Tag Archives: God

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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Isaac’s Role

King David Departing,   art by Laya Crust

The haftarah of “Chayei Sarah” (The Life of Sarah) recounts political discussions at the dying King David’s bedside. In the Torah reading Sarah and Abraham both die. Isaac marries Rebecca and he carries on from Abraham in the role of patriarch.

Isaac was not an active figure. He was not a traveler and fighter like his father Abraham, or a strategist and negotiator like his son Jacob. He seems to have been a quiet man who stayed at home and was content with the status quo. He didn’t even choose his own wife. Abraham’s servant found a suitable wife for Isaac. When the servant returned with Rebecca she saw him “meditating” in the fields.

Image result for chagall rebecca aND isaacRebecca and Isaac, Marc Chagall

… “and Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the evening time…” (Genesis 24: 63). It seems fitting that Isaac, a quiet man, would go out into the fields to contemplate at dusk, when there is a solitude and calm in the air.

We can look at each of the patriarchs and relate them to the different times of day. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that that Rabbi Jacobovits “used to point out that the position of the sun at the various stages of the day mirrored that of the patriarchs themselves.”  Lord Jacobovits  likened Abraham to the sun which rose in the east, just as Abraham started his life in the east and traveled west to Canaan. Isaac was like the sun in the afternoon which is centered in the sky. He remained in Canaan, not straying from that chosen land. Just as the sun sets in the west, Jacob ended his life away from Canaan, in the land of Egypt.

The personalities and behaviours of the patriarchs also reflect the patterns of the day. Abraham rose early in the morning to do God’s bidding. Just as the sun ignites action, Abraham was a  man of action- not needing others to prod him along. The sun heralds a new day and Abraham founded a new nation.

Jacob is the night. He had the vision of angels climbing a ladder at night. God spoke to him at night. He fought with the angel at the Jabok River throughout the night. Jacob had many experiences with angels. They were mysterious and miraculous, and we think of the night as mysterious.

    Image result for abraham and isaac rembrandt 1634Abraham and Isaac,   Rembrandt, 1645

Isaac was the path between Abraham- man of action and obedience to God,  and Jacob- man of manipulation and negotiation.  Isaac obeyed his father and God at the akeida, when Abraham almost sacrificed him on Mount Moriah. Isaac accepted the role of patriarch, never questioning it. He remained in Cannan, managed the flocks, married whom he was told to marry, and raised his sons. He was a thinker, renouncing Abraham’s aggressive movement and Jacob’s passionate reactivity. If Abraham was morning and Jacob was night, then Isaac was the day, moving through the sky connecting morning to night.

If we relate the patriarchs to prayer Abraham is shacharit (morning prayer) Isaac is mincha (afternoon prayer) and Jacob is ma’ariv (evening payer).

Isaac’s personality is not described in the Bible. We read about Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob and each of Jacob’s wives, but Isaac is passive. He was a quiet leader who held it all together. He was a bridge between those who waged war, who took over land, and who grabbed what they felt they deserved. He was a figure of calm and permanence who meditated and lived simply.

We need all kinds of personalities to balance the world and Isaac’s quietude is a trait to integrate in our commercial, materialistic, and goal oriented world.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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Abraham’s Test?

Bird’s Head Haggadah,  1290, Southern Germany

This week’s parsha is “VaYeira”. The parsha is comprised of beautiful narratives. It includes the story of the 3 angels who visit Abraham and Sarah, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorra, the birth of Isaac, and the binding of Isaac on the sacrificial altar.

We are told that God tested Abraham 10 times. The final trial was Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac.

“Take now your son, your favourite son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will point out to you.” (Genesis 22: 2)

Abraham followed God’s words. This narrative and its conclusion has disturbed, inspired, or puzzled Jews since it was first read in the Torah. How, we ask, can a father be told to slay his son on an altar? And, even more so, how can a loving father, the  patriarch of the  Jews, have agreed to this murderous sacrifice?

File:The sacrifice of Isaac.jpg

 Beit Alpha Synagogue Mosaic 5th C. CE

We do not see Abraham as a meek character. God chose him to be a leader because he wasn’t afraid to strike out on his own or to defy adversity. We saw Abraham argue and then bargain with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, so why didn’t he challenge God this time? He and Sarah discussed strategy for entering the land of a foreign king and talked about not having had children, so why didn’t Abraham discuss this with Sarah, his life partner? He could have refused God and defended his position or he could have tried to run away like Jonah did, too afraid to stand up to God and unwilling to slay his son. But when it came to the situation of “akeidat Yitzchak” (the binding of Isaac) Abraham chose to quietly obey.

Image result for sacrifice of IsaacRembrandt, 1636

We are told that Abraham passed God’s test. But what was God’s test? Is it that if we do whatever God tells us to do without question, it will all work out? I have a different theory. I think the test was to see whether or not Abraham would be scared off by God’s instructions.

Would Abraham continue to engage with God, even when given such an unbelievable task? Abraham could have run away from God and tried to hide as the prophet Jonah did, saying, “No more. I will no longer follow you.”  It could be that any reaction that acknowledged God – whether it was arguing, bargaining, discussing or  accepting would have been good enough to pass the test of God’s search for the patriarch of a new nation who would not run away from adversity and confrontation. Rather than enter discussions, Abraham decided to follow with blind faith.

Image result for rembrandt Abraham and IsaacAbraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1645

Abraham proved his faith and passed the test but it was at a very high cost. It ends with Isaac alive but relationships are  broken. Abraham and Isaac never spoke to each other again. Abraham and Sarah never saw each other again. She died, and midrash (apocryphal story) relates that she died when she heard of Abraham’s intention to sacrifice their son.  Abraham and God never spoke again either.

The story is tragic. The lack of communication we saw here is a pattern that is repeated throughout the book of Genesis. Other than the lesson of faith in God we can take away another lesson- the importance of communication and honesty within a family facing all sorts of challenges.

As always there is much to think about and learn through our Torah and our sages.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

 

 

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1f82m[1]art by Laya Crust

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

Haftarah- Isaiah 54: 1-10

This week’s Torah reading is dense with laws- an amazingly long list of 74 directives. The laws regard daily behaviour of individuals within a community rather than being laws pertaining to a person’s relationship with God. We don’t read about sacrifices or Temple service. The laws look at relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, neighbours, the underprivileged, trees and crops, and even between humans and animals. This is the parsha that includes the unexpected  decree that before taking eggs out of a nest one must shoo away the mother bird- supposedly to save the mother bird the anguish of seeing its  (future) young being abducted.

P1130683art by Laya Crust

The range of laws and guidelines is impressive. They look at 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. The treatment of one’s servants is addressed.  All those must be cared for and treated with dignity.

Laws concerning women are quite prominent here. Yibbum or levirate marriage, unloved wives, questioned virginity, and the treatment of women who have been captured in war are all considered in this parsha.  To our modern eyes the reading is often disturbing, but we have to remember what was going on in biblical times.

P1130686art by Laya Crust

Women had no status and no rights. They left their  home and family to lead a probably cloistered life with their husband’s family. Abuse and murder of women was ignored because it was seen as being under the jurisdiction and purview of the husband or father.Rabbi Sacks quotes Nahum Sarna, “Exploring Exodus”, p. 176, who writes:

For example, in the Middle Assyrian Laws, the rape of unbetrothed virgin who lives in her father’s house is punished by the ravishing of the rapist’s wife, who also remains thereafter with the father of the victim. Hammurabi decrees that if a man struck a pregnant woman, thereby causing her to miscarry and die, it is the assailant’s daughter who is put to death.

The quotation continues indicating that the children of a criminal were often expected to suffer the penalty of their father’s crimes.  If a builder erected a house which collapsed, killing the owner’s son, then the builder’s son, not the builder, is put to death.   Judaism recognized these injustices and established laws to erase the inequality and unfairness. Children were not required to pay for their father’s crimes.

In fact, Cities of Refuge were established so that a person who killed another by mistake would be safe from the revenge.

Many of the laws listed in Ki Teitzei  were ground breaking. An individual was judged for his own crimes. The community was given guidelines for fairness and community responsibility. For the first time a woman’s status and treatment were deemed important enough to discuss. Women were recognized as deserving respect and protection. Children were treated as people, not commodities. And even the land was to be respected.

Judaism is a model for a just and generous society.   “And thou shalt remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt: therefore I command you to do this thing.” Deuteronomy 24: 22).  That one phrase communicates humility and the pursuit of integrity and justice.

Have a meaningful Shabbat,

Laya

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Justice, Justice

צדק צדק תרדף   

SofetimFrankfurt Mishneh Torah, Northern Itlay, dated to 1457.  Illuminated by the Master of the Barbo Missal

Justice, Justice, you will pursue. These are among the first words in this week’s Torah portion. The words echo in my ears, louder and louder.

We live in a western democracy. I live in Canada which has a democratically elected government. The United States to the south also has a democratically elected government. Here in Canada we are tolerant- at least we think we are. We strive to be more tolerant to others than ever before. Gay marriage has been legalized. Sex change operations are accepted. All modes of dress- from halter tops and shorts to burkas are seen on the streets. Acceptance and school accommodations for learning disabilities, autism, hyperactivity, physical disabilities and attention deficits are the norm not the exception. Employers cannot discriminate according to gender, race or religion. It all sounds good and right.

BUT- strangely enough we seem to have lost our way. In the environment of free speech and inclusion, free speech and inclusion are disappearing. And it seems that not enough people, including those espousing human rights on University campuses, are noticing.

Those in favour of abortion, or in favour of Israel are shut down and excluded from public discourse. Those who are concerned about extreme Islam and doubt the direction of “Islamophobia” are called bigots and anti- Muslim. Those who want to use normative pronouns are pilloried and fired. This is not free speech. It is censored speech. Free speech is respectful speaking and listening without descending to hatred and threats. Free speech has too often morphed into aggressive speech and action. Unfortunately violent and hateful rallies are happening here, in Canada, and on university campuses. There is a problem with how the population defines free speech and democracy.

It’s true- Black Lives Matter. However, ALL Lives Matter.  White Lives, Men’s Lives, Women’s Lives, and Children’s Lives. Brown Lives, Indigenous Lives,  Jewish Lives, Christian Lives, Muslim Lives, Somali Lives, Yazidi Lives ……..

Two weeks ago there was a demonstration in Halifax calling for the removal of a monument honouring Edward Cornwallis. The Mik’maq people are among those calling for the removal of the statue. Although the Mi’kmaq are marginalized indigenous people who have lost land and rights in Canada, their leaders ensured that the rally was peaceful. They understand that the “fight ” for human rights and recognition does not have to be violent.

Currently too many activists from the far left and the far right resort to violence, hate messages and even murder. It’s frightening to read about the attacks in Barcelona, Spain; Turku, Finland; Halamish, Israel;   Charlottesville, USA; London, England; etc. etc. The behaviour of the Mi’kmaq is a model for discussion, understanding, and behaviour.

The balance of respect and dignity is part of justice. So when we read “Justice, Justice, you will pursue” let’s endeavour to bring that practice into our lives, our world,and the world around us.

With prayers for peace, acceptance and understanding,

Shabbat Shalom,  Laya

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Pomegranates and Bells

Emor sigart by Laya Crust

Torah reading: Emor    (Exodus: 23:1 – 24: 23)

Haftarah: Ezekiel 44: 15-31

The painting for this reading shows the Kohen Gadol in his robes, two ancient artifacts from Temple times, and text from the haftarah describing the clothing of the kohanim. The full description of the priestly clothing can be found in the Book of Exodus,  ch. 28: 2- 38. The detailed description is prefaced with the remark, “And you shall speak to the wise-hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to sanctify him…”  (I always love the way HaShem has imbued artists and crafts people with wisdom and wise-heartedness.)

The ivory pomegranate is famous.

               

Made of hippopotamus bone, it appeared in the antiquities market s in 1977, and was bought by the Israel Museum in 1988 for $55,000. It has an ancient inscription on it reading, “(Belonging) to the House of “Yahweh”, Holy to the Priests.”  There has been some controversy as to whether the ivory pomegranate is a fake or not, but the most recent opinion seems to advocate its authenticity. If you want to read an interesting article about it go to:  http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/scholars-study/is-the-ivory-pomegranate-a-forgery-or-authentic/

The gold bell I included in the painting was found in Jerusalem, July 2011,  while I was designing this haftarah illustration.

The tiny bell was found in an ancient drainage channel under Robinson’s Arch, right by the Western Wall. In the description of the priest’s robes it says, “And upon the skirts of it thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, round about the skirts thereof; and bells of gold between them round about.” (Exodus 28: 34,36). So – this tiny bell was probably sewn onto the hem of the priest’s robe, alternating with tiny pomegranates. If you want to read more about the find you can go to:

http://www.jpost.com/National-News/2000-year-old-golden-bell-discovered-in-Jerusalem

Concerning the haftarah, Ezekiel was among the 8,000 Jews exiled to Babylonia. He criticized the behaviour of the Jewish people, and also described the duties of the kohanim. In this way he bolstered the confidence of the exiled children of Israel, convincing them that they would return to Israel.

The haftarah was a promise from God. He said, “they shall enter My sanctuary and they shall come near to My table…” It reminded the Jews that they were not forgotten, and they would one day return to Jerusalem and to the Temple.

If you click on the illustration it will enlarge. Please share this blog post with your friends and family on Facebook, your students at school, or your buddies at synagogue. We love to hear from you if you have a comment. And if you want to get my post each week you can click on “Follow” on the right hand side of the post.

All the best,

Laya

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Acharei Mot

art by Laya Crust

Haftarah- Ezekiel 22: 11 – 19

The Torah reading this week deals with strict rules for religious and moral behaviour. One of the abhorrent practices mentioned is performing child sacrifice to the god Molech. Different aspects of blood are discussed- blood that the cohanim sprinkle during the sacrifice ceremony, blood that is shed during forbidden sacrificial rites, and the prohibition of eating blood. “You will not eat the blood of any flesh for the life of all flesh is its blood.” (Leviticus 17:14)  It is a fierce section of the Torah.

The haftarah is equally fierce. The prophet Ezekiel starts off condemning the children of Israel. Ezekiel communicates that God spoke to him and said, “…will you judge the bloody city? Then cause her to know all her abhorrent deeds…You stand guilty in the blood you have shed…” (Ezekiel 22: 2, 4)

The illustration is based on a painting  called “Allegory 2” by the great American social realist Ben Shahn.  Shahn was eight years old when his family immigrated from Lithuania to the United States. He apprenticed as a lithographer and studied biology and art. He was a social realist , very concerned with human rights, discrimination, poverty and social justice. Throughout his career he did  number of works integrating Jewish text and liturgy. Among other projects he illustrated a haggadah, wrote out and illustrated the Book of Ecclesiastes, and wrote “The Alphabet of Creation”.

“Allegory 2” shows a man huddled in fear, trying to escape God’s accusing hand. Painted in 1953, during the McCarthy era, the American “Establishment” was petrified of Communism. High profile individuals, many of them artists, actors, writers, film makers, and Jews were professionally destroyed after being accused of having communist affiliations. Shahn did not agree with this flagrant abuse of power which branded creativity and human rights as evil communism. Some think that Shahn’s use of red in this painting was his criticism of America coming down against the “Red Commies”. In this illustration God is berating those in power (like McCarthy and his cronies) for abusing power.

The haftarah “Acharei Mot” is frightening in its list of punishments and it is rarely read. Usually the week this reading appears it is paired with another section which is chanted instead.

It is spring- a time of blossoms, new growth, beauty and beginnings. Let’s take advantage and do good things in the world around us!

B’vracha, Laya

 

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