Tag Archives: Moses

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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VaYeilech- Shabbat Shuva

VaYeilech- Shabbat Shuva by Laya Crust

Shabbat Shuva is the Shabbat between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur. On Rosh haShana we were in synagogue thinking about our past year and obstacles we faced. Many of us wondered about the coming year and what it would bring. Many of the prayers remind us of the fragility of our lives and the inevitability of death. Who will die? What is in store for us, our friends, and for our families?

The Torah reading begins with Moses’ words, “I am 120 years old today. I can no longer go out and come in, for Gd told me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan’. HaShem your Gd, He will cross before you…” Moses, the greatest prophet and leader, had to face death. But he reminded the Israelites that Gd is the eternal leader of the Jewish people.

The haftarah reading is a combination of texts from three prophets. Hosea, Micah, and Joel. The three prophets, each in their own way, ask us to endeavour to improve ourselves.

I based my painting at the top of the page on a piece by the American artist Ben Shahn. It is based on his painting called Ram’s Horn and Menorah. It illustrates Joel’s words, “Blow a shofar in Zion, consecrate a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, ready the congregation…” The words describe our communities getting ready for the Days of Awe, and Shahn in his unique way used colour and movement to convey the awe, fear and unity of these important days of reflection.

His life was dedicated to human rights and social action, and he expressed that through his prolific artworks. His paintings, graphic art, photographs and essays are devoted to the “human condition”.  The strength of human beings to survive difficulty and stand tall in the face of adversity and unfairness runs through his works. His paintings are gritty, honest, and thought-provoking.

Image result for ben shahn poster
Image result for ben shahn paintings

Shahn’s work communicates the struggle of the human spirit to succeed, not just to survive. He reminds us that we don’t live in a bubble. We must care for ourselves and those around us. Those are among the meditations of Rosh HaShana.

We are reborn each day. Each day we have the opportunity to make new choices and make them good choices. Each day we can forgive ourselves for what we didn’t do yesterday, or what we wish we had done differently. We can begin anew and strive to have a fulfilling day.

May this year be a year of health, growth, improvement and goodness. Enjoy your Shabbat and have a meaningful Yom Kippur. To you and your family from me and my family,

Laya

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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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Laws – Mishaptim

The Ten Commandments by Arava and Eleanore Lightstone

Mishpatim, which means “Laws” is a parsha that seems out of place. The previous five Torah readings have been full of drama and excitement. The giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, with lightning and thunder was last week’s Torah reading. Following that we expect something more colourful than lists of laws that discuss slavery, murder, and theft.

Rashi points out the the parsha begins with the words “ואלה המשפטים” – “and these are the laws.” The word “and” indicates that the text is a continuation of the previous passages. Rashi is telling us that the laws presented in this parsha are here because they are elaborations of the Ten Commandments from Yitro. We will see that most of the commandments are expanded upon.

God introduced Himself and His position in the first three commandments. Each of the remaining Commandments are clarified and elaborated upon in one degree or another in parshat “Mishpatim”. We read a variety of punishments related to various acts of murder- premeditated and accidental. There are references to honouring one’s parents, enlargement of the observance of Shabbat, details about types of robbery, and attention to the treatment of slaves.

Freeing the Slave by Laya Crust

The concept that parshat Mishpatim is a continuation of parshat Yitro is further supported by the way the two readings are bracketed visually and textually. Before the Ten Laws are announced to the Israelites there was thunder and lightning around Mount Sinai. “And the people perceived the thunder and lightning and the voice of the horn and the mountain smoking.” (Exodus 20: 15)

A Pavement of Sapphire Stone by Laya Crust

After the elaboration of the Commandments, Moses and the elders were invited to “come up.” It says, “and they saw the God of Israel and under His feet there was a likeness of a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very sky for purity.” (Exodus 24:10) This is a breathtaking image. Moses, a few chosen leaders and 70 elders were invited to the heights to witness God. The pavement of sapphire stone. The variety of translucent blues ranging in the skies above. The colours of peace, spirituality, calm, and the hues of the vastness of the firmament. Such a vision those chosen few were invited to witness!

That vision was just before the bracketing occurrence of pyrotechnics. “When Moses ascended the mountain the cloud covered the mountain…the presence of the Lord appeared …as a consuming fire on top of the mountain.” (Exodus 24: 15, 17) Here we read the visual bookends of lightning, thunder and cloud, dramatically encompassing the Laws that we , the Jews, are commanded to follow.

The narrative is also bracketed by the Israelites stating in slightly different ways ” כל אשר דבר ה׳ נעשה ונשמע” “All the God says we will do and we will hear”. (Exodus 24:7, as well as similar phrases in 19:8 and 24:3)

I hope this has been interesting to you. I had not connected the unity of these two Torah readings until I listened to a talk by Rabbi Alex Israel of Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. I hope, too that you enjoy the visuals and affirmations given to us through these parshiot.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

P.S. Parsha food idea via Eleanore Lightstone of Jerusalem..- A gingerbread Mount Siani with cranberries for the fire and ice cream for the clouds. What a great dessert!

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Respect: Parshat Yitro

Receiving the Torah by Laya Crust

This parsha presents the Ten Commandments, the outline for life that God presented to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are the base rules for interacting with God and man. These rules can be encapsulated by one word- respect. It’s not just respect for God, it is respect for God, respect for all people, their families, and their property.

Three individuals take the centre stage in this week’s Torah and haftarah readings. The three are Moses, his father-in-law Yitro, and the prophet Isaiah whose words are read in the haftarah. The theme of respect connect the three men.

Moses was a person who, from his early days, cared for others and sought justice. Our first meeting with him as an adult was when he stepped in to stop a Hebrew slave from being beaten by an Egyptian slave driver. Then he saw two Hebrew slaves fighting and stepped in to stop that violence. Rather than sit back and be comfortable in his wealth and position as a member of Pharaoh’s household he ended up leaving the Egyptian dictates of brutality and regal order. When he came upon Yiro’s daughters being bullied at a well he again stepped in and protected them. He helped the weaker from the stronger, unjust men.

His desire to activate respect for all may be the trait that caused God to choose Moses as His messenger to lead the Israelites out of slavery.

Yitro had some of the same traits. Unlike Jacob’s father-in-law Lavan, Yitro truly embraced Moses as a friend, a son-in-law, and a partner. Although Moses ultimately decided on a path different from Yitro’s after encountering God’s presence at the burning bush, Yitro was supportive of Moses’ decision. Indeed, Yitro recognized HaShem as the one true God although he did not follow b’nei Yisrael on their journey to Canaan.

When we met Yitro at the beginning of this parsha he gave Moses incredible advice. With Yitro’s own trait of wanting good for those around him he told Moses how to change his judicial approach to difficult tribal issues. He saw that Moses stood from morning to night advising all the people of Israel who had a question or problem. Yitro told Moses to create a heirarchy of “able men such as fear God, men of truth hating unjust gain; and place  such over them to be rulers of thousands, fifties and tens”. (Exodus 18:21).  He continued by suggesting that only the most difficult cases that couldn’t be decided by the appointed judges be brought to Moses. Yitro wanted Moses to understand that to lead the people well and strongly Moses had to take care of his own self and health.

Isaiah and the Seraph by Laya Crust

The haftarah begins with Isaiah’s vision of God on a throne. This is a reflection of God’s magnificence in the Torah reading. God wanted to choose Isaiah as a prophet but Isaiah demurred, saying his lips were “unclean”. A seraph touched Isaiah’s lips with a coal and cleansed them allowing Isaiah to have the confidence of heart to preach the correct way to live to the children of Israel.

The three men were chosen because of their own integrity and their desire to help those around them led lives of respect and integrity.

That’s what the Ten commandments are about. They are a gift God created for us,. They are a template for righteousness, fairness and goodness to ourselves and all those around us. Shall I add- the rest is commentary?

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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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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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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