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Reunited

Joseph by Laya Crust

           

Parsha: VaYigash                                   Haftarah:   Ezekiel 37: 15-28

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 that Joseph be sold rather than be killed, stepped forward and begged for understanding. He poured out his heart, recounting the family history to the great Egyptian before him. Judah hoped 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 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…” 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. He told them how to get land so they could raise cattle.

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. 

beit horon passagephoto by Yoni Lightstone, tour guide

Ezekiel also told them that God would gather them from among all the nations and bring them back  to their own land. The text reads, “Behold I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them to their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel.” (v.  21, 22)

Both readings are about unity. In every era and in every generation there are disagreements between different sectors of Jews. We are stronger as a united people. I hope we can learn to discuss, consider, and be united for the benefit of all.

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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Va Yak’hel

Inspired 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 had been requested. The magnificence is described close on the heels of the sin of fashioning the golden calf. 

Wasn’t it contradictory- to punish the people for creating a golden calf but then command them to make expensive objects to be used in religious observance? The Israelites loved ornamentation and beauty. They gave their gold and precious jewelry to Aaron to make an idol to replace the absent Moshe. The answer to this seeming contradiction is in the wording.

Phrases like “wise hearted”  and “willing of heart” appear 15 times in this parsha. Only individuals who were wise hearted and generous 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 elevation of spirit.

Beauty feeds the soul and God understood- and understands this. This parsha acknowledges the need the Israelites had for something beautiful and tangible to help them find comfort and help the on their journey.

Image result for 1299, Perpignan manuscript illumination

1299, Perpignan

Bezalel was chosen to be head architect and designer. He was filled with the spirit of God, with creativity, with understanding and with the knowledge of all kinds of craft. His aide, Oholiab, was also filled with wisdom of heart. Men and women were all invited to contribute and participate in the building of the mishkan and all the objects within it as long as they were generous of heart.

The value God places on creativity is the theme of my illustrationThe vessels are the brass pieces used in the mishkan. The painting is based on a  beautiful and timeless illumination from 1299, Perpignan, Aragon.  The two quotations are from the parsha:  “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.

So, artists, artisans, wood workers, poets, musicians, playwrights, weavers, silversmiths,  authors, painters, dancers, photographers and potters, when you work with integrity and inspiration remember that it is God’s gift to you. This is your contribution to the spiritual beauty of the world.

Have Shabbat Shalom- one full of beauty and joy and of course – creative thinking. Hoping for peace and equality in the world,

Laya

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V’Etchanan- Consolation and Renewal


My summer office

In the summer I’m fortunate to be able to sit outside and do my writing and editing in the backyard. The morning as I looked around at my garden I thought about how lucky I am to have the good weather and sunshine. Then I thought about how lucky I am to have a garden. The more I thought, the harder it became- I thought about the fires in Greece and North America where gardens disappear in a moment. And the fires in Southern Israel set by terrorists who send incendiary balloons into yards, playgrounds, and fields. And I thought about the people in war torn Syria (among other countries) whose homes and lives have been bombed to pieces.

These thoughts came to me as we leave the sadness of Tisha B’Av and enter the Weeks of Consolation because the world is not healed.

This week we read the parsha and haftarah of V’Etchanan.

V’Etchanan- Maximum Impact by Laya Crust

This painting shows a flaming Mount Sinai heralding the giving of the 10 Commandments. The images around it illustrate different elements of our faith. The parsha carries with it some of the most important words of Torah which are the foundations of our faith.  In this parsha we are privileged to read, once again, the 10 commandments and we are also given the “Sh’ma Yisrael”. We are told about the Land of Milk and Honey. We even read the question presented by the first of the four sons at our Pesach seder (Deuteronomy ch. 6 v. 20). We read about Moshe speaking to the children of Israel as they are about to enter the land of Canaan. He warns the children of Israel not to forget God’s laws.

V’Etchanan- Measuring the Skies with a Span,   by Laya Crust

This haftarah is the first Haftarah of  Consolation. Isaiah said that God created the heaven and the earth. God “measured the water in the hollow of His hand and measured the skies with a span…”

We are reminded that God created the world- that no man could do it and no man could even measure it. The parsha reminds us of the laws, the ethics, and the miracles God has given us. Moshe also reminds us, the Jews and Israelites, that He will protect us and our land if we safeguard His gifts to us. Those gifts are the Ten Commandments and accompanying laws.

As I sit in my beautiful garden in peaceful Toronto I am aware of the tragedies in the world. I can only believe that God is protecting Israel and safeguarding it from its multiple enemies. By living ethically, by respecting others and respecting all lives, we help to safeguard Israel too.

So, here we are beginning the Seven Weeks of Consolation, reading the words of Isaiah. He is still trying to guide a wayward group. Hopefully we will be able to live in a peaceful land flowing with Milk and Honey. Hopefully the unity and mutual support will prevail.

All the best and Shabbat Shalom, Laya

 

 

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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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Isaac’s Role

King David Departing,   art by Laya Crust

The haftarah of “Chayei Sarah” (The Life of Sarah) recounts political discussions at the dying King David’s bedside. In the Torah reading Sarah and Abraham both die. Isaac marries Rebecca and he carries on from Abraham in the role of patriarch.

Isaac was not an active figure. He was not a traveler and fighter like his father Abraham, or a strategist and negotiator like his son Jacob. He seems to have been a quiet man who stayed at home and was content with the status quo. He didn’t even choose his own wife. Abraham’s servant found a suitable wife for Isaac. When the servant returned with Rebecca she saw him “meditating” in the fields.

Image result for chagall rebecca aND isaacRebecca and Isaac, Marc Chagall

… “and Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the evening time…” (Genesis 24: 63). It seems fitting that Isaac, a quiet man, would go out into the fields to contemplate at dusk, when there is a solitude and calm in the air.

We can look at each of the patriarchs and relate them to the different times of day. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that that Rabbi Jacobovits “used to point out that the position of the sun at the various stages of the day mirrored that of the patriarchs themselves.”  Lord Jacobovits  likened Abraham to the sun which rose in the east, just as Abraham started his life in the east and traveled west to Canaan. Isaac was like the sun in the afternoon which is centered in the sky. He remained in Canaan, not straying from that chosen land. Just as the sun sets in the west, Jacob ended his life away from Canaan, in the land of Egypt.

The personalities and behaviours of the patriarchs also reflect the patterns of the day. Abraham rose early in the morning to do God’s bidding. Just as the sun ignites action, Abraham was a  man of action- not needing others to prod him along. The sun heralds a new day and Abraham founded a new nation.

Jacob is the night. He had the vision of angels climbing a ladder at night. God spoke to him at night. He fought with the angel at the Jabok River throughout the night. Jacob had many experiences with angels. They were mysterious and miraculous, and we think of the night as mysterious.

    Image result for abraham and isaac rembrandt 1634Abraham and Isaac,   Rembrandt, 1645

Isaac was the path between Abraham- man of action and obedience to God,  and Jacob- man of manipulation and negotiation.  Isaac obeyed his father and God at the akeida, when Abraham almost sacrificed him on Mount Moriah. Isaac accepted the role of patriarch, never questioning it. He remained in Cannan, managed the flocks, married whom he was told to marry, and raised his sons. He was a thinker, renouncing Abraham’s aggressive movement and Jacob’s passionate reactivity. If Abraham was morning and Jacob was night, then Isaac was the day, moving through the sky connecting morning to night.

If we relate the patriarchs to prayer Abraham is shacharit (morning prayer) Isaac is mincha (afternoon prayer) and Jacob is ma’ariv (evening payer).

Isaac’s personality is not described in the Bible. We read about Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob and each of Jacob’s wives, but Isaac is passive. He was a quiet leader who held it all together. He was a bridge between those who waged war, who took over land, and who grabbed what they felt they deserved. He was a figure of calm and permanence who meditated and lived simply.

We need all kinds of personalities to balance the world and Isaac’s quietude is a trait to integrate in our commercial, materialistic, and goal oriented world.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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New Year Thoughts

art by Laya Crust, inspired by Ben Shahn

Rosh HaShana is a day of deep prayer and meditation- as well as an opportunity to connect with family and friends. Put another way, the time of prayer allows us to connect with ourselves and then connect with others. The Shabbat between  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva- a Sabbath of return.

The Haftarah for Shabbat Shuva begins, “Return o Israel unto the Lord your God…”  Within the haftarah we are told to blow the shofar, and gather together.

I’ve been thinking about the act of personal prayer and our place in society and the world. Much of the New Year and Day of Atonement is spent  in personal prayer. What do we get out of personal prayer? What are the benefits?

On the first day of Rosh HaShana we read the story of Hanna, a childless woman who goes to the Temple and prays silently, moving her lips, but making no sound.

art by Laya Crust

Hanna was the first person in Jewish text who prayed silently. She expressed her thoughts to God, conversing with God and stating her needs and desires. Hanna must have been a person who knew herself well. She did something unconventional and clarified her personal path to allow herself to go forward.

We live during a time that is full of natural disasters, spiritual disasters, leadership disasters and international tragedy. It’s possible that the world has ever been thus, but with the existence of internet, twitter, skype, cell phones, and immediate news we are aware of the international calamities immediately. The fascism and racism exposed in Charlottesville and the genocide in Myanmar are but two of the horrific “human rights abuses” (understatement if there ever was one)currently taking place in the world. The global peace watchdog- the UN is a disaster. The forest fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and droughts are all natural disasters that have destroyed lives and communities around the world- all disasters we have witnessed in the last couple of months.  It is very difficult for some of us to know what to do, how to respond to these world crises both man made and natural.

It makes me think of another narrative in the bible.

Elijah was a prophet who was being hunted down by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Although God told him to face his accusers Elijah decided to hide in a cave on Mount Horev in order to avoid his dangerous and overwhelming realities. God finally tells Elijah to step out of the cave. First a huge, violent wind comes by, breaking the mountains and rocks. Then after the wind there was an earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire. God was not in any of those forces. After the fire there was a still, small voice, and God was in that voice. At that point Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle , stood in the entrance of the cave , and “behold, there came a voice to him.” (Kings I 19: 13) The voice was the voice of God.

This story encompasses my thoughts about prayer and personal prayer.

Each of us is a compilation of experiences. Within our psyche we carry the lessons we have learned from parents, grandparents, teachers, wise individuals, illnesses and events we have experienced. We carry ethical truths based on what we have learned. Those ethical truths are God’s voice. It is the still small voice that speaks to us and can help us unravel difficulties that we face in a day or in our lives.

It is a thought I will take with me. As I enter synagogue to pray or meditate, like Hanna I will focus on my own prayers rather than pose for others. As the shofar is blown I will hear that pure, unusual call and know it is calling all Jews from every corner  of the world. When I am distressed by the earthquakes and fires and hurricanes I will listen to the still small voice and work out how I am able to best help and contribute to making the world a better place.

May you have a meaningful Rosh HaShana, May your year be one of health, peace, tranquility, and goodness throughout the world.

Shana Tova,  Laya

 

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Acharei Mot

art by Laya Crust

Haftarah- Ezekiel 22: 11 – 19

The Torah reading this week deals with strict rules for religious and moral behaviour. One of the abhorrent practices mentioned is performing child sacrifice to the god Molech. Different aspects of blood are discussed- blood that the cohanim sprinkle during the sacrifice ceremony, blood that is shed during forbidden sacrificial rites, and the prohibition of eating blood. “You will not eat the blood of any flesh for the life of all flesh is its blood.” (Leviticus 17:14)  It is a fierce section of the Torah.

The haftarah is equally fierce. The prophet Ezekiel starts off condemning the children of Israel. Ezekiel communicates that God spoke to him and said, “…will you judge the bloody city? Then cause her to know all her abhorrent deeds…You stand guilty in the blood you have shed…” (Ezekiel 22: 2, 4)

The illustration is based on a painting  called “Allegory 2” by the great American social realist Ben Shahn.  Shahn was eight years old when his family immigrated from Lithuania to the United States. He apprenticed as a lithographer and studied biology and art. He was a social realist , very concerned with human rights, discrimination, poverty and social justice. Throughout his career he did  number of works integrating Jewish text and liturgy. Among other projects he illustrated a haggadah, wrote out and illustrated the Book of Ecclesiastes, and wrote “The Alphabet of Creation”.

“Allegory 2” shows a man huddled in fear, trying to escape God’s accusing hand. Painted in 1953, during the McCarthy era, the American “Establishment” was petrified of Communism. High profile individuals, many of them artists, actors, writers, film makers, and Jews were professionally destroyed after being accused of having communist affiliations. Shahn did not agree with this flagrant abuse of power which branded creativity and human rights as evil communism. Some think that Shahn’s use of red in this painting was his criticism of America coming down against the “Red Commies”. In this illustration God is berating those in power (like McCarthy and his cronies) for abusing power.

The haftarah “Acharei Mot” is frightening in its list of punishments and it is rarely read. Usually the week this reading appears it is paired with another section which is chanted instead.

It is spring- a time of blossoms, new growth, beauty and beginnings. Let’s take advantage and do good things in the world around us!

B’vracha, Laya

 

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