages. Below are two illustrations from an edition of Kalila and Dimna dated 1210 CE.

               

To counter the effects of these non-Jewish texts Isaac wrote his own book of  stories, poems, fables and parables. The book was illustrated with miniatures and wood cuts. The “Meshal ha-Kadmoni” was so popular it was reprinted six times in Hebrew and nine times in Yiddish! It was a popular book, but of course it didn’t stop Jews from reading and loving secular literature.

Samuel was concerned that the people were going to turn away from God; that they would subconsciously conclude that because they had anointed a King as leader of their country they could ignore God’s commandments. Samuel wanted to remind the people that their fate would always be in God’s power. It was the wheat harvest season. After Samuel was finished speaking he called to God, asking for thunder and rain When the thunderstorm came the show of force the frightened Israelites. They realized, “…we have added to all our sins to request a King for ourselves…” (Ch 12 v.19).  Although they admitted their error the statement did not prevent the Israelites from sinning against God as they continued their lives.

People are always looking for a change in power. When the leader is a good leader it is the forces of extremism or selfishness that want to change the status quo. When someone with poor vision or evil intentions is at the helm those with good leadership abilities must try to change the direction of politics. It is important element to have the wisdom to recognize good leadership and bad leadership, and to further the goodness.  Let’s all hope for good directions in this crazy world of crazy leadership that just seems to get crazier.

Have a good Shabbat,

Laya

 

 

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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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VaYikra: Willows and Water

Vayikra sig“Willows and Water” by Laya Crust

Vayikra : Haftarah- Isaiah 43:21 -44:23

This week we read the first parsha in the Book VaYikra- the Book of Leviticus. VaYikra means “and He called”. The English name, Leviticus, is a Latin word meaning “from the Levites”. The theme of Leviticus is one of holiness, and holiness is described in different forms throughout the book.   

The haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah lived and prophesied in the Southern Kingdom of Judah from around 740 – 681 BCE.  At the beginning of his life both kingdoms were successful and prosperous. During his lifetime the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed.  The Southern Kingdom of Judah barely survived a takeover by Assyria.

At the time of this haftarah the Jews were in exile. They were worn down, defeated, and turned from God to worship idols. Isaiah told them that God had noticed the abandoned the altars and sacrifices. Even though they were offering sacrifices to man-made gods. God told the Israelites He would not abandon them.  He said, “Even as I pour water on thirsty soil and rain upon dry ground, So I will pour My spirit on your offspring”.

I wanted to show that although the Jews had forgotten God, He is waiting for them to return and resume their observance of God.  In the text God said, “And they shall sprout like grass, Like willows by watercourses…”  In my haftarah painting at the top of the page there is a willow tree by a river. Although there are sheep grazing in the background, abandoned altars overgrown with grass are in the foreground. God waits until the Jews return and and then He will bless them and their children.

On a historical note, many scholars think the Book of Isaiah was written by more than one person. Dating back to the 12th Century Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra was convinced that chapters 40 – 66 were written by one or more prophets who lived in exile in Babylon, after the destruction of the the Southern Kingdom. That would have been about 150 years after Isaiah died.  This second section is often called “Deutero Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah”.

 

I hope you enjoyed the artwork and the post.  Many people have asked when I am going to turn my haftarah paintings into a book. I have decided to take the plunge and I’m working on one right now. I’ll keep you posted on how things progress.

Shabbat Shalom, Happy new month of Nissan, and all the best,

Laya

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Isaac, Water, and Inheritance

Isaac Blessing His Sons by Laya Crust

The Torah reading of Toledot is about Isaac’s family- its travels and its conflicts. The most known portion concerns Esau and Jacob. From the beginning – even before birth – Jacob tries to take the place of Esau. Although they are twins Esau entered the world first, expecting the honours and responsibilities awarded the oldest son. This Torah portion describes the competition between the two brothers and concludes with Jacob leaving his home in order to avoid Esau’s wrath.

Nestled in the portion is an account of Isaac and his family traveling to Gerar to escape famine.  While there God tells Isaac not to leave the land of Canaan for Egypt , but to stay in Gerar. Isaac prospers in Gerar. “Isaac sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. The Lord blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer util he was very wealthy;  he acquired flocks and herds and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth.. And Avimelech [the king of Gerar] said to Isaac, “Go away from us as you have become far too big for us”.  (Genesis 25:  12-16)

It becomes a struggle over water. He moves his entourage to another area and reclaims wells which Abraham had dug. As Isaac and his household discover new water sources and dig new wells the herdsmen of Gerar argue with them, claiming the water as their own.

Landscape after Anna Ticho by Laya Crust

The Philistines had, the Torah states, covered up Abraham’s wells. The land was tough and barren. Water was the most important commodity. Without water one cannot survive in the desert, cannot grow crops, cannot sustain herds. By filling up Abraham’s wells and arguing about the newly dug wells the Philistines were trying to chase Isaac away and destroy the possibility of cooperation between the two groups.

The story has been repeated over and over throughout history and is being played out today. The Jews have been expelled from many countries. Their crime? Being too successful therefore creating envy in the general population. We are seeing an upsurge in Antisemitism and anti-Zionism today. As for the water issue- our wells are still being claimed by neighbouring states and peoples. surrounding Israel.

Israel provides water to Jordan and to the Palestinian Authority. As a matter of fact it has increased the amount of water it sends to Jordan due to the Syrian refugee crisis.  But- Israel is often accused of not sharing enough. Israel is the world leader in water reclamation and water management, having developed drip irrigation and desalinization methods. One hundred and fifty countries are being helped by Israeli water technology innovations. But, as in the text,  Israel has “become far too big…”

Isaac stayed in Canaan- now known as Israel, believing in God’s promise to him. “…stay in the land that I point out to you. Reside in this land and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I made to your father Abraham…” (v 2-4)

Isaac is often thought of as the Patriarch who stays in the tent and doesn’t move. Genesis, chapter 26 presents a different side of Isaac. He is shown as a leader of his family, a negotiator, a man who provided for his household and managed his wealth. He moved within Canaan to find water and land for his family, carrying on the leadership of a new and future nation. As Nehama Leibowitz said,  let us “…appreciate the greatness of the Patriarchs who combined their dissemination of the true faith with the practical reclamation of the soil by digging wells and watering the ground.” (Studies in Bereshit,  Alpha Press, Jerusalem, 1981, page 260)

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

 

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Yom Kippur and the Fast

art by Laya Crust

As we approach Yom Kippur- for many of us the most serious day of the year- we prepare for a day of fasting, prayer, and meditation. I expect that the significance of Yom Kippur differs for many of us. Is it a cleansing of the mind or the soul? Is it a day to take stock? Even if we can define what we think it is, can we achieve what we have defined?

The haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah’s message isn’t focused on the self. Rather it is focused on social justice. He says, “The fast you perform today will not make your voice heard on high.” (58:4) …”Loosen the bindings of evil, … shatter every yoke of slavery. Break your bread for the starving and bring the dispossessed home. When you see a person naked, clothe him; do not ignore your kin. And then your light will break out like the sunrise…”(58: 6,7)

This central message is that in and of itself the fast of Yom Kippur does not get God’s attention. Filling the world with justice and positive actions is the true goal of healing oneself and one’s relationship with the Creator. We can pray, we can fast, we can cry over our failings. If we don’t work to improve our actions and act in ways to improve the world round us, the tears and lack of food and water on the Day of Atonement are meaningless.

art by Laya Crust

Isaiah continues, saying, “…if you give of your soul to the starving, and answer the hunger of your souls oppressed- then your light will shine out in darkness, and your night will shine like noontide.”

There are many ways- large and small- to help those around us. Every small positive action betters the world around us and betters our selves.

Have a meaningful Yom Kippur, and let’s make the world better and brighter.

Shana Tova- May you be blessed and inscribed for a good and healthy year.

Laya

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New Year Thoughts

art by Laya Crust, inspired by Ben Shahn

Rosh HaShana is a day of deep prayer and meditation- as well as an opportunity to connect with family and friends. Put another way, the time of prayer allows us to connect with ourselves and then connect with others. The Shabbat between  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva- a Sabbath of return.

The Haftarah for Shabbat Shuva begins, “Return o Israel unto the Lord your God…”  Within the haftarah we are told to blow the shofar, and gather together.

I’ve been thinking about the act of personal prayer and our place in society and the world. Much of the New Year and Day of Atonement is spent  in personal prayer. What do we get out of personal prayer? What are the benefits?

On the first day of Rosh HaShana we read the story of Hanna, a childless woman who goes to the Temple and prays silently, moving her lips, but making no sound.

art by Laya Crust

Hanna was the first person in Jewish text who prayed silently. She expressed her thoughts to God, conversing with God and stating her needs and desires. Hanna must have been a person who knew herself well. She did something unconventional and clarified her personal path to allow herself to go forward.

We live during a time that is full of natural disasters, spiritual disasters, leadership disasters and international tragedy. It’s possible that the world has ever been thus, but with the existence of internet, twitter, skype, cell phones, and immediate news we are aware of the international calamities immediately. The fascism and racism exposed in Charlottesville and the genocide in Myanmar are but two of the horrific “human rights abuses” (understatement if there ever was one)currently taking place in the world. The global peace watchdog- the UN is a disaster. The forest fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and droughts are all natural disasters that have destroyed lives and communities around the world- all disasters we have witnessed in the last couple of months.  It is very difficult for some of us to know what to do, how to respond to these world crises both man made and natural.

It makes me think of another narrative in the bible.

Elijah was a prophet who was being hunted down by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Although God told him to face his accusers Elijah decided to hide in a cave on Mount Horev in order to avoid his dangerous and overwhelming realities. God finally tells Elijah to step out of the cave. First a huge, violent wind comes by, breaking the mountains and rocks. Then after the wind there was an earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire. God was not in any of those forces. After the fire there was a still, small voice, and God was in that voice. At that point Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle , stood in the entrance of the cave , and “behold, there came a voice to him.” (Kings I 19: 13) The voice was the voice of God.

This story encompasses my thoughts about prayer and personal prayer.

Each of us is a compilation of experiences. Within our psyche we carry the lessons we have learned from parents, grandparents, teachers, wise individuals, illnesses and events we have experienced. We carry ethical truths based on what we have learned. Those ethical truths are God’s voice. It is the still small voice that speaks to us and can help us unravel difficulties that we face in a day or in our lives.

It is a thought I will take with me. As I enter synagogue to pray or meditate, like Hanna I will focus on my own prayers rather than pose for others. As the shofar is blown I will hear that pure, unusual call and know it is calling all Jews from every corner  of the world. When I am distressed by the earthquakes and fires and hurricanes I will listen to the still small voice and work out how I am able to best help and contribute to making the world a better place.

May you have a meaningful Rosh HaShana, May your year be one of health, peace, tranquility, and goodness throughout the world.

Shana Tova,  Laya

 

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