Tag Archives: Moses

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!




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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,


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,




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Devarim, 5776

Devarimart by Laya Crust

Devarim/ Deuteronomy

Haftarah- Isaiah I: 1- 27

Isaiah (prophet)- c.740 – 685 BCE

The parsha Devarim and its haftarah always precede the fast of Tisha B’Av  (the 9th of Av) when we read the Book of Lamentations or איכה .  Michael Mirsky- Torah reader and “leining” teacher extraordinaire-  explained to me why Devarim is always read before Tisha B’Av.  In the parsha Moses asks,”איכה אשא לבדי טרחכם ומשאכם וריבכם.” “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Devarim 1: 12). As you can see, Moses’ plea  begins with the word איכה – Eicha.

This desolate haftarah is the last of the “Three Haftarot of Rebuke”. Isaiah recounts how God laments that His children – B’nei Yisrael – have rebelled against Him. They are corrupt, their prayers are empty and their sacrifices are meaningless.

Isaiah tells the nation their sins can become white as snow and the land can become fruitful and full again.  God asks Israel to “Learn to do well; Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1: 17) This relates to parallels a phrase in the parsha where Moses reminds b’nei Yisrael, “You shall not be partial in judgement: hear the small and the great alike.” (Devarim 1:18) Both quotations remind the Israelites to act fairly and care for those who are in need, no matter what station they hold in life.

In searching for an image for this haftarah I wanted something that expressed God’s desire that His children act well and justly.  The care of Jewish refugees in the nascent Israel of 1949 came to mind.

As we know, Jewish immigration to Israel, their ancestral homeland, was severely restricted by the White Paper of 1939. Jewish survivors of the Shoah (Holocaust) had to enter mandate Palestine illegally and if they were caught were sent to D.P.camps. When Israel was declared a state in 1948 there were suddenly thousands of Jewish immigrants in the country needing food, clothing and shelter.          

Ma’abarot” (or temporary camps and cities) were set up to temporarily house survivors and refugees. In the early 1950’s they accommodated 130,000 expelled Iraqi Jews. By the end of 1951 there were over 220,000 people in about 125 different  areas.

The ma’abarot had problems and were not “perfect” solutions, but they were a genuine attempt to take care of the widows, the orphans and the needy when Israel was first established.

 The illustration at the top of this post was inspired by a photograph of a ma’abarah in 1952.

B’nei Ysrael was promised the land of Israel, and we have the good fortune to be able to live there today. The direction to judge all people with the same fairness and righteousness, and to take care of all of those in need still stands today. We should be proud of what Israel and Jews internationally have achieved in terms of social justice and care of the sick and needy- but let’s remember to improve the world by being better ourselves.

Have a meaningful fast on the Tisha B’Av fast day. (This year the fast will be on Sunday, the 10th of Av because we aren’t allowed to fast on Shabbat). And let’s keep on making the world a better place!

Best, Laya

P.S. There is a good website about the mabarot at http://jewishhistoryaustralia.net/podcasts/


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Shemini- Gd’s Fire

sheminiart by Laya Crust

Parshat Shemini is an unexpected combination of two very different narratives. In the first half of the parsha we read about the sacrifices that Moshe and Aharon offered to HaShem. In the second half of the parsha we read about which animals are kosher and which animals are not.

Aharon and his sons had spent weeks purifying and spiritually readying themselves for these important offerings. The sacrifices were accepted. In a dramatic scene Gd’s  fire consumed the sacrificial remains and the flames ascended to the heavens.  Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu offered their own fire to Gd. In anger HaShem sent down flames that killed the two men. It was a shocking and tragic incident, especially after the powerful acceptance by HaShem towards Aharon and Moshe.

Following this shocking event B’nei Yisrael is given a list of kosher and non-kosher animals.The two narratives are very different- one is a drama the other is a list of guidelines. Yet they are united by a phrase at the end of each of the 2 sections.

After Nadav and Avihu have died Aharon and his sons are told  they must be able  לְהבדיל בּין הקדשׁ ובין החֹל ובין הטמה ובין הטהור -to distinguish between holy and common, between impure and pure.

Later, when B’nei Yisrael is told what it can eat and what it cannot eat, we read: לְהבדיל בין הטמה ובין הטהור. We are to separate between the impure and the pure.

The phrases of separation are obviously very important, and fire is used in Torah as a means of separation. HaShem formed a pillar of fire to light the way of b’nei Yisrael and separate them / protect them/ from their enemies as they traveled through the desert. We, ourselves, use Aish (fire) to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. We light candles before Shabbat begins and at Havdalah when Shabbat ends. So, to restate, Aish or fire is used as a device to divide and separate.

Fire is mysterious, beautiful, and threatening. If flames come too close they are dangerous- destroying and killing what is in their path. It is a contrary force, and ambiguous one. We need fire for light, for warmth, and in historical times humans needed fire at night to protect them from wild beasts at night. And yet- it can suddenly, without warning, rage out of control.

Differentiating, “לְהבדיל”, creates awareness. That is a theme in this Torah reading. The list of acceptable and unacceptable animals make us conscious of our dietary choices. The dire punishment of Nadav and Avihu remind us of the sacredness of HaShem’s commands and words. Boundaries create awareness. Without boundaries all things are equal. With limits there is greater focus and the focus makes everything more precious.

So, Shabbat Shalom. 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.

As always, take care, and let’s pray for peace.







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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.







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