Tag Archives: Israelite

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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“For he will be like a tree planted by the waters”

Behukotai“A Tree Planted by the waters” by Laya Crust

Bechukotai is the last reading in the Book of Leviticus, a book devoted to teaching b’nei Yisrael how to conduct their lives. God sets out clear and detailed guidelines referring to acceptable morals and behaviour. There are directives on everything from marriage, to diet, to respecting the land. After all the rules have been laid we are told what will happen if we don’t follow the laws.

God says that if we follow His laws and observe His commandments “I will grant you rains in their season, so the earth shall yield its produce…I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone…” (26: 4, 26:6). It sounds so idyllic! The earth will be bountiful, noone will bother God’s people, and they will live in peace, harmony and comfort. But wait a minute…God continues with a warning…

“But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules…I will wreak misery upon you…” (26: 14, 16) God’s warnings don’t stop there . They  become harsher and harsher. The text is frightening but finally the severity is mitigated. It is followed by God then telling His people that He will never forget them and will remember His covenant with them. God knows that the Israelites will return and will once again become strong and bountiful. The desolation is followed by hope.

P1150004Tamarisk tree in the desert by Laya Crust

The haftarah follows the same theme. Jeremiah begins by telling the Israelites that their sins are written on their hearts and they will be punished.  But he also says, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose trust the Lord is. For he will be like a tree planted by the waters, and spreads out its roots by the river, and he will not see when the heat comes. Its foliage will be lush and will not be anxious in the year of drought. And it will not cease from yielding fruit.” He says those who depend only on men will be like a tree that grows on parched land in the wilderness. But one who trusts in God will be like a tree planted by the waters which spreads its roots by the river.  The tree will flourish even during a drought.

The message of desolation turning to hope exemplifies the Jewish people. It also delivers a  personal and comforting message.

We as individuals have choices throughout our lives. We can follow a path of good, of mediocrity or of evil. We can take our strengths and gifts and use them to improve our surroundings, we can ignore those gifts, or we can use them selfishly. There are people we meet throughout our lives who use their talents and make visible improvements to the world around them. One such man was Dr. Eli Cohen z”l.

Dr. Cohen was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1938 where his family had lived since about 500 BCE. In 1951, when it became dangerous for the Jews living in Iraq, his family emigrated to Israel. They had to relinquish their Iraqi citizenship, and all their assets were either frozen or taken by the state. He never forgot his country, the house where they lived, or the open hospitality of his mother. When he was 18 he joined the Israeli Defense Forces as a paratrooper commando. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University then left Israel to further pursue his education in Manitoba, Canada. Ultimately Eli earned four degrees, in genetics and then statistics.  One of the technologies he developed is a medical instrument that monitors whole blood coagulation mainly during surgery (TEG). The TEG is used in hospitaals internationally and has saved thousands and thousands of lives and improved surgical outcomes.

Eli and his wife Carole developed the company Haemoscope together. Together they raised three phenomenal children, mentored countless students and employees, and created a caring workplace. They invested in and cared about their employees and never lost sight of the people whose lives would be saved through the technology.

As it says in Jeremiah 17:8,  “For he will be like a tree planted by the waters, and spreads out its roots by the river, …And it will not cease from yielding fruit.”  Dr. Eli Cohen z”l has left a legacy of beauty, generosity, vision and kindness. He improved the world through his family and research, and they will continue to improve the world for generations.

With thanks to Carole Cohen and Dr. Eli Cohen z”l, may we all strive to be like a tree planted by the waters. not afraid of the heat and spreading out our roots to be strong and give sustenance to those who need it.

May you have a foliage full, and fruitful week, and a Shabbat shaded by those you love.

Laya

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Shabbat Shira- BeShalach

B'Shalach

Miriam’s Song by Laya Crust

This week’s Torah reading is given the name Shabbat Shira- the Shabbat of Song. We read three songs-  Miriam’s song after crossing the Red Sea, Moshe’s “Song of the Sea”,  and Devorah’s song of victory.  Not only do women sing and play music in both the Torah and haftarah readings, they are major figures in these biblical stories.

Miriam is called a prophet in this parsha. She accompanied her younger brothers, Moshe and Aaron, leading b’nei Yisrael to freedom. Miriam was the female role model for the nation. She exemplified strength and leadership and the confidence that God has in the abilities and wisdom of women. After crossing the Red Sea, Miriam led the women with a celebration of song and dance.

h shabbat shiraDevorah and Barak by Laya Crust

 Devorah was a judge and prophet who led the Israelites  for 40 years. She would sit under a palm tree to meet with her people. The haftarah tells of a battle waged by the Canaanites against the Israelites. The Jewish leader, Barak, asked Devorah to lead the battle with him. She warned Barak that a woman would be credited with the victory if she went, but he still insisted on her help.

Maciejowski Bible, ca 1240

Yael, the other major woman in the haftarah was not a Jew, but a Kenite. After the battle Sisera, a general fleeing from the Jews,  sought refuge with Yael. She gave him warm milk to drink, covered him with a blanket, then drove a tent peg through his temple, killing him. The hafatarah is unusual in that it features two women- Devorah and Yael- as the heroic characters.

hallelu 1Hallelu  by Laya Crust

Devorah wrote a song of praise mentioning herself as a mother of Israel, Barak as a leader, and Yael as a heroine. The end of the song is powerful. Devorah described Sisera’s mother waiting at the window for her triumphant son to return home from battle.  Devorah sang, “…The mother of Sisera…moaned…’Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why are the  hoofbeats of his steeds so tardy?…Have they not found spoils and treasure? Have they not divided the prey; to every man a damsel or two; to Sisera many kinds of plunder…?”. Devorah described the scene- a mother waiting for her son- all the while knowing Sisera had been murdered. The mother’s confidence and pride that her son had been successful in killing, looting and abducting the Israelites is disquieting.

The women in the parsha and haftarah showed strength and leadership. God chose Miriam to be one of the three leaders of the children of Israel as they trekked towards freedom. God appointed Devorah and later Hulda to be prophets, and made Yael a hero. We must remember this and take it forward as we progress in religion, culture and politics. 

Have a joyous and tuneful Shabbat,

Laya

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A Perfect 10

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10 is the number that is often used to describe perfection. We use that scale whether we are talking about judging a gymnastics competition, getting 10 out of 10 on a spelling test, or rating an event (“On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate this shopping experience/ hotel stay/ trip to Florida?”) Can we talk about 10 as a perfect number when we are talking about the Torah reading Va’Eira? That’s the reading where the 10 plagues begin to be rained down on the Egyptians.

We all have heard of the 10 plagues. When God commanded Moses to go to Egypt and liberate the enslaved children of Israel, He didn’t set Moses up with an army. Instead, He described how ten plagues would be visited upon the Egyptian people. The horror of one plague after another would build up until the Pharaoh couldn’t stand it any more.  Finally, God told Moses, the Pharaoh would let the Israelites go – to their own land and to freedom.

Va’Eira by Laya Crust

The number 10 is a significant number in Judaism and in western culture. In the story of creation the phrase “And God said” is repeated 10 times.  Within the seven days of creation, 10 categories of being were created. There were 10 generations between Adam and Noah- the generation that was destroyed by the flood. Abraham was given 10 tests. God required 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorra in order to avert divine punishment. Most important of all, God gave us the 10 commandments.

The “yud” is the first letter in God’s Hebrew name, י-ה-ו-ה.  Each letter in the Hebrew language has a numerical value. The letter “ י ” has the value of  10.  The letter yud gets its name from the Hebrew word יד  “Yad” which means hand.

Image result for history of letter yud

In the earliest writing a yud looked like an arm with a hand at the end of it. And of course, we have 10 fingers on our two hands. (or 10 digits, if you want to be more accurate). Those 10 digits are the basis of our counting and mathematical structures. The metric system is completely based on values of 10. The “yud”, 10, is therefore the foundation to both our language and commerce systems.

As mentioned before, God when created the world, the phrase, “And God said” was used 10 times.  When the God spoke to Moses He used the term “outstretched arm”. We read about “the hand of God “and the “finger of God”. Moses and Aaron stretched out their hands before a plague appeared. The image of hands with their 10 fingers occurs over and over again.

Going back to the plagues, it appears that God specifically visited 10 plagues on Egyptian society. The use of 10 to achieve good when surrounded by evil underlines the power of God in the details and in the large picture .

Rosh Hodesh by Laya Crust

God established a people through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob which was to be a “light among the nations”. God gave us the 10 commandments as our guidebook for good and moral behaviour – the opposite of slavery and cruel dictatorship. The beautiful world that God created was (and still is) to be enjoyed by humankind, and was (and still is) to nurture humanity.

God used the plagues to undo the ancient Egyptian civilization. Visiting 10 plagues on tyrannical Egypt carried the pointed message that ethics and justice can, and will, undo evil.

Creation and the 10 commandments are the good that infuses the world. The symbol of that righteousness and beauty encompassed in 10 is symbolized by the letter “yud” which appears in every letter of the Hebrew alphabet and therefore every expression of creation, law,  justice and beauty.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, and may at least 10 good events come your way!

Laya

 

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Shemot- Nameless

Shemot by Laya Crust

“Shemot”, meaning “Names”, is the title of the second book of the Five Books of Moses.  The book begins with the names of the patriarch Jacob and his sons, and tells how Jacob went down to Egypt with an entourage of 70 people. It says, “And the children of Jacob were fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied and grew very very mighty, and the land was filled with them.” (Shemot/ Exodus 1:7)

The Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians. Not slaves, not taskmasters, nor nobility are named in the narrative. The first names we read are those of two heroic midwives, Shifra and Pua, who had the courage to ignore the edict to drown every Israelite boy at birth.  The next name we read is that of Moses- not when he was born but after he was rescued by Pharaoh’s (nameless) daughter, then taken by his own (nameless) sister to be nursed and raised for three years by Moses’ own (nameless) mother.

Although we read of Moses’ entanglement with an Egyptian taskmaster and three Israelite slaves, the next person who is named is Re’uel (Jethro), the Midianite priest who kindly took Moses in.

There is a pattern here. The people who are named are those who stand up against the norm of apathy and acceptance. The midwives risked their own lives because they didn’t want to kill innocent baby boys. The adopted boy Moses grew up to rail against the injustice he witnessed. Jethro the priest took in a needy stranger from a rival country.

photograph by Malcolm Peterson, 2003

But names are important. When Moses met God at the burning bush surprisingly Moses asked for God’s name. He demanded a name from a powerful, unknown, force. God complied and furnished Moses with a name – “אהיה אשר אהיה“, “I Will Ever Be What I Will Be”.

Names are a key to identity and self determination.  The Israelite slaves were nameless. Black slaves were stripped of their birth names and given new monikers. Victims of the Nazi regime were numbered in order to add one more level to their dehumanization.  Victims of famine and genocide; and victims of large natural disasters like tsunamis, mudslides and earthquakes, are unnamed. Missing indigenous women needed their names shared in order to be noticed, and for their disappearances to be investigated.

Moses knew that the Israelite slaves needed a name for God in order to believe.Let’s read about it.When we see a face or hear a name we are more capable of empathizing with a person or an unfolding tragedy.  That is why, when a memorial is set up for fallen soldiers or victims of the Shoah (Holocaust), the  invisible  individuals can then be remembered.

Image result for ai weiwei children's backpacks, toronto, AGO

Snake made out of children’s backpacks, Ai Wei Wei, Art Gallery of Ontario, 20013

Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese dissident artist, took another approach in one of his installations.  In 2008, thousands of school children were killed by an earthquake in Sichuan, China, in shoddily constructed government schools. Wei Wei has produced a list of all the victims of the earthquake on his blog. He also created a number of art pieces made from thousands of children’s backpacks to memorialize their lives.

The thousands of victims have been given identities.

Referring to the narrative from the bible, it may seem that calling this story “Shemot” or “Names” is ironic, but on second thought it is a lesson. The people who were named were doers and helpers. They were people who stepped beyond normal expectations to change a condition and make it better.

When we see people in need it may help US to find out their names and then it may make it easier for us to see them as individuals and allow us to reach out more quickly.

Have a good week,  Laya

 

 

 

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Joseph- VaYigash

joeyJoseph and his Dreams by Laya Crust

This picture is a painting I made for my son named Joseph, named after his grandfather Joseph, and he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah reading parshat VaYigash, about Joseph.  I portrayed Joseph in his special coat gazing at the stars and dreaming of his future. In the border are symbols of the twelve tribes- symbols of his brothers as well as other images relating to the Bar Mitzvah boy.

The colourful story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax in this week’s parsha. The brothers and their father, Jacob, have survived the famine in the land of Canaan but cannot survive much longer. The heart-broken patriarch reluctantly sends the brothers to Egypt to get food. They had gone before and met the Pharaoh’s second in command- and had a strange experience there. But this time they go with troubled hearts because they were warned not to come unless they brought their youngest brother, Benjamin.

Joseph is playing a game with his brothers, and it’s difficult to understand exactly why he is making the demands he is making. This parsha begins just after Benjamin has been “framed”. Joseph’s personal silver chalice has been “planted” in Benjamin’s belongings, and the Israelite brothers have been told that Benjamin will become enslaved to Pharaoh’s court as payment for the infraction.

English: Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brot...

Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

The beauty/ pathos of the story unfolds from here.  Judah steps forward and begs for understanding. He pours out his heart, recounting the family history to this great Egyptian before him. Judah hopes that by telling this leader of his father’s frailty the leader may accept Judah as a slave rather than take his youngest brother.

Joseph can carry on the charade no longer. He clears all the Egyptian attendants from the room. The text says, “and he cried out, ‘Send every man to go from me.’  And no man stood with him while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And his voice cried out with weeping, and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.”

The Recognition of Joseph by His Brothers, by Peter Cornelius, 1817

When I read those phrases I imagine a stately, handsome regent who is always in control. He is a man who has faced one challenge after another but has always kept his wits about him, analyzed, strategized, and succeeded.  He has played with his brothers, waiting for just the right time to reveal his identity.  I think he was “undone”, hearing Judah’s humility and love for Yaakov, the father Joseph hasn’t seen and possibly thought he never would see again. The narrative sets the scene in a compelling way. Joseph is so overcome that he loses his controlled facade. Alone with his brothers he lets out such a cry of anguish that the entire land of Mizrayim (Egypt) hears… What powerful text.

The story had begun many years earlier. Fraternal jealousy instigated a cruel joke at best or a malicious death wish at worst. That behaviour broke a family apart and had a ripple effect on the generations that followed.

The brothers and Jacob are reunited.  Judah will become one leader of the tribes and the other brothers will unite as a group called “Yisrael”. We know from the text in the Bible that just as they separated when Joesph was sold, the tribes of Israel will once again separate and form two kingdoms.

The conflict in the history of the Jews- the competition for leadership, the separation of the nations – is foreshadowed in the story of Abraham’s sons, Isaac’s sons, and now again in the story of Jacob’s sons. We have seen the story played out over and over again. We allow ourselves to be divided by traditions, dress, levels of observance, and politics.

In addition, we live in very frightening times which are harder to navigate if we are divided. We witness and experience international terrorism, tyrannical dictatorships waging war on its citizens and neighbours, slavery, rising opiad deaths, and bizarre weather related disasters. On the other hand we live in a time with potential for incredible good. Using medical innovation, social network, communication and the sharing of resources, we can create and heal the world.

Just as Joseph and his brothers could forge a better future together, we can do the same. Joseph saved Egypt and its neighbours from starvation through sharing wisdom and strategy- we have the potential to do the same.

With prayers for peace and understanding,

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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