Tag Archives: Jewish Art

Purim pop-up

EPSON scanner imageart by Laya Crust

Here we are approaching the most raucous holiday of the year. Revelry, costume and indulging with wine or something stronger is encouraged on Purim. Not only is it it encouraged, we are told we have to increase our joy.

The story of Purim is a tale of treason, love, lust, hatred, bad guys, and good triumphing over evil. There is a great explanation of it at http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday9.htm. There’s also an interesting analysis of the comparison of the Esther story and the Joseph story at http://learn.conservativeyeshiva.org/purim-esther-and-joseph/

Some of us are busy making costumes for the Purim parties and some of us are making hamantaschen. Hamantaschen is from the Yiddish words “Mohn” and “tasch”. “Mohn” means poppy seed and “tasch” means pocket. What a revelation! (for more info about hamantaschen go to The History and Meaning of Hamantaschen – Peeling back …  )

This year,5782 or 2022, Purim starts Wednesday, March 16, and continues the next day, Thursday March 17.  We celebrate the holiday with reading the Book of Esther (the Megillah), dressing up in costume, giving charity and sharing food with our friends Wednesday night and and Thursday, unless we live in a walled city like Jerusalem and then we celebrate Purim the next day, but that’s another story.

Rather than discuss the megillah I am presenting you with an arts and crafts project. Here is a pop-up Purim card you can make with your family, your class-  if you are a teacher-, or your buddies.P1110245

Start by printing the picture below on an 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper: We’ll call it ” Model 1″

EPSON scanner imageFold the sheet in half lengthwise, with “Mordecai”  towards you.P1110232

Take your page and cut along the solid black line at the base of the carpet Mordecai and Esther are sitting on. Stop when you get to the corner of the carpet. Then take your scissors out and cut along the thicker black line at the top of the carpet, up Mordecai’s arm, around his head, and back down his side until you get back to the edge of the carpet. Cut through both halves of the paper. Do NOT cut down the side of the carpet – only cut where the black outline is thick.P1110236Now you have cut the figures of Mordechai and Esther.

Fold the page in half widthwise. The message Purim Sameach (in Hebrew) and English will be on one side and all the painting will be on the other.

P1110248Fold the page as shown above. Then turn it back to the picture side.
P1110241Pull the figures gently towards you.  The figures should extend out and the rest of the card folds in the opposite way. I hope that makes sense to you. Make this card and send it out to your friends and family, or enjoy it yourselves. You are welcome to share the instructions with anyone you want. And- if you are a teacher, this can be a great Purim project with your class.

On another note: This year we are witness to the violent invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russian forces. The situation is not the same as the situation in the Persian Empire 2,500 years ago. At that time Haman, a court official, made plans to assassinate all the Empire’s Jews. Queen Esther, a secret Jew, exposed Haman’s horrifying plan and stopped it. There is a surprising parallel between Ukraine today and Shushan from 2,500 years ago. President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. Previously his religion was not a focal point in his life or career. Now he is using his connection to Jewish history and Israel to inspire the Ukrainian people. His strength and integrity have unified Ukraine. He has inspired international support for Ukraine and condemnation of Putin’s aggression.

We all hope that justice and strength will prevail, and the evil aggressor will be vanquished.

Have a great Purim, and remember to “Share” this post with your friends.

Purim Sameach, Laya

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Vayikra

Abandoned Altars by Laya Crust

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.

Laya

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Pikudei-Sacred Vessels

This week’s haftarah describes how King Solomon brought the Ark of the Covenant to the Temple in Jerusalem. The parashah describes the crafting of items for the Tabernacle. It also describes the clothing that was sewn and woven for the priests.

Bezalel was the chief architect and designer, “and [he was] filled … with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding and in all manner of workmanship, to contrive works of art…” (Exodus 30: 3). All the Israelites were invited to participate in building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The only proviso was that they had to be “wise” or “willing hearted”. Those trusted with creating the holy space needed spiritual depth and understanding beyond the average individual.

Sacred Vessels by Laya Crust

This illustration is based on a manuscript painting from 1299, Perpignan, Aragon. Solomon ben Raphel created the illumination featuring sanctuary vessels. The first painted panel features the twelve shew breads prepared weekly in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. In the central panel are two gold cherubim protecting the two tablets with the ten commandments, a staff, a jar with manna, and Aaron’s flowering staff. The third panel shows a lit menorah and tools for handling the ashes.

God understands the importance of beauty in life. In the midst of the wide expanse of desert and rugged mountains, He gave detailed instructions to create a place of beauty where people could focus their thoughts and prayers. True beauty has a foundation of wisdom and goodness. To that end, Bezalel and his assistant Aholiav were imbued with wisdom and understanding.

As we go forward in life let’s remember to be wise-hearted and introduce integrity and beauty in order to elevate our lives and battle the sorrows and tragedies around us.

Laya

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A Giving Heart

Tzedakah by Laya Crust

This Shabbat is the Shabbat preceding the first day of Adar II and is called “Shabbat Shekalim.” A section from Ki Tissa is added to the regular Torah reading. The reading describes how the Israelites were required to contribute. “….This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to ‘יה… You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before ‘ה as expiation for your persons…” (Exodus 30:11-16) We also read a special haftarah.

King Jehoash reigned in Jerusalem from 896-736 BCE. The haftarah describes how he directs the priests to collect donations for repairs to the Temple. The priest Jehoiada crafts a “tzedaka” box by boring a hole into a wooden chest. The Jews can put their “shekels” into the boxes when they go to pray. This event from almost 3,000 years ago is the template for charity boxes used throughout history.

The illustration shows a collection of tzedaka boxes from around the world. From left to right – a “pushke” (charity box) from the synagogue of Rogazen, Germany, rescued in 1938; a  silver alms box from Austria, 1843; a Magen David Adom box; a Keren Kayemet box; a stone charity box with Ladino inscription from Valencia, Spain,1319; a Jewish National Fund box, circa 1950; a Rav Meir Ba’al haNes box from Israel in the 1960’s; a  Hevra Kadisha ceramic jug, Moravia, 1776; a sterling silver charity box, Austria, 1900.

The parashah and the haftarah both deal with giving and creating. If we give with an open heart the gift and the result are beautiful. If we build with beautiful intentions the structure or craft will also be beautiful.

This week’s reading is Vayakhel and describes the workmanship for the Mishkan. The two quotations in the painting below are from the parashah:  “Take from among you an offering of the Lord, whoever is of a willing heart let them bring it…” (35:5)     “And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing of heart.” (35:22) The sparkling watercolour wash behind the quotations represents imagination and spirituality.

Va Yikahel sig
Inspired Workmanship by Laya Crust

In the previous Torah reading, “Ki Tissa,” we read about the sin of “the golden calf”. Just to remind you, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God and bring them down to the Israelites below. When Moses didn’t arrive at the expected time the nation grew worried and anxious, fearing that something bad had happened. They demanded a god, an idol,  to pray to. Breaking off their jewellery they fashioned a golden calf. The nation was punished by God. The golden calf was destroyed, and three thousand men were killed.

In this week’s Torah reading, Moshe invited all the people, whoever was generous of heart, ” נדיב לבו,” to bring forward gold, silver, brass, dyed linen and goats’ hair, wood, oil, spices, and precious gems. All these materials would be used to craft holy objects for the Mishkan. The items to be crafted were listed and described, and the people came forward with all that was requested. The magnificence is described close on the heels of the sin of fashioning the golden calf. 

Phrases like “wise-hearted”  and “willing of heart” appear 15 times in this parashah. Only wise-hearted and generous individuals could see past the expense and glitter of the materials through to the purpose of prayer and service to God. Those who are wise and generous can understand and facilitate the elevation of spirit.

The painting is based on a  beautiful and timeless illumination from 1299, Perpignan, Aragon. 

Image result for 1299, Perpignan manuscript illumination

The illustrations I made that you see here are part of the collection of Haftarah Scroll paintings in the Haftarah Scroll of Beth David, a synagogue in Toronto. We are currently working on a book that will include all the illustrations, and it will be coming soon!

Have Shabbat Shalom- one full of beauty and joy and giving.

Laya

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Ki Tissa: Heights of Faith

Humanity
From the “Bereisheet Series” by Laya Crust

In this parashah, we read about extremes of faith. Moses received the last of God’s directives while on Mount Sinai. He came down the mountain to the sound and spectacle of the Israelites praying to a golden calf, an idol.  In disgust and anger, Moses destroyed the precious tablets God Himself had written. Soon after there was an interaction between God and Moses where Moses was almost taken to the heavens in terms of spiritual closeness. The parashah ends with another presentation of the Ten Commandments.

This is a profound narrative. The previous Torah portions recounted God’s directions for building a beautiful “Mishkan” (portable sanctuary). The clothing of the Kohanim- the priests- was described in great detail. God was well aware that the Israelite refugees craved extraordinary beauty to help achieve a level of awe and observance.

In this parashah, Moses went up Mount Sinai alone and disappeared behind a column of fire and cloud for 40 days and 40 nights. The people had been warned that Moses would be away for over a month. But like most people, B’nei Yisrael found it hard to believe that their aged leader could survive the dramatic conflagration. So Moses came down to witness singing and dancing around the Golden Calf.

Ki Tissa sig
The Priests of Baal by Laya Crust Illustration for the Haftarah

When Moses disappeared the people decided to create their own beautiful focus of prayer, the Golden Calf. God’s punishment was severe. Three thousand men were killed for the sin.

Moses had devoted his heart and soul to saving B’nei Yisrael from slavery and leading them through the desert. The demands on him were huge – leading them physically, judging them, and negotiating with God on their behalf. He acted as arbitrator time and again between them and God when they transgressed certain orders. Now, as righteous as he was, Moses asked God for something more. He asked to see God.

God put Moses into the cleft of a rock. According to the text (Ex. 33: 22), God protected Moses from seeing His face but allowed Moses to see His back. Moses was a transformed man. The experience took him to the greatest spiritual heights. Thereafter rays of light shone from his face.

This section of Torah is fascinating. It leaves us with a number of thoughts to ponder- the burden Moshe carried and the fact that he waited so long to ask God for greater closeness and identification. The text presents the heights of receiving the word of God on a mountaintop contrasted so quickly by the weakness of His people. This story underlines the fractious yet extraordinary relationship we have with God. Moses couldn’t see God’s face and neither can we, but God encourages us to get closer. God allows those who desire it to get closer through our prayers, meditations, and actions.

My husband, Les Lightstone, mentioned an interesting point. God didn’t show Moshe His “face”. He showed Moshe His back. In the same way, we cannot see what our future will hold or what God may do. We can only see what has happened, look “back ” on it, and learn from our past.

Have a Shabbat Shalom. May it be one of peace, health, and an appreciation of beauty.

Laya

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Tetzaveh: Temple Visions and Garments

Priestly Garments by Laya Crust

This week’s Parashah, Tetzaveh, describes the High Priest’s ceremonial robes. Details of the weavings, the breastplate, the gold bells, and tiny pomegranates fill the imagination with colour and texture.

In the previous Torah reading, Terumah, God outlined all the materials to be donated and collected to build the Mishkan. The Mishkan, a portable place of worship, would be crafted with exquisite textiles, gold, silver, and brass instruments. This week’s haftarah from the Book of Ezekiel also describes a place of prayer.

The prophet Ezekiel, the son of a Cohen, was among the 8,000 Jews to be exiled to Babylon in 597 BCE. He wrote the words of this haftarah while in exile. Ezekiel says that God carries him to the land of Israel and places him on top of a very high mountain where he sees something like the structure of a city. A man, seemingly made of brass, gives Ezekiel a tour of the future Temple.

Titzaveh
Temple Floor Plan by Laya Crust

We read detailed descriptions of each element to be measured and positioned. The illustration above is based on a rendering of Solomon’s Temple from an illumination in an early 12th C. German manuscript. It shows the Temple’s floor plan. All the sacred objects in the floor plan seem to lie on the floor. I used the manuscript drawing because it is so unusual and delightful. It is a charming way for the viewer to see the Temple artifacts. The manuscript is currently in Vienna, Austria in the National Library.

The Jews were miserable. It was the 25th year of their exile in Babylon. God gave Ezekiel an incredible amount of information about the next Temple to share with the Jews. Hearing about the future Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews were optimistic that they would indeed return to their homes. A provision accompanied the details and plans. The Temple would only be restored if the Jews were repentant and corrected their behaviours and observances.

We will fast-forward almost 2,550 years. Under Jordanian rule, Jews were forbidden to pray at the Western Wall from 1948 until 1967. When Israeli forces liberated Jerusalem in 1967, Jews were once again free to go to the Kotel, the only remaining wall of the Second Temple. We don’t have a Third Temple, but we have a unified Jerusalem, and we can pray at the Kotel. This remnant of the Temple should be a place of acceptance and harmony, and it should be a place where all Jews can speak to God in their own way.

As always, let’s pray for peace and harmony.

Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Terumah: Giving

Building a Temple by Laya Crust

This week’s blog is in memory of my mother, Dorothy Crust. Devorah bat Mordechai haCohen v’Rachel Leah was a woman imbued with beauty, wisdom, intelligence, and love of Judaism. This week’s parashah deals with building a home for God and introduces the concept of giving with an open heart. My mother z”l gave with an open heart and strengthened the community around her. Her memory is a blessing.

This week’s parashah is called “Terumah”, which means an offering, denoting something set apart as a donation. God says, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me contributions; you shall accept contributions for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Exodus 25:2). The wording is precise, “אשר ידבנו ולבּו”. “Those with a willing heart” are invited to contribute to the building of this important sanctuary. The building materials are to be given with generosity and joy rather than coercion or compulsion (like taxes and levies.)

Up until now, the Children of Israel have been entirely dependent. They were slaves in Egypt, and they did nothing for themselves in the desert. They were given manna, water, and led each step of the way. Finally, the Children of Israel are invited to do something for themselves and God. They step up to contribute energy, creativity, and materials to create a community hub.

In a functioning society, people are responsible for themselves and others. They must come forward to help things run smoothly. People give when they feel they have enough for themselves and enough to share. Whether helping with small tasks or major undertakings the contributor is empowered to share. When giving or sharing, you are forging a link with the person receiving. The recipient, in turn, is strengthened and can give to others.

When God asks B’nei Yisrael to build the Mishkan, He invites them to become partners with Him. God says, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם׃ (Exodus 25:8). The words “shikhanti” (I will dwell), “Mishkan,” and “shekhinah” (Divine Presence) all come from the same root word, which is found in the Hebrew words for neighbour, neighbourhood, and dwell. God wants to be a constant presence among the people and knows that human beings need visual reminders and beauty to awaken a joyful soul. “Neighbour” is in the word for God’s holy dwelling, and “neighbour” describes God’s Presence.

The bottom line of God’s message is, “Be involved. Don’t be a spectator.”

In this parashah we see the emergence of a group that is growing into a cohesive community. They will combine their materials and skills to make a mishkan, a sanctuary. God does not live in a building, but rather in the hearts of the builders. As He said, “Let them make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8).

Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya

P.S. The painting at the top is based on a ketubah from 1853 Istanbul, Turkey. It shows boats floating on the Bosphorous River. If you want to enlarge the image at the top of the ketubah below, you can click on them.

istanbul ketubah02

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Mishpatim. G-d is in the Details

The sweetness of the Law- Shabbat dessert by Arava and Eleanore Lightstone

G-d gives the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel in parashat Yitro. The parashah describes the thunder and lightning, the shaking of Mount Sinai, and the fear and trembling of the Israelites. It is a beautiful parashah. This week’s reading, Mishpatim (Laws), is comprised of laws that further define the Ten Commandments.

Judaism gave the world its moral code. The Ten Commandments outline many things from recognizing one G-d, to keeping the Sabbath, to the prohibition of murder, theft, and adultery. The first laws that are discussed in the parashah concern slavery. The Israelites had just been released from Egypt where they had been slaves. Those many years of servitude had been imprinted on their psyche. G-d knew that laws concerning slavery would resonate strongly with the Children of Israel.

The first law offers the possibility of freedom to a slave. “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free…” (Ex. 21:2-3). The Israelites are told to empathize with strangers. “Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.” (Ex. 22:21) and “Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9) G-d knows that if a person empathizes with the “other”, with a stranger, that person will show greater understanding and patience to the stranger.

The haftarah for Mishpatim is from the Book of Jeremiah. King Zedekiah had ordered the release of all Jewish slaves, as per G-d’s instruction. Two years later the owners re-inter their slaves. G-d tells Jeremiah that since the owners have re-enslaved their servants they will be punished. Slavery did not end in Jeremiah’s time as we know.

oneworldeducation.org

It has continued throughout history, even to the present day. Modern slavery exists in the notorious sweatshops in China, with the chained children in India who weave carpets, prostitution rings, and collapsed garment factories. Jews, too, have been the victims of modern slavery.

Freeing the Slave by Laya Crust

The slave conditions of sweatshop workers in the “shmatteh” business are well documented.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, young immigrants from Europe were put to work in dangerous conditions. The hours were long, the pay was miserly, and the workers would be locked in so they couldn’t take breaks for lunch or supper, or meet with union leaders to organize. Although the workers were not “owned “by their employers as they were in biblical times- they were owned by their employers in terms of their lives.

My illustration for Mishpatim shows the infamous fire in 1911 at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Company. It killed 146 young sweatshop workers; most of whom were Jewish immigrant girls aged 16 – 23. The image of the workers is based on a photograph of the young women and men striking, trying to get better working conditions.

May Day Parade, 1909

Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich were two of the Jewish women who organized the women’s garment unions. Jews have been union organizers throughout time and throughout the world. Just as G-d commanded us not to enslave and torture others, Jews have fought throughout history for human and employee rights. Human dignity, respecting other people, and treating all humans as equals are concepts central to Judaism. We are a people who believe in justice and freedom and will continue to work for it and fight for it. Our stubbornness in this particular arena is a stubbornness we can all be proud of.

Read this week’s parashah and haftarah. Notice the righteousness. Notice the details. G-d is in them.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya

“Five Thousand Years of Slavery” by Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen gives a thorough history of world slavery with fascinating photographs and reprinted documents. It is a great educational tool for home or school.

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Shemot- Those Who Are Nameless

Hopeless Desperation 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. Neither slaves, 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.

We read of Moses’ entanglement with an Egyptian taskmaster and three Israelite slaves, yet 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 were named were those who stood 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

Names are important. When Moses met God at the burning bush surprisingly Moses asked for God’s name. Moses knew that the Israelite slaves needed a name for God in order to believe. 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.

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, and why the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem is called Yad V’Shem (“A Monument and a Name”).

Ai Weiwei's Snake Ceiling, a serpentine form made from children's backpacks, is currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum's "According to What?" exhibit. It commemorates the thousands of students who died in poorly constructed schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
A Snake made out of children’s backpacks, Ai Wei Wei,
Hirshhorn Museum, 2008/ photograph by Cathy Carver

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. That may make it easier for us to see them as individuals and allow us to reach out more quickly.

Claiming a name

May this be a Shabbat of welcoming and hope, of reaching out to help the other- the nameless and those in need. And through our actions may we bring peace and healing to the world.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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Reunited- VaYigash

The brothers selling Joseph to passing traders from the parasha VaYigash

For the last number of weeks we have been reading about our ancestors, Jacob’s children. More specifically, we have read about Joseph’s trajectory from favoured son at home, to being a slave, and then to becoming viceroy of all Egypt. By the time he was thirty years old Joseph ruled Egypt. He ran the finances and oversaw all of Egypt’s policies.

In this week’s Torah reading Joseph’s brothers still did not know that the leader they were speaking to was their brother. This parsha begins just after Benjamin had been “framed”. Joseph’s personal silver chalice had been “planted” in Benjamin’s belongings, and the Israelite brothers had been told that Benjamin would become enslaved to Pharaoh’s court as payment for the infraction. Joseph was playing a game with his brothers.

English: Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brot...Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother, c. 1896-1902
 by James Jacques Joseph Tissot    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 
 
Judah, The same brother who decades earlier had suggested Joseph be sold rather than be killed, begged for understanding. He pouredout his heart to the great Egyptian before him. Judah hoped that by telling this regent of his father’s heartbreak and frailty the leader might accept Judah as a slave rather than take his youngest brother. 
 

Joseph could carry on the charade no longer. He cleared all the Egyptian attendants from the room. The text says, “And no man stood with him while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And his voice cried out with weeping, and Egypt heard…” 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. Joseph forgave his brothers. He feasted with them, gave them gifts of clothing and food, and convinced them to return to Egypt and live in comfort.

Although the story had begun many years earlier with fraternal jealousy, the brothers reunited and rebuilt their family. This was contrary to the patterns we had seen before. Cain killed his brother Abel. Isaac grew up without his brother Ishmael.  Jacob and Esau never truly reconciled. In this story we see Joseph and Judah build the unified family which would become a nation.

VaYigashReunited  by Laya Crust

The haftarah features the prophet Ezekiel. He lived from around 622 BCE – 570 BCE and was among the 8,000 Jews exiled to Babylonia. God told Ezekiel to take two beautiful branches, carve phrases on them and display them. One branch represented the nation of Judah and the other represented Joseph’s lineage, the nation of Ephraim. Ezekiel wrote phrases about the two Jewish nations onto the branches and held the two branches together. The action was to indicate that just as the branches could be rejoined, the Israelites could be reunited and grow together as one unified nation.

Both readings are about unity. In every era and in every generation there are disagreements between different sectors of Jews. The competition for leadership, the separation of the nations – began as early as the story of Cain and Abel. 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. We are stronger as a united people.

We live in frightening times which are harder to navigate if we are divided. We witness and experience the Covid-19 epidemic, international terrorism, increasd anti-Semitism, 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

The painting “Reunited”, showing Ezekiel writing on a branch,  is one of the images in my forthcoming book, “ILLUMINATIONS: The Art of Haftarah”. Stay tuned for more information!

Shabbat Shalom,  Laya

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