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Balak, Bilaam and a Donkey

Balakart by Laya Crust

Balak:    Numbers 22:2–25:9

Haftarah:   Micah 5:6 – 6:8

This week’s Torah reading is about a Moabite king, Balak, who calls Bilaam the seer to curse the children of Israel. The parsha focuses on a very odd story, and there are a number of elements that are worth noting:

1) First of all no Israelites, no Jews, appear in the narrative. It is told from the perspective of a Moabite leader and his most respected prophet.

2) Gd, Who generally does not talk directly to individuals, carries on a conversation with Bilaam, the non-Israelite prophet.

3) There is a talking donkey (actually, a female ass) who figures pretty prominently in the narrative.

4) We are presented with the Israelite’s and Gd’s reputation among the other nations.

The parsha begins with Balak, the Moabite king, being frightened by the Israelite victory against the Amorites. He sends a message to Bilaam, a respected and successful prophet saying, “Behold , there is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me.” (Numbers 22: v. 5)  As far as we know Balak had never previously confronted the Israelites. However their progress and strength  had become legendary and their numbers were exaggerated.- “they cover the face of the earth.”

Through the course of this unusual story Bilaam was commanded a number of times to curse the Israelites but he refused. Once Bilaam even said ,”If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my Gd…” (ch 22: 18). Bilaam finally did get up and accompany the king’s men against the previous directions from Gd.

engraving by Gustave Dore

You may be familiar with the next part of the story . An angel stood in Bilaam’s path holding a sword. The she-ass saw the angel but Bilaam didn’t. When the she-ass repeatedly stopped Bilaam lifted his whip and beat her, to force her to continue. At that point the animal turned around and said, “Am I not your ass, upon whom you  have ridden all your life to this day?…” The angel  revealed himself and added,”…the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times; unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I would have slain thee and saved her alive.” (ch 22: 33)

This is an odd story on many levels and there are different lessons to be learned depending on which perspective you choose.

Bilaam was successful and highly regarded due to his communication with the Gd of the Israelites, the one Gd. This reminds us that Gd created all people and all people must be regarded fairly and respected for who they are, not where they were born or who their parents are. By the same token we are reminded that animals are also to be treated with respect. Animals are also within Gd’s purview and creation. They too are to be treated with decency and not abused. So- this is a parsha about respect.

We see from the beginning of the parsha that the actions of a nation and an individual make an impression. Although bnei Yisrael was a tiny, tiny nation it had overcome impossible difficulties and travelled a relatively large area of land after escaping from Egypt. Their tenacity and success had become legendary , to the point that the King of Moab thought the Israelites were a HUGE nation covering the earth. The same phenomenon  can be seen today. Although Jews number about 0.2% of the world’s population we are recognized, noticed, and thought to be a much much higher percent of the world’s population. Although Israel is one of the world’s smallest countries it is seen as a gigantic world power- and of course vilified for its negatively perceived influence rather than lauded for its democracy and progress.

The lesson for this week can be summed up by a quotation from the haftarah. “…and what does the Lord require of you; Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your Gd.”  Micah ch 6: v8

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Up and Down at Har Sinai

Humanityart by Laya Crust

Ki Tissa-   Exodus (Shemot) 30:11 – 34:35

In this parsha we read about extremes of faith. Moses received the last of Gd’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 Gd Himself had written. Soon after there was an interaction between Gd and Moses where Moses is almost taken to the heavens in terms of spiritual closeness. The parsha ends with another presentation of the Ten Commandments.

This is a profound narrative. The previous two Torah portions recounted Gd’s directions for building a beautiful “mishkan” (portable sanctuary). The furnishings were to be made of gold and precious wood. Bezalel, the architect, was chosen for the job and given spiritual insight in order to build an amazing sanctuary. The clothing of the Kohanim- the priests- was described in great detail. Obviously Gd was well aware that the Israelite refugees craved  extraordinary beauty to help achieve a level of awe and observance.

But there was a problem. Moses went up Mount Sinai alone and disappeared behind a column of fire and cloud. He disappeared for 40 days and 40 nights. It’s true- 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 survived the dramatic conflagration. So Moses came down to witness singing and dancing around the Golden Calf.

Ki Tissa sig

When Moses disappeared the people decided to create their own beautiful focus of prayer. Gd’s punishment was brutal. Three thousand men were killed for the sin.

Moses was not able to recover from this incident easily. He 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 Gd on their behalf. He acted as arbitrator time and again between them and Gd when they transgressed certain orders. So Moses, as righteous as he was, asked for more from Gd. He asked to see Gd.

Gd put Moses into the cleft of a rock. According to the text (Ex. 33: 22)  Gd protected Moses from seeing His face with His hand 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 Gd for greater closeness and identification. The text presents the heights of receiving the word of Gd on a mountaintop contrasted so quickly by the weakness of His people. This story underlines the fractious yet extraordinary relationship we have with Gd.

The relationship we have with Gd is quite incredible. My husband Les Lightstone mentioned an interesting point. Gd 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 Gd 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, and end of violence, and an appreciation of beauty.

Laya

 

 

 

 

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VaYigash 5776

joeyart by Laya Crust

Haftarah: Ezekiel      37 15-28

Ezekiel (prophet) – c.622 BCE – 570 BCE.

The colourful story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax in this week’s parsha, VaYigash.  The brothers and their father, Jacob, had survived the famine in the land of Canaan but could not survive much longer. For the second time the brothers  traveled to Egypt to get food.  They went with troubled hearts. They had been warned not to come unless they brought their youngest brother, Benjamin. Their fears of something bad happening to Benjamin were realized when Benjamin was “framed” by Joseph’s attendants.

The beauty/ pathos of the story unfolds from here.  Judah stepped forward (VaYigash) and begged for understanding. He poured out his heart, recounting the family history to this 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. It 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, and the house of Pharaoh heard.”

Joseph forgave his brothers and the family was reunited. Yaakov/ Israel saw his beloved son and his mourning was alleviated. The brothers and their families traveled to Egypt and settled in Goshen where they lived comfortable lives. This message of reconciliation is echoed in the haftarah.

VaYigashart by Laya Crust

The haftarah’s message is unity as expressed on two branches.  One branch represented the nation of Judah and the other represented  Joseph’s lineage. Ezekiel wrote the following phrases onto the branches: “For Judah and for the children of Israel his companions” on one, and “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and of all the house of Israel his companions” on the other. The background of my painting is made up of significant phrase from Ezekiel’s speech. You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Ezekiel then held the two branches up in front of a gathering of the exiled Jews. He showed that the two groups could be reunited and grow together as one unified nation.

It is interesting how many ways Jews can be looked at in order to create divisions- countries of origin  (Moroccan? German? Swiss? Canadian?) or  Sepharadi vs Ashkenazi or orthodox/ conservative/ reform/ resconstructionist/ humanist or  black kippah vs crocheted kippah vs kippah on an angle or politically right vs politically left.

Just as in the story of Vayigash and in Ezekiel’s pronouncement, we are all B’nei Yisrael- Jews. We can be united and in that way be true to ourselves and stronger as a nation. The haftarah says, “Behold I will take the children of Israel from among the nations…and bring them to their own land.” (v.21). We see it happening today. Jews from all over the world are coming to Israel. But- you don’t have to be Jewish! Come to Israel! Visit! It’s beautiful there.

May we be one people working for peace and improvement of the world.

Enjoy this holiday time,

Laya

 

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Sarah – שרה

VaYeira Sigart by Laya Crust

Vayeira- Genesis 18 – 22

Haftarah- Kings II, ch. 4: 1-37

This week’s parsha is an incredible series of stories and events. There are at least five incredible narratives, each worthy of detailed study. Sarah, Avraham’s wife, figures throughout the parsha, and I’d like to look at her personality this week.

Avraham is the major character in these stories of Bereshit.  Gd told Avraham to leave his homeland and that he would become the father of a great people. Avraham left, taking his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot with him. As I read about Sarai- whose name was changed to Sarah- I am struck by her strength, her wisdom, and her relationship with Avraham. She was 75 years old when she and her husband left their home for unknown reaches. She was described as beautiful- so beautiful that King Avimelech took her to his harem. We may wonder how a woman of 75 can be that appealing, but some have an ageless beauty that is enhanced by grace and wisdom.

P1140345drawing by Laya Crust

I think Sarah also had a spark of humour and joy of life that contributed to being timelessly attractive. Her sense of humour?- she heard the angels speak and laughed within herself- laughing at herself and the thought of becoming a mother in her nineties. Her joie de vivre? She enjoyed her relationship with Avraham, “sporting” with him (AKA fooling around) in a field!

The readings suggest that Sarah and Avraham had a strong  partnership. They traveled together and discussed the strategy for entering Avimelech’s kingdom. Recognizing her infertility she offered her handmaid Hagar to her husband, hoping that way he would become a father. Recognizing Hagar’s behaviour Sarah handled the situation as she thought she had to. When the three angels appeared at their tent in the desert Avraham and Sarah worked as a team to create a feast for them. It appears that Sarah ran her community with wisdom and level headedness.

The situation surrounding “akeidat Yitzhak”, the binding of Isaac, doesn’t fit the picture of a strong relationship. It doesn’t seem that Avraham told Sarah that he had been commanded to sacrifice their beloved son.  A midrash (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midrash) says that Sarah heard a rumour that Isaac had been sacrificed by Avraham. According to that midrash Sarah died, never knowing that her son was alive. We don’t know what really happened, or why Avraham didn’t tell Sarah what he had been commanded to do. Maybe Avraham was trying to protect her. Maybe Avraham trusted that Gd would make things “right” and there would be no sense in alarming her. We just don’t know.

The illustration at the top of the page is from the haftarah of VaYeira. It shows the prophet Elisha with the Shunammite woman who had a room built for him for when he visited Shunem. This woman, like Sarah, was childless for many years. Her son, like Isaac, almost died. Unlike Sarah, she was able to watch her son grow to adulthood.

It is tragic that Sarah seemed to have died not knowing her son was alive, not knowing that she would be venerated as the mother of the Jewish nation.

She is a wonderful model for all women, and her strengths should never be overlooked.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Count the Stars

Lech Lecha sigart by Laya Crust

Lech Lecha- Genesis 12 – 17

We meet Avraham and Sarah after the world was created, destroyed, and then re created. Living in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia they were asked to leave their home and the world as they knew it to establish a new legacy. According to midrash (biblical legend) Avraham was the son of an idol maker. He must have been an intelligent man and a strategic thinker. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps he amassed a great deal of wealth as a shepherd and also successfully led campaigns against enemy forces. Sarah was his partner and equal. She navigated soci0-political waters.  She was able to “read” people and was recognized for her beauty. (Read the amazing adventure of how she left Pharaoh’s palace with her modesty and Avram’s dignity intact- Genesis ch 12 v 11-20).

Avraham was already in his eighties when God told him that they would begin a new nation. “He (God) brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to number them. And He said to him, “So shall your seed be.” (ch. 15  v.5)   If you have ever been in the desert or in countryside on a cloudless night the sky is unbelievable. The sky is so crowded with stars one wonders how many diamonds can fit up there. And that was God’s promise to this man and woman who traveled the land together and were our first leaders.

Avraham and Sarah were told they would not be able to number their descendants, and look at us now. There are millions of Jews living in Israel and around the world. We have never disappeared. God kept His promise. Our history hasn’t been an easy or pleasant one, but we’re still here! And we have our homeland, Israel.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a wonderful essay for this difficult time. Here is the link:  https://www.facebook.com/rabbisacks/posts/999081956809626

Let us hope for peace and honesty in the very near future.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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When Evil Reigned

P1140325art by Laya Crust

Parshat Noah       October 2015,  5776

This is a very difficult time in many parts of the world, but the horrors in Israel touch me very closely. I am an ardent Zionist and a Jew. I have children and grandchildren who live in Israel, including in Jerusalem. I have many friends and relatives there. I just came back from that miraculous country but while I was there 4 people were viciously murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Since then more murders have occurred. My first thoughts in the morning and my last thoughts at night are of Eitam and Na’ama Henkin z”l (may they be remembered as a blessing) who were murdered only because they were Jewish and lived in Israel. That’s the only reason! I think of their 4 children who will grow up without their wonderful parents. And I can’t understand it.

P1140327

Last week in synagogue we read the story of the creation of the world and humanity. We also read about the first murder. Cain, jealous of Abel, killed him. God said, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground….the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand… “

“The voice of your brother’s blood…” Such powerful words.

After God gave mankind free choice murder occurred, even at the very beginning. It’s impossible to understand.P1140322

There is an interesting animated movie going on in the Middle East. Syria, Iraq, Islamic State,Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen are like balls of flame, burning in war and hatred. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Iraq are brimming with unrest and dictatorship. And in the middle of it all Israel, a jewel of green land and democracy, stands on its own against the surrounding chaos, refusing to get sucked in.

Yet, there are these terrible, tragic losses of life.

This week we read the story of Noah in the Bible. Sick of humanity’s cruelty God destroyed the world by flooding it. The rainbow we see after a rainfall is the symbol of God’s oath that the world will never be entirely destroyed again.Rainbow_02

Many of us sit in our chairs praying for peace in Israel and the rest of the world. We can’t understand God’s allowing the violence to continue or the terrorism raging in Israel’s streets or the loss of the young, exceptional parents of 6 children. We can only do what Israelis are doing in Israel- live good lives, do acts of kindness, and don’t allow hatred to rule our minds and actions.

With prayers for peace, health and beauty,

Laya

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Beginnings and Divisions

BeraishitSigart by Laya Crust

Bereshit- Genesis 1 – 6:8

This Saturday we begin reading the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, again. Genesis is an incredibly rich source of narrative, adventure and lessons in family dynamics. The first of the narratives covers a lot of territory figuratively and literally. We read about the creation of the world, of Shabbat, of humanity, and the history of the first family on earth. In reading this parsha I was struck by the use of the words יבדיל and מבדיל. Both mean divide or seprate.

The story of the Creation of the World, as recounted in the Torah, is often  translated this way:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”darkness 20048

The narrative continues that the earth was תהו ובהו, unformed and void. There was darkness on the surface of the depths. Then a wind from God, רוח אלהים, swept over the waters. It seems things were chaotic at the beginning of creation..  There was neither form nor order.

God introduced light, separating the light from the darkness. This division was the introduction of organization. Let there be light 300 dpi B

Light, separated from darkness, created day and night.

Although light and darkness were introduced the expanse of creation was still swirling waters. God divided the waters so that there would be seas below and sky above.ad0009Land appeared and vegetation was introduced. Then God created the sun and the moon to divide day from night.

In the story of the six days of creation we read a form of the word “separate” five times. Without separation one element flows into another. Without dividing day from night would we have gorgeous velvety nights studded with stars? Would we have huge, blue prairie skies? Our world would be a disorganized mass of water, earth, greyness, light and darkness, making it difficult for us to appreciate what is around us.

So, remember to separate yourself from the hustle and bustle around you. Notice the air and the water and the details of creation around you. The separations God made allowed elements of the world to appear and evolve into the plethora of colours, shapes and forms around us.

Enjoy the diversity and the experience.

Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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May Angels Protect You

P1130218 Lettering by Laya Crust

There is a beautiful prayer said at night before falling asleep. We ask Gd and his emissaries- the angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael, to protect us during the night. Night used to be a terrifying time. Pitch black- no artificial light to illuminate paths and roads. Depending on the time and place there were marauders and wild animals. And death came stealthily at night. This beautiful prayer brings  strength and comforting thoughts before drifting off to sleep.

P1130610Lettering by Laya Crust

A couple of weeks ago Myrna, a wonderful individual, shared the story of a young, 16 year old friend who has been diagnosed with cancer. Myrna felt that the best thing she could do was give him this prayer so that when he felt alone he could read it and feel surrounded by love and the presence of Gd and protecting angels.

In the name of the Lord, God of Israel

may Michael be at my right hand,

Gabriel at my left,

in front of me Uriel,

behind me Raphael,

and above my head the presence of God

May this prayer surround all of us at all times.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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The Angel, the Donkey and the Man

Balak:    Numbers 22:2–25:9

This week’s Torah reading is about a Moabite king, Balak, who calls Bilaam the seer to curse the children of Israel.

After being called by the king twice Bilaam goes, and here is the order of events: Bilaam gets up early in the morning, saddles his donkey, and goes towards his destination accompanied by two young men, his helpers.  En route an angel appears. He’s invisible to Bilaam but the donkey sees him and is frightened. We don’t hear anything more about the two young men, they may have returned to the original camp. The donkey, upset, talks to Bilaam and finally the angel, armed with a sword, appears and challenges the seer.

The story reminds me of an earlier narrative, the story of Abraham and Isaac going up to Mount Moriah. Early in the morning Abraham saddled his donkey, and went up the mountain with two young men. The donkey and the young men stopped part way while Abraham continued with Isaac. He was about to scarifice his son when an angel appeared and stopped him.

There are a number of similar elements in the two stories but Bilaam’s narrative has been turned upside down.

Most notably, Gd spoke to both of these men, not a common occurrence in the Bible. Abraham and Bilaam each hastened to get a start on their trek, but Abraham was carrying out Gd’s instructions and Bilaam was carrying out Balak’s directive. The donkey and the angel each helped Abraham (the donkey by  carrying provisions) whereas the angel and donkey both criticized Bilaam for his actions. Finally, the angel stopped Abraham’s sword but in the second story the angel brandished his sword at Bilaam.

Bilaam finally accepted that he had to bless the children of Israel in Gd’s name. He finished off with words that are said each day in synagogue.Balakart by Laya Crust

The message of the parsha is that when we are faced with a situation we have to look at the situation itself and listen carefully to our conscience. (That’s what Bilaam should have done.)  Angels, and in this case the talking donkey, are prophetic visions according to the Rambam (Maimonides) . Prophetic visions for the ordinary person may be deep thought that takes us to the correct answer to a difficult or morally challenging question. It may well be that Bilaam knew that he should have been listening to Gd, not Balak, but he was worried about the repercussions of ignoring a king. The vision of the talking donkey and the sword brandishing angel were his conscience giving him the answer he knew was right.

Next time you have a moral dilemma think deeply about the wise lessons you have learned and they will point you in the right direction.

Balak’s prayer was:

“How goodly are your tents, Jacob and your dwelling places  Israel

The text poetically continues, ” stretching out like brooks like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by Gd, like cedars by water.”

If you find these ideas interesting share them with your friends. And let me know what you think by sending me a comment.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Miriam, Moses and Aaron

P1130369The Waters of Meriba-  art by Laya Crust

Miriam, Moses and Aaron

Parshat Hukkat,  Numbers 19 – 21: 1

As I was reading this week’s parsha I thought about the extraordinary link between  three siblings- Miriam, Moshe and Aaron. Miriam, the oldest of the three, watched over baby Moses, trying to help keep him as safe as possible under impossible circumstances. Moshe (Moses) spent his earliest years with his mother and sister until he was returned to Pharaoh’s daughter where he grew up in wealth and entitlement.

The Torah/ Bible narrative focuses on Moshe the great leader of the Israelites. When he argued with Gd at the site of the burning bush Gd sent Aaron, Moshe’s older brother, to be his support and mouthpiece. From that time on the two brothers traveled together.

Miriam didn’t appear again until the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea. She is called a prophetess and was accepted as a leader with her brothers. According to Midrash Miriam’s presence brought water throughout the desert journey. She died in parshat Hukkat and the water disappeared.


P1130373Moshe, Miriam and Aaron having tea in the desert after a long day

 

This parsha shows the unity and relationship of the three siblings in a touching way. They led the nation together in almost constant agreement. (Naturally there were some blips here and there.) I imagine that they encouraged each other and were there for moral support.

When Miriam suddenly died and was buried the Israelites complained about being thirsty. Gd  commanded Miriam’s two grieving brothers to speak to a rock and make water flow. Instead, Moshe hit the rock, calling the people “rebels”. He used the Hebrew word מרים  (morim)- which is the same spelling as their late sister’s name. It seems they were so distraught they couldn’t follow Gd’s instructions properly.

Gd punished the two brothers for their disobedience. Aaron would die immediately and Moshe would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. When the sister who saved Moshe died it was the true end of a strong, unified leadership, with her brothers having the end of their lives foretold.

Throughout Bereishit we read about sibling relationships. None of them were as unified or supportive as this one. It is interesting that they embarked on such a difficult journey together. They led together and in a way they died together. It was the end of their leadership but the beginning of a legacy and an example of inspired, cooperative leadership.

I hope this added a new way of looking at Miriam and Aaron’s deaths, and the beauty of family ties.

Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

 

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