Tag Archives: Moses

Ethics and Power

An explanation  of the artwork is at the bottom of the postI See an Almond Branch and a Cauldron by Laya Crust

The prophet Jeremiah was born in the small town of Anatot, outside of Jerusalem the same year King Josiah began to reign over the Southern Kingdom of Judea.  While Josiah was in power a scroll was found in the Temple containing laws that the Jews had forgotten. King Josiah began to introduce and enforce religious reforms based on the scroll. Jeremiah was about thirteen years old when this happened, and was appointed by God to be a prophet.

Jeremiah was not accepted or liked by his fellow Jews. He witnessed the rise and fall of other Jewish rulers and the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. He ended his life in exile in Egypt. Jeremiah’s words and trials are fitting for the Weeks of Rebuke before Tisha B’Av.

The Calling of Jeremiah by Marc ChagallImage result for jeremiah chagall

On the three Shabbatot preceding Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we read “Haftarot of Rebuke”. This is the first “Reading of Rebuke”, taken from Jeremiah ch 1-2:3.  Jeremiah, like Moses, was a reluctant prophet. He told God that he was young and couldn’t speak. God tried to give Jeremiah confidence, saying, “Be not afraid of them for I am with you to deliver you.” (1:8) That did not reassure Jeremiah, so God touched Jeremiah’s mouth saying He had put words into Jeremiah’s mouth. Moses, too, was afraid to speak and tried to reject God’s request. ( spoiler alert- it didn’t work.)

Both men had been chosen by God for a certain roles and had been chosen before they were aware. In this week’s haftarah God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you came out of the womb I sanctified you; I have appointed you a prophet unto the nations.” (1: 5)

Jeremiah and Moses were leaders who taught morality-  not politics and not war. They didn’t speak of who should be the next leader. Instead they communicated God’s wishes and preached ethical behaviour. Throughout our teachings we are told that it is not might that will win wars against our enemies. We are taught that it is faith in God and adherence to ethical and moral behaviour that will allow us to triumph over our adversaries.

Just as Jeremiah and Moses were chosen before they were born and given a role before they were born the same is true for each of us. We each have been blessed with specific talents, strengths, insights and abilities. It is up to each of us to recognize what is within ourselves and use those abilities to make the world a better place. We need to look at what we can do and use our tools to help make our society healthy, safe and accepting. It seems that respect and ethical behaviour are seen as weaknesses. Guns, bombs and threats are preferred methods of negotiation.The fights and wars we see around us today will never allow the people of the world to live in peace and security.

Let’s endeavour to make words, art, music, poetry and scientific improvement our preferred currency over hatred and insults.

Have a good Shabbat and let’s make the world happier!

Laya

The drawing for this haftarah was inspired by Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. I have shown a despondent Jeremiah looking out of his barren room  at the sacking of the city. It looks like any modern city  but represents Jerusalem. In the corner of the room are an almond branch and a steaming cauldron representing the enemy coming from the north. This illustration and others will be featured in my forthcoming book.

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Death of a Leader from a Family of Leaders

 

Image result for gustave dore Pharaoh's daughter

A black-and-white drawing by Paul Gustave Doré of Moses and his brother, Aaron, standing in Pharaoh’s court next to a serpent.

Engravings by Gustave Dore: The Finding of Moses: Moses and Aaron Appear Before Pharaoh

Yocheved and Amram HaLevi must have been exceptional individuals and parents. Their youngest child, Moses, was born at the worst of times when Pharaoh ordered the death of all male Jewish babies. Yocheved hid her newborn son for three months and then entrusted her daughter, Miriam, with ensuring his safety. The three haLevi children, Moses, Aaron and Miriam all rose to become leaders and teachers in their own right.

Together, under God’s guidance, they led and nurtured an entire nation. The prophet Micah wrote, “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery. And I sent Moshe, Aharon and Miriam before you.” (Micah 6:4). According to the prophet Micah the brothers and sister were sent together to fulfill the role of leading the Israelites.

When I read about Miriam’s death in the Torah reading “Hukkat” I noticed how little attention was given to this great woman’s passing. When I checked  to see how often the three leaders were mentioned in the Torah I discovered that Moses’ name was recorded about 480 times. Aaron’s name appears about 300 times and Miriam’s name appears 10 times. It’s not very surprising. Women are not generally given a high profile in Torah and bible narratives.

art by Laya Crust

Miriam is recognized as an important figure and is called a “prophet”. To understand the strong family connection between Yocheved and Amram’s three children we have to look at the hints given to us in text and then put the pieces together.

Miriam’s baby brother Moses was born at the worst of times when Pharaoh ordered the death of all male Jewish babies. Yocheved hid her newborn son for three months and then sent Miriam to watch what would happen. Miriam intervened when he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and brilliantly offered to take the baby to a Jewish wet nurse.  The wet nurse was Moses’ mother, Yocheved, and Moses stayed with her for three years until he was weaned. In those three years Moses was not only introduced to Jewish customs and sensibilities, he also interacted with his older brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron. That may explain why he showed no shock or surprise when decades later God told him that Aaron would be his mouthpiece to Pharaoh or why it seemed natural that Miriam was a leader at the Red Sea.

Miriam is often associated with water. Neither Moses nor anyone else were surprised when she led the women in song after crossing the Red Sea.

Miriam leading the Woman in Song- Golden Haggadah

In the Torah we read how Miriam and Aaron gossiped about Moses, criticizing his choice of wife. It was a natural thing for siblings to do – talk about their brother, his good points and his bad points. When Miriam was punished both brothers came to her defense. Moses begged that she be forgiven. God said He had punished her as any father would. Her affliction of tzaarat, and consequent seclusion in a tent sounds almost like a time out. Maybe this was God’s style of “time out”, knowing she needed some space to rest and reflect. One could well imagine that Miriam and Aaron were stressed. Miriam was the wise woman, and an example to the children of Israel, constantly expected to be empathetic and to guide the women. Her beloved people patiently waited for her to heal before they continued on their journey.

Image result for miriam the prophetessMiriam’s Well, Dura Europos wall panel

At Miriam’s death another link between the three leaders is revealed. Miriam’s death is mentioned in five words. There isn’t any mention of the people mourning her. Instead they become angry due to lack of water. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock, holding Moses’ staff. Moses and Aaron gathered everyone together before the rock. Moses said, “Hear now, you rebels; are we to bring you water from this rock?” He lifted the staff and hit the rock twice. God punished the brothers for not following his instructions by not allowing them to enter the promised land. That is to say they would die before the children of Israel entered Canaan. Indeed, Aaron dies twelve verses after the rock was hit, (Exodus 20: 23 -29).

When Moses spoke to the children of Israel he called them “the rebels” using the word הַמֹּרִיִם.  That word, מֹּרִיִם has the same letters as Miriam. I suspect that Moses and Aaron were so overcome with grief at the loss of their sister Moses unconsciously chose that word.

A leader and a sister of leaders, Miriam died and was buried in Kadesh. It is fitting that she died in a place named “Holiness” because throughout her life that is what she exemplified and taught.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, and let us pray for the craziness in the world to become peace in the world.

Laya

 

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Shemini- Flames of God

shemini“Shemini” by Laya Crust

Parshat Shemini is an unexpected combination of two very different narratives. The first half of the parsha focuses on the sacrifices Aaron and the priests offered to God to make atonement for themselves and the children of Israel. Aaron and his sons had spent weeks spiritually purifying themselves for these important offerings. The second half of the reading describes which animals are kosher and which animals are not. Why would these two very different subjects be combined in the same weekly reading?

The priests (Aaron and his four sons) had been warned to follow their preparations exactly, or they would die. After seven days of isolation and purification Moses called Aaron and told him it was time to offer the sacrifices.  In a dramatic scene “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And there came a fire out from before the Lord…which when the people saw they they shouted and fell on their faces.” (Lev. 9: 23, 24)  God’s fire consumed the sacrificial remains and the flames ascended to the heavens.  In the excitement of the moment Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offered their own fire to God. In anger God sent down flames that killed the two men. It was a shocking incident, especially after the powerful acceptance by God towards Aaron and Moses.

Aaron and his two remaining sons were told to continue their duties, and be an example to the children of Israel. Aaron was told, “לְהבדיל בּין הקדשׁ ובין החֹל ובין הטמה ובין הטהור” –to distinguish between holy and common, between impure and pure. Those were the tenets he was to teach the children of Israel.

Following these extraordinary events the Israelites were told about kosher and non-kosher animals. It seems strange that after an awesome display of sacrifice, flames from heaven, and the death of two priests, the people were given a list of animals. The two narratives are very different- one is a drama the other is a list of guidelines. They are united by a phrase at the end of each of the 2 sections. After the nation was told what it could and could not eat, it was told: “לְהבדיל בין הטמה ובין הטהור”  to distinguish between the impure and the pure. The words are very similar to those spoken to Aaron. But why is it so important?

Differentiating, “לְהבדיל”, creates separation and awareness. That is a theme not only in this Torah reading but in all of Judaism. The list of acceptable and unacceptable animals make us conscious of our dietary choices and separates us from the eating habits of the nations around us. The dire punishment of Nadav and Avihu separated them as priests from their brothers and father who followed God’s directions. The Sabbath separates one day from the rest of the week and we behave differently on that day. Dietary rules, rules about Shabbat and instructions for different festivals separate us from the nations around us, and create limits for us.

The painting of flames above shows the accepted fire from Aaron, Elazar and Itamar reaching up to the heavens. The outer flames are duller in colour. They become blue in tone and disappear before they reach the heavens. The outer flames represent the fire offered by Nadav and Avihu, who had not learned the difficult lessons of discipline, purity and discernment.

In this week’s Torah reading God used fire to separate the holy sacrifice from the profane sacrifice, and taught the nation to separate kosher animals from non kosher ones. On Saturday night we use fire in the “havdalah” ceremony (from the word לְהבדיל in the quotation) to separate the holiness of the Sabbath from the rest of the week.  So, enjoy the distinctiveness of Shabbat. We have this one day that gives us the quiet of nature and time amidst the bustle of regular weekdays and workdays.

The painting for this parsha was part of a project called “Women of the Book”. 54 women from around the world were invited to paint an interpretation of each of the parshiot, To see these extraordinary paintings go to http://womenofthebook.org/artwork/  .

You can click on the flames at the top to see the painting enlarged.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

 

 

 

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A Perfect 10

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10 is the number that is often used to describe perfection. We use that scale whether we are talking about judging a gymnastics competition, getting 10 out of 10 on a spelling test, or rating an event (“On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate this shopping experience/ hotel stay/ trip to Florida?”) Can we talk about 10 as a perfect number when we are talking about the Torah reading Va’Eira? That’s the reading where the 10 plagues begin to be rained down on the Egyptians.

We all have heard of the 10 plagues. When God commanded Moses to go to Egypt and liberate the enslaved children of Israel, He didn’t set Moses up with an army. Instead, He described how ten plagues would be visited upon the Egyptian people. The horror of one plague after another would build up until the Pharaoh couldn’t stand it any more.  Finally, God told Moses, the Pharaoh would let the Israelites go – to their own land and to freedom.

Va’Eira by Laya Crust

The number 10 is a significant number in Judaism and in western culture. In the story of creation the phrase “And God said” is repeated 10 times.  Within the seven days of creation, 10 categories of being were created. There were 10 generations between Adam and Noah- the generation that was destroyed by the flood. Abraham was given 10 tests. God required 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorra in order to avert divine punishment. Most important of all, God gave us the 10 commandments.

The “yud” is the first letter in God’s Hebrew name, י-ה-ו-ה.  Each letter in the Hebrew language has a numerical value. The letter “ י ” has the value of  10.  The letter yud gets its name from the Hebrew word יד  “Yad” which means hand.

Image result for history of letter yud

In the earliest writing a yud looked like an arm with a hand at the end of it. And of course, we have 10 fingers on our two hands. (or 10 digits, if you want to be more accurate). Those 10 digits are the basis of our counting and mathematical structures. The metric system is completely based on values of 10. The “yud”, 10, is therefore the foundation to both our language and commerce systems.

As mentioned before, God when created the world, the phrase, “And God said” was used 10 times.  When the God spoke to Moses He used the term “outstretched arm”. We read about “the hand of God “and the “finger of God”. Moses and Aaron stretched out their hands before a plague appeared. The image of hands with their 10 fingers occurs over and over again.

Going back to the plagues, it appears that God specifically visited 10 plagues on Egyptian society. The use of 10 to achieve good when surrounded by evil underlines the power of God in the details and in the large picture .

Rosh Hodesh by Laya Crust

God established a people through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob which was to be a “light among the nations”. God gave us the 10 commandments as our guidebook for good and moral behaviour – the opposite of slavery and cruel dictatorship. The beautiful world that God created was (and still is) to be enjoyed by humankind, and was (and still is) to nurture humanity.

God used the plagues to undo the ancient Egyptian civilization. Visiting 10 plagues on tyrannical Egypt carried the pointed message that ethics and justice can, and will, undo evil.

Creation and the 10 commandments are the good that infuses the world. The symbol of that righteousness and beauty encompassed in 10 is symbolized by the letter “yud” which appears in every letter of the Hebrew alphabet and therefore every expression of creation, law,  justice and beauty.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, and may at least 10 good events come your way!

Laya

 

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Shemot- Nameless

Shemot by Laya Crust

“Shemot”, meaning “Names”, is the title of the second book of the Five Books of Moses.  The book begins with the names of the patriarch Jacob and his sons, and tells how Jacob went down to Egypt with an entourage of 70 people. It says, “And the children of Jacob were fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied and grew very very mighty, and the land was filled with them.” (Shemot/ Exodus 1:7)

The Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians. Not slaves, not taskmasters, nor nobility are named in the narrative. The first names we read are those of two heroic midwives, Shifra and Pua, who had the courage to ignore the edict to drown every Israelite boy at birth.  The next name we read is that of Moses- not when he was born but after he was rescued by Pharaoh’s (nameless) daughter, then taken by his own (nameless) sister to be nursed and raised for three years by Moses’ own (nameless) mother.

Although we read of Moses’ entanglement with an Egyptian taskmaster and three Israelite slaves, the next person who is named is Re’uel (Jethro), the Midianite priest who kindly took Moses in.

There is a pattern here. The people who are named are those who stand up against the norm of apathy and acceptance. The midwives risked their own lives because they didn’t want to kill innocent baby boys. The adopted boy Moses grew up to rail against the injustice he witnessed. Jethro the priest took in a needy stranger from a rival country.

photograph by Malcolm Peterson, 2003

But names are important. When Moses met God at the burning bush surprisingly Moses asked for God’s name. He demanded a name from a powerful, unknown, force. God complied and furnished Moses with a name – “אהיה אשר אהיה“, “I Will Ever Be What I Will Be”.

Names are a key to identity and self determination.  The Israelite slaves were nameless. Black slaves were stripped of their birth names and given new monikers. Victims of the Nazi regime were numbered in order to add one more level to their dehumanization.  Victims of famine and genocide; and victims of large natural disasters like tsunamis, mudslides and earthquakes, are unnamed. Missing indigenous women needed their names shared in order to be noticed, and for their disappearances to be investigated.

Moses knew that the Israelite slaves needed a name for God in order to believe.Let’s read about it.When we see a face or hear a name we are more capable of empathizing with a person or an unfolding tragedy.  That is why, when a memorial is set up for fallen soldiers or victims of the Shoah (Holocaust), the  invisible  individuals can then be remembered.

Image result for ai weiwei children's backpacks, toronto, AGO

Snake made out of children’s backpacks, Ai Wei Wei, Art Gallery of Ontario, 20013

Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese dissident artist, took another approach in one of his installations.  In 2008, thousands of school children were killed by an earthquake in Sichuan, China, in shoddily constructed government schools. Wei Wei has produced a list of all the victims of the earthquake on his blog. He also created a number of art pieces made from thousands of children’s backpacks to memorialize their lives.

The thousands of victims have been given identities.

Referring to the narrative from the bible, it may seem that calling this story “Shemot” or “Names” is ironic, but on second thought it is a lesson. The people who were named were doers and helpers. They were people who stepped beyond normal expectations to change a condition and make it better.

When we see people in need it may help US to find out their names and then it may make it easier for us to see them as individuals and allow us to reach out more quickly.

Have a good week,  Laya

 

 

 

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Va Yakhel and Pekudei

Va Yakhel – Pekudei

Exodus (Shemot): Chapters 35 – 40

The Torah readings of Va Yakhel – Pekudei are often described as the most boring parshas of the year, as an obsessive investigation of detail, and as parshas that are difficult to regard as giving important lessons. Why would these particular parshas be considered so boring? Aren’t there sections of the Torah that are lists of names, lists of battles or lists of the order of sacrifices? When I read the parshas and paid close attention I came to my own conclusion. These two readings from the bible are about art, craft, and aesthetics. We live in a society that seems to value economics and technology. Therefore the unadventurous reader doesn’t appreciate the insight and spirituality that goes into creating holy objects.

Va Yakhel explains that Gd chose Bezalel to be chief architect and designer, “and filled  him with the spirit of Gd, in wisdom, and in understanding and in all manner of workmanship, to contrive works of art…” (Exodus 30: 3). This quotation shows that those trusted with creating the holy space should have spiritual depth and understanding beyond the average individual. The parsha describes the collection of all the materials that would be needed to create the Tabernacle, the “Tent of Meeting” that would hold the two tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

We see that everyone was invited to participate in building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The only proviso was that they had to be “wise” or “willing hearted”. Phrases like “wise hearted” and “willing of heart” appear 15 times in this parsha. The construction of this holy place was incredibly democratic.

Gd understood ( and still 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 prayer and thought. Just a beautiful place wasn’t enough. True beauty has a foundation of wisdom and goodness. To that end Bezalel and his assistant Aholiav were imbued with wisdom and understanding. Furthermore  people from B’nei Yisrael- a group of rag tag people traversing a desert- would be contributing. Gd said, “In the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom that they may make all that I have commanded thee.” (31:6)

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 the lives around us.

Have a good week,

Laya

The illustrations I painted are based on manuscript paintings from 1299, Perpignan, Aragon. There were a number of beautiful manuscript pages done in the 14th and 15th centuries featuring the Temple’s holy objects.

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A Blessing and a Curse

Ki Tavoart by Laya Crust

Ki Tavo: Dvarim (Deuteronomy)  Ch. 26 – 29 v. 8

Haftarah:  Isaiah   Chapter 60

The Torah reading of Ki Tavo (“when you enter”) begins with a description of first fruit offerings. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and entered the promised land they were commanded to offer first fruits and tithes.  However, this parsha is better known for the blessings and curses that are listed later on.

In Ki Tavo Moses tells the people they will cross the Jordan River into Canaan. Once there the twelve tribes would be divided between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. The tribes of Simon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin were to stand upon Mount Gerizim to “witness” or hear  the blessing.  The tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun,Dan and Naftali were to stand on Mount Ebal to “witness” or hear the curse. The tribe of Levi were to stand in the middle.  The Levites would turn towards Mount Gerizim and in a loud voice announce the blessing to which the tribes would answer “Amen”. And then they would turn to Mount Ebal and announce the 12 acts that would make someone cursed, and the tribes would answer “Amen” to each of the twelve curses.

Image result for mount ebal and mount Gerizim

It must have been an amazing sight- hundreds of thousands of people standing on two mountain tops, paying close attention to and answering a tribe of Levites!

In chapter 26 instructions are given for making the special altars. Stones were to be cut  without using  metal tools. They were to be plastered and have words of the law carved upon them. An altar was set up at Mount Ebal and used for sacrificing peace offerings.

Yoni Lightstone, an Israeli tour guide who was born in Canada, shared some fascinating information with me.

 In 1980 the archaeologist Dr. Adam Zertal  and his team discovered ancient  altars in the Jordan Valley. They had been used for animal sacrifices and were enclosed by stone walls. When seen from above the site looks like a footprint.

Image result for mount ebal footprint altar     Image result for mount ebal footprint altar

Dr. Zertal and his survey team carried on their excavations until 1989. The most famous of the “footprint” sites ( sometimes called sandalim and gilgalim)  is on Mount Ebal. Dr. Zertal uncovered the  large altar, which was built of unhewn stones. He became convinced that it was the altar described in parshat Ki Tavo and later built by Joshua’s men.

It’s amazing to see these remnants of our history and to be 21st Century witnesses for events recorded in the Torah and in נ״ך  (the “writings” of the bible).

Back to the parsha…at the beginning ch.28  we are told, “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the field”…this is followed by 15 verses of beautiful blessings and the good fortune we will receive by following Gd’s laws and commandments. Let us focus on the blessings and may we continue to be an אור לגוים (a light unto the nations) as referenced in the painting at the top of the page.

And hopefully we won’t suffer the horrible consequences described in the subsequent 54 chapters due to non-compliance!

You can seeImage result for mount ebal and mount Gerizim some of the archaeological “footprint sites” in Yehuda and Shomron.  Unfortunately some are in danger of being destroyed because they are largely unprotected. However they can still be viewed.

If you want more information and photographs look up  “footprint sites, Israel”.  According to Wikipedia, “Israelis wishing to visit the site today must coordinate their activity with COGAT, the Israeli defence ministry unit which manages civilian affairs for Palestinians in the West Bank and liaises with Gaza, since Mount Ebal is located in what is now designated as Area B. In addition, Israeli citizens visiting the area are required to be escorted by IDF soldiers, to ensure their personal safety. The Shomron Regional Council, as of July 2016, was trying to promote the area as a tourist destination.[23]

If you need a tour guide while in Israel check out http://yonitours.com/

 

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

 

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