Tag Archives: dvar Torah

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
Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Etrog- NeHedar! (Splendid!)

Image result for lulav and etrog
photo by Fort Tryon Jewish Center

It is the holiday of Sukkot, a beautiful holiday when we eat in a sukkah (a small structure with tree boughs in place of a roof) and make blessings over the lulav and etrog. It says in the Torah, “And you will take on the first day fruit of splendid trees, (עץ פרי הדר), branches of date palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook…” The Rabbis put the elements together to create the lulav and etrog as we know it. A palm branch is gathered into a bundle with myrtle and willow branches. And of course the עץ פרי הדר- the splendid fruit- is the etrog or citron.

p1150696

art by Laya Crust

The question is, how was the etrog chosen? It is not native to Israel and it’s inedible. Where did it originate, how did it arrive in Israel, and why was it chosen to be used as the splendid and magnificent fruit?

It seems to be widely agreed that the etrog didn’t reach Israel until the period of the Second Temple. It was native to Persia- archeologists have found evidence of it dating back over 4,000 years.  There are references to the etrog in Indian literature dating to 800 BCE. It was taken to Greece by traders. It seems it made its way to Israel after the campaigns of Alexander the Great.  It was so unusual, beautiful and aromatic it isn’t surprising that it was chosen to be the beautiful fruit to accompany the lulav.

Image result for bar kokhba coins

 

Bar Kochba coins

 

Image result for etrog mosaic

 

Mosaic from Tiberian Synagogue

 

 

Those who have tried to eat an etrog or make etrog jam know that it is beautiful and smells heavenly, but the fruit is bitter and needs a lot of help to become edible. I wondered how it was used in Indian and Persian cooking. It seems that it is used mostly for medicinal purposes- in teas, and mixed with oils to use as ointments. The fruit is never eaten on its own since it’s so bitter. But it is used for tea infusions, made with sugar for etrog jam or marmalade, the zest is used in rice and as a colourful accent, and some people candy it then dip it ion chocolate…that sounds like fun!

lulav-etrog

photo by Fort Tryon Jewish Center

I hope you enjoyed this little peek into the history of the beautiful, perfumed etrog. Enjoy your Sukkot, and maybe try something new with your etrog- but use an organically grown one !

Chag Sameach, Laya

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Days of Awe 5777

ShabbatShuva sigart by laya Crust

Haftarah:   Hosea 14:2-10,   Micah 7:18-20,   Joel 2:15-27

This year I was at my wonderful little shul where we have the most beautiful tefillot (prayers) imaginable. Every year we are treated to the niggunim  (tunes) and heartfelt prayers that come from the souls of two wonderful brothers. Aaron and Jeremy have been leading us in prayers and shofar blowing for many years.

I based my painting at the top of the page on a piece by the American Artist Ben Shahn. His life was dedicated to human rights and social action, and he expressed that through his prolific art works. His paintings, graphic art, photographs and essays are devoted to the “human condition”.  The strength of human beings to survive difficulty and stand tall in the face of  adversity and unfairness runs through his works. I love the music and the movement he brings to his compositions.

Image result for ben shahn paintingsImage result for ben shahn poster

Shahn’s work communicates the struggle of the human spirit to succeed, not just to survive. He paints individuals and groups overcoming the destruction of their homes and their belongings…but continuing in spite of it. He represents those who are trodden upon but rise up in spite of it. He reminds us that we don’t live in a bubble. We must care for ourselves and those around us. Those are among the meditations of Rosh HaShana.

We are reborn each day. Each day we have the opportunity to make new choices and make them good choices. Each day we can forgive ourselves for what we didn’t do yesterday, or what we wish we had done differently. We can begin anew and strive to have a fulfilling day.

I take it back to the painting at the beginning of this post. The sound of the shofar is the sound of remembrance. It is the sound of Gd’s “still, small voice” that resides inside us. It is the sound of faith and of fighting for what is right. We all- regardless of race or colour- can hear the still, small voice, and carry it with us.

 Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are “The Days of Awe”.  They are a gift that we as Jews were given in order  to reflect on our values and our goals.

Enjoy this time and have a wonderful Shabbat.

with blessings for a good year of peace, joy and health,

Laya

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Gratitude and Giving

1f82m[1]art by Laya Crust

Ki Teitze: Devarim (Deuteronomy) 21: 10 – 25: 19

Haftarah- Isaiah 54: 1-10

Today, September 14, is my sister’s birthday. She decided that this year she would do at least one nice thing each day for two months. So, we made a “flutter book” with 60 pages and each day she wrote down that day’s good deed.

p1150650

Her activities ranged from throwing away trash on the street to delivering food to the elderly through “Meals on Wheels”. Giving and gratitude are two sides of the same coin. My sister gave time and energy to others, and it made her feel good. One gives when one feels s/he has enough and can share. It doesn’t need to be something that costs money.  It can be a smile, a homemade item or hands-on help. If we are grateful for what we have we can share our gratitude with others.

We can read about respect and generosity in this week’s parsha, Ki Teitze.

The parsha addresses an extensive list of behaviours. The range of laws and guidelines is impressive. They deal with family and seemingly personal issues – the unloved wife, the rebellious child, a lost object… and treat those issues with the same gravity as crimes such as murder. The poor and weak members of society are also noticed in this parsha. I will point out a few of the situations that are discussed.

The treatment of one’s servants: one must pay one’s servant at the end of the day, “neither shall the sun go down upon it for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it.” (Deut. 24:15)  The lesson- pay your employees on time because they are depending on the money that is owed to him/her.  Safety standards: Houses in biblical times were built with flat roofs so people could sleep on the roofs. The Torah states that one must build a parapet (wall) around the roof so that no one will be in danger of falling of the roof while s/he is asleep. (Deut. 22:8)  Alternative to Food Banks: During the harvest the farmer must leave some of the produce for the “stranger, the fatherless and the widow”- i.e. for those in need. It directs the farmer to leave any forgotten sheaves in the fields, not to go back and get them. It describes beating the olive trees only once so that there will be olives left in the boughs. It says not to glean grapes  a second time after the first grapes have  been gathered. (Deut. 24: 19- 21)

p1150669

This is an interesting parsha, one that should be read carefully in order to understand the details of how to treat those around you whether they are relatives, employees or strangers. The beautiful element of the message is that we always have something we can give or share with others. If we own a field we can share some of the produce. If we own something small we can lend it- or give it. At the least we can show and share respect for others.

Gratitude leads to generosity, and generosity leads to joy. Go ahead- have a good time and share your goodness with others.

Yours, with an accordion fold book, Laya

P.S. Happy Birthday, Libby Crust and Hani Keene-Lightstone!

7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Balak, Bilaam and a Donkey

Balakart by Laya Crust

Balak:    Numbers 22:2–25:9

Haftarah:   Micah 5:6 – 6:8

This week’s Torah reading is about a Moabite king, Balak, who calls Bilaam the seer to curse the children of Israel. The parsha focuses on a very odd story, and there are a number of elements that are worth noting:

1) First of all no Israelites, no Jews, appear in the narrative. It is told from the perspective of a Moabite leader and his most respected prophet.

2) Gd, Who generally does not talk directly to individuals, carries on a conversation with Bilaam, the non-Israelite prophet.

3) There is a talking donkey (actually, a female ass) who figures pretty prominently in the narrative.

4) We are presented with the Israelite’s and Gd’s reputation among the other nations.

The parsha begins with Balak, the Moabite king, being frightened by the Israelite victory against the Amorites. He sends a message to Bilaam, a respected and successful prophet saying, “Behold , there is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me.” (Numbers 22: v. 5)  As far as we know Balak had never previously confronted the Israelites. However their progress and strength  had become legendary and their numbers were exaggerated.- “they cover the face of the earth.”

Through the course of this unusual story Bilaam was commanded a number of times to curse the Israelites but he refused. Once Bilaam even said ,”If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my Gd…” (ch 22: 18). Bilaam finally did get up and accompany the king’s men against the previous directions from Gd.

engraving by Gustave Dore

You may be familiar with the next part of the story . An angel stood in Bilaam’s path holding a sword. The she-ass saw the angel but Bilaam didn’t. When the she-ass repeatedly stopped Bilaam lifted his whip and beat her, to force her to continue. At that point the animal turned around and said, “Am I not your ass, upon whom you  have ridden all your life to this day?…” The angel  revealed himself and added,”…the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times; unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I would have slain thee and saved her alive.” (ch 22: 33)

This is an odd story on many levels and there are different lessons to be learned depending on which perspective you choose.

Bilaam was successful and highly regarded due to his communication with the Gd of the Israelites, the one Gd. This reminds us that Gd created all people and all people must be regarded fairly and respected for who they are, not where they were born or who their parents are. By the same token we are reminded that animals are also to be treated with respect. Animals are also within Gd’s purview and creation. They too are to be treated with decency and not abused. So- this is a parsha about respect.

We see from the beginning of the parsha that the actions of a nation and an individual make an impression. Although bnei Yisrael was a tiny, tiny nation it had overcome impossible difficulties and travelled a relatively large area of land after escaping from Egypt. Their tenacity and success had become legendary , to the point that the King of Moab thought the Israelites were a HUGE nation covering the earth. The same phenomenon  can be seen today. Although Jews number about 0.2% of the world’s population we are recognized, noticed, and thought to be a much much higher percent of the world’s population. Although Israel is one of the world’s smallest countries it is seen as a gigantic world power- and of course vilified for its negatively perceived influence rather than lauded for its democracy and progress.

The lesson for this week can be summed up by a quotation from the haftarah. “…and what does the Lord require of you; Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your Gd.”  Micah ch 6: v8

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Rahav- correcting the past

Shelach LechaArt by Laya Crust

parsha- Shelach Lecha    Numbers 13:1- 15- 41

haftarah- Joshua 2: 1- 24

The parsha of Shelach Lecha tells the story of twelve leaders who were appointed to spy on the land of Canaan. When they returned to the Israelites’ camp they carried fantastic fruit and tales of fantastically dangerous enemies.

The haftarah for Shelach Lecha took place 40 years after the above mentioned story.  Joshua, Moshe’s successor sent two spies (as opposed to the twelve men) into Jericho to assess the situation. The two men went straight to an inn at the edge of the city walls owned by a woman named Rahav.  It was a brilliant move.  The spies would be able to talk to citizens and travelers at the inn to ascertain the mood of the community.

It is common for women to be unidentified in Tanach text. If you remember the story of Samson’s birth, Samson’s mother was never identified. Manoah his father, on the other hand, was named 16 times. Maybe Rahav, the innkeeper, was named because she was a heroine. She put herself at risk to help the two spies escape even though she knew that their purpose was to usher an attack on Jericho. The information she shared with them was key to their confidence in conquering the land. She said, “We have heard how the Lord dried up the waters of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Mitzrayim, and what you did to the two Kings of the Emori…as soon as we heard these things our hearts melted, neither did there remain any more courage in any man because of you…”

Let’s look back at the parsha. After the twelve men returned from their mission with messages of doom and gloom the people began to rebel against God. God responded in anger, threatening to destroy them all. Moshe stopped God’s rage by telling Him, “if you kill all these people as one person then the nations that have heard your fame will say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he promised them and so He has killed them in the wilderness.” We may have thought this was Moshe speaking in hyperbole but Rahav’s words (“We have heard how the Lord”, etc….)  proved that Moshe had been correct. God’s reputation and His protection of the Israelites were recognized by the neighbouring nations.

In the parsha, we read Moshe’s tribute to God’s glory: – “haShem erech epayim v’rav chesed noseh avon vaPesha  v’nakeh”. ” The Lord is slow to anger, great in love, forgiving iniquity and transgression.”  This was mirrored by Rahav’s statement that “…the Lord your God. He is God in Heaven above and on the earth beneath…” Those words were a declaration of faith of God’s greatness.

We see by these parallels that the haftarah is a mirror to the events in parshat Shelach Lecha. It may also be a “tikkun” or mending of those events. The slave mentality had to be erased from the nation before it could take the initiative to have faith in God’s promise and fight the inhabitants of Canaan. When that slave mentality was erased Joshua could investigate the land wisely. The unnamed spies could gather the pertinent information without their egos getting in the way. Rahav could show the spies their route- or “rehov”- while acknowledging the breadth- “rahav”- of God’s greatness, and help b’nei Yisrael in its battle.

The two stories read together bring another dimension to consider when we read our history. According to Midrash, Rahav converted to Judaism and married Joshua. One Midrash states that Jeremiah and 7 other prophets descended from her. Just as with Tamar and Ruth, Rahav’s faith and righteousness created a legacy for the future of the Jewish people.

I hope you enjoyed this perspective on the lessons from this week’s parsha and haftarah.

May we see peace in the Israel and the rest of the world. May shalom encompass us all.

Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized