Tag Archives: Moses

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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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. 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 a (nameless) Egyptian taskmaster and three (nameless) 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 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”).

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

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

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.

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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