This week we read the first parashah in the Book VaYikra- the Book of Leviticus. Vayikra means “and He called”. It commences a series of instructions God gives the Israelites concerning sacrifices. The theme of Leviticus is one of holiness, and holiness is described in different forms throughout the book.(note: “Leviticus” is a Latin word meaning “from the Levites”)
Isaiah lived and prophesied in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. 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 are in exile. They are worn down, defeated, and turn from God to worship idols. Isaiah calls to them telling them that God notices they have abandoned the altars and sacrifices and they have stopped worshiping Him. Instead, they are offering sacrifices to man-made gods. God tells the Israelites He will not abandon them. He says, “Even as I pour water on thirsty soil and rain upon dry ground, So I will pour My Spirit on your offspring”.
In my haftarah painting at the top of the page, I show a willow tree by a river. There are sheep grazing in the fields, sacrifices burning in the background, but abandoned altars overgrown with grass in the foreground. In the text, God says, “And they shall sprout like grass, Like willows by watercourses…”
Interestingly many scholars think the Book of Isaiah was written in more than one section. 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 Southern Kingdom. That would have been about 150 years after Isaiah died. This second section is often called “Deutero Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah”.
This haftarah is a very beautiful, poetic composition. I hope you’ll read it and enjoy! Shabbat Shalom.
I painted the pictures you see here as part of a collection of pieces for a sefer haHaftarah- a haftarah scroll. You have seen many of these images over the years if you have been following my blog. I’m excited to announce that a collection of these paintings and their explanations will be published in a book called “ILLUMINATIONS, An Exploration of Haftarah through Art and History”. I will share more information about the book in the coming weeks.
If you’ve ever been camped in the desert or in the countryside at night without artificial light, you will have seen a sky studded with stars. The heavens are so full of stars it seems amazing the sky can hold them all.
The parasha of Lech Lecha introduces us to Abraham, the man Gd chose to begin a new nation. Gd tells Abraham that He will bless him. Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the dust on the ground and the stars in the skies. Gd said, “Look now toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them. And He said, “and so your descendants shall be…” (Genesis 15:5) Looking up at that night sky Avram couldn’t have begun to imagine how many stars there were. There were too many to count, too many to even guess at.
God told Abraham to leave his birthplace and travel to where God would direct him. Just as Abraham was called by God and promised a new homeland, the haftarah relates that God will gather all Jews from the corners of the earth and take them to their homeland – to the land of Israel.
This week’s haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah. The Jews have been in Babylon, in exile, for decades. They are sure they will never be able to return home. It seems that King Cyrus is about to conquer Babylon and Isaiah is hopeful that Cyrus will allow the Jews to go back to Israel. Isaiah assures the Jews that Gd will not abandon them. Gd reminds the Jews that they are His chosen people. “The coastlands look on in fear, the ends of the earth tremble … But you, Israel my servant … whom I drew from the ends of the earth and called from its far corners …”(Isaiah 41:5, 8, 9)
The references to coastlands and the ends of the earth evoke thoughts of maps and atlases. This painting shows a section of the famous Catalan Atlas which incorporates Majorca, Spain, and the compass rose which is found on every navigational map.
One of the most accomplished medieval mapmakers was Abraham Cresques who lived in Majorca, Spain. He was the mapmaker to the king. In 1375, Prince John of Aragon commissioned Cresques to make a set of nautical world charts as a gift for the future King Charles IV of France. Abraham and his son Jehuda created the Catalan Atlas, which is recognized as the most important atlas of the medieval period. The Catalan Atlas included the names of coastal towns, locations of houses of worship, and drawings of traders, rulers, and flags of the empires.
Although he had worked on maps which were commissioned by royalty, ironically, Jehuda was caught in the snare of the Spanish Inquisition. He was forcibly converted to Christianity during the anti-Jewish outbreaks of Spain in 1391, and took the name Jaume Riba. He continued to create maps and was called Magister Cartarum Navegundi – “Master of Navigational Maps”.
Abraham was chosen to begin a new nation, the nation that would one day be known as Jews. Even back then Gd told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a strange land, referring to their enslavement in Egypt. Abraham was warned that life would be tough for the Jewish people, his descendants. The hardships have continued throughout history. In this haftarah Isaiah gave encouragement to his exiled brethren in Babylon, telling them that Gd would not abandon them.
Every time period is a time of challenge for the Jews. Right now we are still facing challenges and terrible anti-Semitic tides. We are reminded that Gd made a promise and will always keep that promise initialized with Avraham Avinu- Abraham our father.
Have a good week and a good Shabbat. May it be one of peace and health for klal Yisrael and the world.
On Yom Kippur morning haftarah we read is from the Book of Isaiah. It is a dynamic reading. Right at the beginning we read, “Build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of my people!” The painting above is part of my “haftarah series”, in a style inspired by Marc Chagall. Images from the haftarah text appear in the picture. The blues evoke “A spring whose waters will not fail” (ch 58:12) and there is “light that bursts through the dawn”(ch 58: 8). Click on the image to enlarge it.
Isaiah’s message isn’t focused on the self. Rather it is focused on social justice. The prophet tells 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)
Yom Kippur is a difficult day for many of us. We fast (some of us start weaning ourselves off caffeine a week early) and participate in prayers of fear and longing. Many of us are attending ZOOM services which is challenging in its own way. The prayers help us to face ourselves. Thinking about our weaknesses is difficult, and deciding to improve realities is even more difficult.
Acts of justice and positivity heal oneself and one’s relationship with the Creator. Tears and fasting can be an element of our prayer. Improving ourselves and the world round us is another outcome of prayer and hope for a healed world.
These are very troubling times all over the world. I won’t list all the challenges in front of us because it’s too depressing. Let’s focus on the millions of wonderful innovators, optimists, do-gooders, and creative givers who make the world a better place. Let’s support the positive changes and work towards greater mending in the world.
Have a “positive” fast. May your year be filled with peace, health, happiness and “parnassa” (financial security) for you and your family. Happy 5782!
This week’s Torah reading begins with the words, “…I am placing before you a blessing and a curse. The blessing [will come] if you obey the commandments of the Lord your Gd, which I am prescribing to you today.”(Deut. 11:16) The reading continues with a number of the laws that the Jews are obliged to observe.
We are lucky to have our land of Israel, and retain it as a Jewish land. However it isn’t “luck”. We have the land, after thousands of years of exile, due to a confluence of circumstances. Bravery, political maneuvering, world opinion, blood and sweat, tenaciousness, religious confidence, and a concentration of faith and observance by Jews within the Holy Land worked together to bring the land to reality.
There is consistent Jewish learning in this beautiful country. The festivals are observed throughout the country as outlined in the Torah and codified by the Rabbis. There is Torah learning in all schools- sometimes in the guise of secular studies of “Eretz Yisrael”, and sometimes through learning Gemarrah. The variety of Jews in levels of observance and cultural backgrounds is vast. The love of land, progress and the gifts of bounty in Israel is huge.
Last night I met with a wonderful young woman who made aliyah a few years ago. She pointed out in a refreshing way how many of the people in the very religious circles can be compared to those meditate all day and see the world from a very high level. A level that the common person cannot understand or even imagine. She talked about how some of these people are keeping a spiritual level constant in Israel without recognition or appreciation, and their vision contributes to the balance of this spiritual land.
In the haftarah Gd said, “I will lay red gems as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of precious stones, the whole encircling wall of gems.” (Isaiah 54:11, 12) It was a sentence of comfort which we can witness in our time.
The sapphire stone was used in the quote from Isaiah. According to the “crystalvaults” definition the sapphire is “a stone of wisdom and royalty, of prophecy and Divine favor. It is forever associated with sacred things and considered the gem of gems. ”
We have this beautiful land of Israel. I hope and pray that we will comport ourselves in an upright way according to the laws Gd gave us so that we can continue to enjoy its bounty. And may we enjoy it without bombs and violence but with peace and tranquility with acceptance from all the nations.
This parsha presents the Ten Commandments, the outline for life that God presented to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are the base rules for interacting with God and man. These rules can be encapsulated by one word- respect. It’s not just respect for God, it is respect for God, respect for all people, their families, and their property.
Three individuals take the centre stage in this week’s Torah and haftarah readings. The three are Moses, his father-in-law Yitro, and the prophet Isaiah whose words are read in the haftarah. The theme of respect connect the three men.
Moses was a person who, from his early days, cared for others and sought justice. Our first meeting with him as an adult was when he stepped in to stop a Hebrew slave from being beaten by an Egyptian slave driver. Then he saw two Hebrew slaves fighting and stepped in to stop that violence. Rather than sit back and be comfortable in his wealth and position as a member of Pharaoh’s household he ended up leaving the Egyptian dictates of brutality and regal order. When he came upon Yiro’s daughters being bullied at a well he again stepped in and protected them. He helped the weaker from the stronger, unjust men.
His desire to activate respect for all may be the trait that caused God to choose Moses as His messenger to lead the Israelites out of slavery.
Yitro had some of the same traits. Unlike Jacob’s father-in-law Lavan, Yitro truly embraced Moses as a friend, a son-in-law, and a partner. Although Moses ultimately decided on a path different from Yitro’s after encountering God’s presence at the burning bush, Yitro was supportive of Moses’ decision. Indeed, Yitro recognized HaShem as the one true God although he did not follow b’nei Yisrael on their journey to Canaan.
When we met Yitro at the beginning of this parsha he gave Moses incredible advice. With Yitro’s own trait of wanting good for those around him he told Moses how to change his judicial approach to difficult tribal issues. He saw that Moses stood from morning to night advising all the people of Israel who had a question or problem. Yitro told Moses to create a heirarchy of “able men such as fear God, men of truth hating unjust gain; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, fifties and tens”. (Exodus 18:21). He continued by suggesting that only the most difficult cases that couldn’t be decided by the appointed judges be brought to Moses. Yitro wanted Moses to understand that to lead the people well and strongly Moses had to take care of his own self and health.
The haftarah begins with Isaiah’s vision of God on a throne. This is a reflection of God’s magnificence in the Torah reading. God wanted to choose Isaiah as a prophet but Isaiah demurred, saying his lips were “unclean”. A seraph touched Isaiah’s lips with a coal and cleansed them allowing Isaiah to have the confidence of heart to preach the correct way to live to the children of Israel.
The three men were chosen because of their own integrity and their desire to help those around them led lives of respect and integrity.
That’s what the Ten commandments are about. They are a gift God created for us,. They are a template for righteousness, fairness and goodness to ourselves and all those around us. Shall I add- the rest is commentary?
We happened to be in Chamonix between Tisha B’Av (the day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem) and Rosh haShana. Those weeks between the two observances are called “The Weeks of Consolation”. The haftarah readings at synagogue are meant to comfort us and remind us of God’s love for the children of Israel.
One of the readings has a quotation from the Book of Isaiah which resonated with me as I was in the mountains. “For the mountains be moved and the hills be shaken, my love from you will never depart.” (Isaiah 54:10). It reminds me of the love song “Love is Here to Stay” by George Gershwin. It was the last musical piece he composed before his death in 1937. His brother and creative partner Ira wrote the lyrics as a tribute to George. The two brothers often wrote music that had elements of Jewish melody and liturgy in them, and it may be that the lines from Isaiah were an inspiration to Ira and to George.
As we go forward in these Days of Awe it is easy to feel overwhelmed by our goals, our hopes, our fears, and our attempts to improve ourselves. Through our self reflection we can be supported by the sentiments in the “Weeks of Consolation”. God wants righteousness, honesty, integrity and kindness from His people. And God will wait as a bridegroom waits for his bride.
May your year be filled with health, love, peace, joy, and growth.
In the summer I’m fortunate to be able to sit outside and do my writing and editing in the backyard. The morning as I looked around at my garden I thought about how lucky I am to have the good weather and sunshine. Then I thought about how lucky I am to have a garden. The more I thought, the harder it became- I thought about the fires in Greece and North America where gardens disappear in a moment. And the fires in Southern Israel set by terrorists who send incendiary balloons into yards, playgrounds, and fields. And I thought about the people in war torn Syria (among other countries) whose homes and lives have been bombed to pieces.
These thoughts came to me as we leave the sadness of Tisha B’Av and enter the Weeks of Consolation because the world is not healed.
This week we read the parsha and haftarah of V’Etchanan.
This painting shows a flaming Mount Sinai heralding the giving of the 10 Commandments. The images around it illustrate different elements of our faith. The parsha carries with it some of the most important words of Torah which are the foundations of our faith. In this parsha we are privileged to read, once again, the 10 commandments and we are also given the “Sh’ma Yisrael”. We are told about the Land of Milk and Honey. We even read the question presented by the first of the four sons at our Pesach seder (Deuteronomy ch. 6 v. 20). We read about Moshe speaking to the children of Israel as they are about to enter the land of Canaan. He warns the children of Israel not to forget God’s laws.
This haftarah is the first Haftarah of Consolation. Isaiah said that God created the heaven and the earth. God “measured the water in the hollow of His hand and measured the skies with a span…”
We are reminded that God created the world- that no man could do it and no man could even measure it. The parsha reminds us of the laws, the ethics, and the miracles God has given us. Moshe also reminds us, the Jews and Israelites, that He will protect us and our land if we safeguard His gifts to us. Those gifts are the Ten Commandments and accompanying laws.
As I sit in my beautiful garden in peaceful Toronto I am aware of the tragedies in the world. I can only believe that God is protecting Israel and safeguarding it from its multiple enemies. By living ethically, by respecting others and respecting all lives, we help to safeguard Israel too.
So, here we are beginning the Seven Weeks of Consolation, reading the words of Isaiah. He is still trying to guide a wayward group. Hopefully we will be able to live in a peaceful land flowing with Milk and Honey. Hopefully the unity and mutual support will prevail.
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,
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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.
The Torah reading of Ki Tavo (“when you enter”) begins with a description of first fruit offerings. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and entered the promised land they were commanded to offer first fruits and tithes. However, this parsha is better known for the blessings and curses that are listed later on.
In Ki Tavo Moses tells the people they will cross the Jordan River into Canaan. Once there the twelve tribes would be divided between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. The tribes of Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin were to stand upon Mount Gerizim to “witness” or hear the blessing. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun,Dan and Naftali were to stand on Mount Ebal to “witness” or hear the curse. The tribe of Levi were to stand in the middle. The Levites would turn towards Mount Gerizim and in a loud voice announce the blessing to which the tribes would answer “Amen”. And then they would turn to Mount Ebal and announce the 12 acts that would make someone cursed, and the tribes would answer “Amen” to each of the twelve curses.
It must have been an amazing sight- hundreds of thousands of people standing on two mountain tops, paying close attention to and answering a tribe of Levites!
In chapter 26 instructions are given for making the special altars. Stones were to be cut without using metal tools. They were to be plastered and have words of the law carved upon them. An altar was set up at Mount Ebal and used for sacrificing peace offerings.
Yoni Lightstone, an Israeli tour guide who was born in Canada, shared some fascinating information with me.
In 1980 the archaeologist Dr. Adam Zertal and his team discovered ancient altars in the Jordan Valley. They had been used for animal sacrifices and were enclosed by stone walls. When seen from above the site looks like a footprint.
Dr. Zertal and his survey team carried on their excavations until 1989. The most famous of the “footprint” sites ( sometimes called sandalim and gilgalim) is on Mount Ebal. Dr. Zertal uncovered the large altar, which was built of unhewn stones. He became convinced that it was the altar described in parshat Ki Tavo and later built by Joshua’s men.
It’s amazing to see these remnants of our history and to be 21st Century witnesses for events recorded in the Torah and in נ״ך (the “writings” of the bible).
Back to the parsha…at the beginning ch.28 we are told, “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the field”…this is followed by 15 verses of beautiful blessings and the good fortune we will receive by following Gd’s laws and commandments. Let us focus on the blessings and may we continue to be an אור לגוים (a light unto the nations) as referenced in the painting at the top of the page.
And hopefully we won’t suffer the horrible consequences described in the subsequent 54 chapters due to non-compliance!
You can see some of the archaeological “footprint sites” in Yehuda and Shomron. Unfortunately some are in danger of being destroyed because they are largely unprotected. However they can still be viewed.
If you want more information and photographs look up “footprint sites, Israel”. According to Wikipedia, “Israelis wishing to visit the site today must coordinate their activity with COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry unit which manages civilian affairs for Palestinians in the West Bank and liaises with Gaza, since Mount Ebal is located in what is now designated as Area B. In addition, Israeli citizens visiting the area are required to be escorted by IDF soldiers, to ensure their personal safety. The Shomron Regional Council, as of July 2016, was trying to promote the area as a tourist destination.
If you need a tour guide while in Israel check out http://yonitours.com/