Tag Archives: Jewish History

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 were 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

But 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.

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.

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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Tisha B’Av, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

Despair by Laya Crust

We are coming to the end of the “Three Weeks of Mourning”, the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is the Hebrew date of the ninth day of the month of Av. It is a day of Jewish mourning, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem. The first destruction was at the hands of the Babylonians and the second at the hands of the Romans. It meant the loss of our centre of worship, the loss of our home, and the expulsion from our homeland.

Kamtza bar Kamtza 1 by Laya Crust

There is a story of  two men with similar names, Kamtza and bar Kamtza. The men lived in Jerusalem during the time of the Second Temple, under Roman domination. There was a misunderstanding and one of the men was insulted and shamed in front of other people. The repercussions just got worse and worse. Pride and lack of consideration tangled the possibility of a graceful conclusion.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bar-kamtza-3-2.jpg
Kamtza Bar Kamtza 2 by Laya Crust

The story is often studied in conjunction with Tisha B’Av. It is used as an exemplar of how שנאת חינם , baseless hatred and intense social divisiveness, can cause the downfall of a society. If you want to read the story go to http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/404863/jewish/Kamtza-and-Bar-Kamtza.htm

We are seeing extremes in blame and hyperbole in the streets, in the media, and coming from angry world leaders every day.

Conflict destroys communities. People want their opinions to be heard, but often don’t want to listen to a different point of view. People talk over each other. The conversation becomes garbled, unintelligible and angry. Sometimes the conflicting ideas actually mirror each other. We need to listen to others in order to get on the same “line”.

Kamtza- bar Kamtza 3 by Laya crust

We must figure out how we can talk respectfully to those around us. Sometimes we hear things we don’t understand, that don’t make sense to us. The other opinion may sound like babble but sincere discussion and striving for compromise make peace possible.

Kamtza bar Kamtza 4 by Laya Crust

We don’t have to be in lockstep with anyone. We should never accept a stance that is destructive or cruel. But I have to believe that sincere communication can bring if not exactly what a nation or person wants, it can at least bring what a nation or person can handle in a peaceful and constructive way.

I hope open communication will become more widespread among families, communities, countries and regions. Empathy and mutual respect will save the world.

Have a good Shabbat and a meaningful Tisha B’Av,

Laya

The image “Despair” is part of the exhibit “ILLUMINATIONS” currently on display at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. The exhibit includes 88 haftarah images created by Laya Crust, as well as a number of other art pieces. The display is open to the public.

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Pinchas- Changes in Leadership

Pinchas- The Silent Voice art by Laya Crust

The Torah reading “Pinchas” deals with different types of leadership seen through Moses, Pinchas, Joshua, Zelophehad’s daughters and Elijah.

In this parsha Moshe was once again told that he would die before reaching the Promised Land. Knowing this Moshe asked Gd to appoint someone to take over his role as leader. Beautifully he said, “…so that Gd’s community will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Numbers 27:17). Gd told Moshe to appoint Joshua, son of Nun , to take over to take over the leadership.

This choice may have been unexpected. The Torah reading begins by focusing on Pinchas, a Levi and Aaron’s grandson. He was a passionate and zealous man who killed two idolators in front of the אוהל מועד, the holy Tent of Meeting. It was a shocking act but it averted Gd’s wrath. Gd rewarded Pinchas by giving him hereditary priesthood and also gave him “My covenant of peace”. Pinchas and his descendants were given the honour because of his zealousness for Gd. Why was Joshua chosen rather than this hero and man of action?

Joshua appears a number of times through the Torah. The first time he appears he was appointed to lead a group of refugees from Egypt in war against Amalek. He must have had leadership qualities and experience to have been chosen for the task of leading untrained men into battle. Later, when Moshe went up Mount Sinai, Joshua accompanied him and waited 40 days and 40 nights until his leader descended. In addition, when Moshe appointed 12 leaders to spy out the land of Canaan Joshua and Caleb were the two men who were enthusiastic about the the land and confident in b’nei Yisrael’s ability to conquer their enemies and settle there.

These qualities- as well as Joshua’s experience of traversing difficult land and situations, and witnessing Moshe’s leadership qualities made him an excellent choice as leader.

Image result for zelophehad's daughters by Gustave Dore

The narrative includes a story which shows insight to two other leadership qualities. As the division of land is being discussed five sisters, Mahla, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah from the tribe of Menashe came forward and asked for the portion of their father’s land. They told Moshe their father Zelophehad had died. There was no son to take the land. They asked for their father’s portion in order to preserve their father’s legacy and name.

Their confidence in coming forward and questioning what they felt was an unfair law shows insight and leadership. Moshe’s reaction as judge and arbitor also shows wisdom in leadership. He was unsure how to answer and turned to Gd. Gd answered that the women were correct and should receive their father’s portion.

V’Zot haBracha by Laya Crust

The haftarah also addresses a change in leadership. Elijah appoints Elisha to take over from him

We see different types of abilities, strengths, and skills in the players who take part in this week’s parsha and haftarah. It helps us to recognize how one set of abilities may be appropriate for a certain task or role. That same skill will create a leader in one situation but not another. We also see that a person who acts on his or her own is not necessarily fit for the larger role. The leaders should act in concert and with the support of others.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

Remember: Come to the exhibit of my haftarah series and other art works at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. It continues until October 24, 2019. The exhibit is open during synagogue hours, 7 days a week . For more information e-mail me at layacrust@gmail.com

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Balak- Vision and Truth

Balak, Morning Dew art by Laya Crust

This parsha features a non-Jewish prophet and his conversation with a donkey. It contains lessons about seeing what is in front of you and the judicious use of speech.

The parsha is unusual in a number of ways. No Jews are featured in the reading. Gd and His angel speak to a non-Jewish prophet – a sorcerer. A donkey is the literal voice of reason. The anticipated curse becomes a blessing, and a form of the word רואה, “see”, is figured 19 times in the reading, creating an overlay of vision to the story.

The Moabite king, Balak, was afraid of the Israelites. He had heard about their previous victories against the Amorites and Ammonites. He either exaggerated or was under the impression that the Israelites were a huge nation and said, “[they] will lick up all that are around us as the ox that licks up the grass of the field.” ( Bamidbar 22:4). These are very negative words, chosen to create fear of the Jews among the Moabites. He called for the well known pagan prophet to curse the Israelites. Bilaam was willing to curse them until Gd warned him not to. Ultimately Bilaam blessed the Israelites. Included in the blessings were the following phrases, “It is a nation that will dwell alone and will not be reckoned among the nations” (23:9) and “those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed” (24:9) .

This story reminds me of politics and attitudes today. Balak was fearful of the Israelites. He did not look to see what instigated the battles that the Israelites had won. He did not care whether or not the Israelites were defending themselves against enemy forces. Instead he saw an imagined scenario where the Israelites were the aggressors. He aggrandized and vilified them using inflamed terminology. Having been offered money and power Bilaam was willing to curse the foreign nation.

Bilaam’s donkey is the one player in this story who spoke with reason. Her eyes were open. She saw the angel of Gd and knew to stop in her tracks. When Bilaam said he would have liked to kill her for stopping, she pointed out that Bilaam was willing to ignore a long history of good service without investigating the reasons behind the donkey’s action.

Balaam and the Donkey by Gustav Dore

The rhetoric is high these days. The Prime Minister of Luxembourg has publicly insulted Israel and the Israeli ambassador because of a negative remark by Israel’s Minister of Education. Rather than looking at Israel’s entrenched policies supporting LGBTQ rights, and praising Israel’s policies PM Bettel chose to do the popular thing, He shamefully boycotted a dinner honouring the Israeli ambassador.

At the same time the western media and vociferous public applaud anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric because it is presented under the guise of , “I can’t be prejudiced because I am an immigrant/ woman / person of colour/ part of a minority.” The media and talking rabble are so invested in protecting the rights and freedoms of the above they refuse to look at the basic objective facts of a situation. They drink up the incendiary language and half truths that are presented. It’s time those who do the popular reporting look at underlying facts. They should stop and listen to the voice of reason, even if it seems to be coming from a donkey. Israel and Jews are castigated, and true to Bilaam’s words seem to be “… a nation that will dwell alone and will not be reckoned among the nations” (23:9)

In the haftarah the prophet Micah says, “The remnant of jacob will be in the midst of many nations like dew from the Lord, like raindrops on the grass.” (Micah 5:). It’s true. Like the dew we are a small element in the vastness of the world and the nations. But like the dew and the raindrops we nurture, create, and make the world a better place. From ethics and morality to medical and technical innovation we bring goodness to the world.

in these painful times it is important to remember these words , also from Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justly and to love true loyalty, and to walk humbly with your Gd.” (Micah 6:8)

Iam saddened by the blindness of the media and the lack of respectful discourse in politics. But, let’s act justly and withtrue love and loyalty, and maybe we’ll tip the scales.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya Remember: Come to the exhibit of my haftarah series and other art works at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue, on until October 24, 2019. The exhibit is open during synagogue hours, 7 days a week . For more information e-mail me at layacrust@gmail.com

Compass Rose by Laya Crust. Haftarah for Lech Lecha

Remember: Come to the exhibit of my haftarah series and other art works at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. It continues until October 24, 2019. The exhibit is open during synagogue hours, 7 days a week . For more information e-mail me at layacrust@gmail.com

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The Last Meal in Egypt

Moses and Pharaoh by Laya Crust

This week’s parsha, “Bo”, recounts the last three plagues God inflicted on the Egyptians. It also describes the last meal in Egypt. The story of the Ten Plagues and the escape of the Israelites from Egypt was the beginning of a new epoch for the Israelites. This exodus would be the event that forged a new nation.

I was struck by the God’s explicit instructions. He told the Israelites what to wear, how to paint the doorposts with blood, not to go outside the family compound, and to be ready to leave in haste. I tried to picture the situation. How would the Israelites feel, being told to brazenly roast a lamb- an animal deified by their oppressors, gather a huge group together in order to eat the Egyptian deified food, and eat it while dressed to flee? It sounds daunting.

The Israelites were told “…take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share with a neighbour who lives nearby, in proportion to the number of persons:” (Exodus 12: 3,4). This instruction made sure not to waste any food, but to share in both the preparation and the food. Every single family – men, women and children- would make their own offering. To use it all they would have to share. It was to be a special and memorable meal officiated not by a priest or leader but by the entire family.

According to one recipe an entire roasted lamb can feed up to 45 people. So how could so many people gather to roast and eat an entire lamb? They couldn’t leave the house to eat outside. Anyone who stepped through the doorway that had been marked with blood would be subject to the punishment of death visited upon the Egyptians.

In many communities there might have been six or eight connected houses built around a courtyard. Each house was inhabited a relative with his family. Families met to eat and cook in the central courtyard. The patriarch’s house would have an entrance to the town thoroughfare. This could explain how a group of 30 – 45 people could gather together in an enclosed space to eat an entire lamb.

The Israelites were told, “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded,your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand: and you shall eat it in haste, “בְּחִפָּזוֹן”. ( Exodus 12:11) The word “חִפָּזוֹן” is used only three times in Torah. The second time “חִפָּזוֹן” is used is in Deuteronomy 12:3. Moshe was describing the Passover observance of the future, which would mirror the meal from the night of the exodus.

He said ,”You shall slaughter the Passover sacrifice, from the flock and the herd…you shall eat unleavened bread, bread of distress – for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly (בְּחִפָּזוֹן)- so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live”. To make the memory even sharper and more accurate Moshe added, “none of the flesh of what you slaughter on the evening of the first day shall be left until morning.” (Deuteronomy 16:4)

What a scene. Bustling and fevered preparation beginning at midnight, followed by a huge group of people eating roasted lamb in the common courtyard behind the doors to the streets. Dressed in sandals, holding their staffs as they ate meat and herbs, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. And this was under the noses of their slave masters and the Pharaoh. This is a view of that night, a scene of excitement and trepidation.

Maybe that’s something that should be brought to our seder tables at Pesach. Maybe we should try to communicate to our children and even to ourselves what astounding preparation and activity was going on behind closed doors.

As mentioned above the preparation was outlined “so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live”. And that is what the Pesach seder does. It brings together families and friends, unites communities and Jews all around the world. So these are my thoughts this week. Thoughts about preparation, uncertainty, the organization of the home and sharing of space for meals, and how בְּחִפָּזוֹן is a rarely used word (in Torah) that was used for a specific type of panic and haste.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

Here are some food ideas for your Shabbat Bo table. 3 plagues: locusts, darkness, and death

Locusts

Darkness

Death of the first born-
broken hearts

You can make your own roasted meat (lamb if you want) by marinating it in olive oil and curry powder with onions, then frying or barbecuing it. If you want, eat it wearing sandals, and holding a staff! Bon Appetit.

Image result for israeli shawarma

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