Tag Archives: Israelite

Shabbat Shira- BeShalach


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,



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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!



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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?

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 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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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:


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,




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Miracles and Humility

art by Laya Crust

This year, 2017 or 5777, we read the Torah portions for Tazria and Metzora on the same Shabbat. Both of the protions deal with the laws pertaining to an affliction called “tza’arat” which is commonly translated into the English word “leprosy”. It isn’t the same as leprosy however. It was a condition that affected people’s skin. But it could also affect their homes and their walls. It was a punishment for certain sins,particularly speaking negatively about another person.

The haftarahs take place during the time of Elisha the prophet. Jerusalem was under seige and the Jews were starving due to fammine. In the haftarah  Tazria, a young Jewish slave recommends that her Aramean master go to Elisha to be cured. Her master, Naaman.  follows her advice and is indeed cured.

art by Laya Crust

The second haftarah tells the story of four lepers who are sent outside the gates of Jerusalem- they are essentially in quarantine. They are starving as are the Jews in the city. They come across an abandoned Aramean camp filled with food, clothing and precious goods. After having their fill of food they tell the city about the camp and this alleviates the starvation.

One element the two stories have in common is that the lowest, most overlooked members of the population are key to saving the protagonists. In Tazria a young slave girl helps an Aramean army captain become cured of tza’arat. In Metzorah four banished men save the people of Jerusalem.

art by Laya Crust

Yom Ha’Atzmaut- Israel’s Independence Day- is a reminder that the smallest can overcome greater forces. Tiny, unprepared Israel overcame huge enemy forces in 1948. In 1967 once again Israel conquered the attacking surrounding countries. It happened again in 1973. These victories were miraculous, and are evidence of God’s invisible help. To recognize that we say the “Hallel” prayers on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. 

The victories, although miraculous, did not come easily or without a steep and painful price. Many lives were lost defending Israel- most of them the lives of young soldiers cut down at the beginning of their paths. The day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut we observe Yom haZikaron and recognize the sacrifices of those who died defending  Israel’s sovereignity and right to exist; and defending the lives of Israeli citizens. Following is an 11 minute film dedicated to those fallen heroes, posted by United With Israel.


Throughout Israel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut there will be barbecues, music, parties and celebration. Light up YOUR barbecue- and celebrate too!

With blessings for peace, Laya


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