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New Year Thoughts

art by Laya Crust, inspired by Ben Shahn

Rosh HaShana is a day of deep prayer and meditation- as well as an opportunity to connect with family and friends. Put another way, the time of prayer allows us to connect with ourselves and then connect with others. The Shabbat between  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva- a Sabbath of return.

The Haftarah for Shabbat Shuva begins, “Return o Israel unto the Lord your God…”  Within the haftarah we are told to blow the shofar, and gather together.

I’ve been thinking about the act of personal prayer and our place in society and the world. Much of the New Year and Day of Atonement is spent  in personal prayer. What do we get out of personal prayer? What are the benefits?

On the first day of Rosh HaShana we read the story of Hanna, a childless woman who goes to the Temple and prays silently, moving her lips, but making no sound.

art by Laya Crust

Hanna was the first person in Jewish text who prayed silently. She expressed her thoughts to God, conversing with God and stating her needs and desires. Hanna must have been a person who knew herself well. She did something unconventional and clarified her personal path to allow herself to go forward.

We live during a time that is full of natural disasters, spiritual disasters, leadership disasters and international tragedy. It’s possible that the world has ever been thus, but with the existence of internet, twitter, skype, cell phones, and immediate news we are aware of the international calamities immediately. The fascism and racism exposed in Charlottesville and the genocide in Myanmar are but two of the horrific “human rights abuses” (understatement if there ever was one)currently taking place in the world. The global peace watchdog- the UN is a disaster. The forest fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and droughts are all natural disasters that have destroyed lives and communities around the world- all disasters we have witnessed in the last couple of months.  It is very difficult for some of us to know what to do, how to respond to these world crises both man made and natural.

It makes me think of another narrative in the bible.

Elijah was a prophet who was being hunted down by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Although God told him to face his accusers Elijah decided to hide in a cave on Mount Horev in order to avoid his dangerous and overwhelming realities. God finally tells Elijah to step out of the cave. First a huge, violent wind comes by, breaking the mountains and rocks. Then after the wind there was an earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire. God was not in any of those forces. After the fire there was a still, small voice, and God was in that voice. At that point Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle , stood in the entrance of the cave , and “behold, there came a voice to him.” (Kings I 19: 13) The voice was the voice of God.

This story encompasses my thoughts about prayer and personal prayer.

Each of us is a compilation of experiences. Within our psyche we carry the lessons we have learned from parents, grandparents, teachers, wise individuals, illnesses and events we have experienced. We carry ethical truths based on what we have learned. Those ethical truths are God’s voice. It is the still small voice that speaks to us and can help us unravel difficulties that we face in a day or in our lives.

It is a thought I will take with me. As I enter synagogue to pray or meditate, like Hanna I will focus on my own prayers rather than pose for others. As the shofar is blown I will hear that pure, unusual call and know it is calling all Jews from every corner  of the world. When I am distressed by the earthquakes and fires and hurricanes I will listen to the still small voice and work out how I am able to best help and contribute to making the world a better place.

May you have a meaningful Rosh HaShana, May your year be one of health, peace, tranquility, and goodness throughout the world.

Shana Tova,  Laya

 

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Pomegranates and Bells

Emor sigart by Laya Crust

Torah reading: Emor    (Exodus: 23:1 – 24: 23)

Haftarah: Ezekiel 44: 15-31

The painting for this reading shows the Kohen Gadol in his robes, two ancient artifacts from Temple times, and text from the haftarah describing the clothing of the kohanim. The full description of the priestly clothing can be found in the Book of Exodus,  ch. 28: 2- 38. The detailed description is prefaced with the remark, “And you shall speak to the wise-hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to sanctify him…”  (I always love the way HaShem has imbued artists and crafts people with wisdom and wise-heartedness.)

The ivory pomegranate is famous.

               

Made of hippopotamus bone, it appeared in the antiquities market s in 1977, and was bought by the Israel Museum in 1988 for $55,000. It has an ancient inscription on it reading, “(Belonging) to the House of “Yahweh”, Holy to the Priests.”  There has been some controversy as to whether the ivory pomegranate is a fake or not, but the most recent opinion seems to advocate its authenticity. If you want to read an interesting article about it go to:  http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/scholars-study/is-the-ivory-pomegranate-a-forgery-or-authentic/

The gold bell I included in the painting was found in Jerusalem, July 2011,  while I was designing this haftarah illustration.

The tiny bell was found in an ancient drainage channel under Robinson’s Arch, right by the Western Wall. In the description of the priest’s robes it says, “And upon the skirts of it thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, round about the skirts thereof; and bells of gold between them round about.” (Exodus 28: 34,36). So – this tiny bell was probably sewn onto the hem of the priest’s robe, alternating with tiny pomegranates. If you want to read more about the find you can go to:

http://www.jpost.com/National-News/2000-year-old-golden-bell-discovered-in-Jerusalem

Concerning the haftarah, Ezekiel was among the 8,000 Jews exiled to Babylonia. He criticized the behaviour of the Jewish people, and also described the duties of the kohanim. In this way he bolstered the confidence of the exiled children of Israel, convincing them that they would return to Israel.

The haftarah was a promise from God. He said, “they shall enter My sanctuary and they shall come near to My table…” It reminded the Jews that they were not forgotten, and they would one day return to Jerusalem and to the Temple.

If you click on the illustration it will enlarge. Please share this blog post with your friends and family on Facebook, your students at school, or your buddies at synagogue. We love to hear from you if you have a comment. And if you want to get my post each week you can click on “Follow” on the right hand side of the post.

All the best,

Laya

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Miracles and Humility

art by Laya Crust

This year, 2017 or 5777, we read the Torah portions for Tazria and Metzora on the same Shabbat. Both of the protions deal with the laws pertaining to an affliction called “tza’arat” which is commonly translated into the English word “leprosy”. It isn’t the same as leprosy however. It was a condition that affected people’s skin. But it could also affect their homes and their walls. It was a punishment for certain sins,particularly speaking negatively about another person.

The haftarahs take place during the time of Elisha the prophet. Jerusalem was under seige and the Jews were starving due to fammine. In the haftarah  Tazria, a young Jewish slave recommends that her Aramean master go to Elisha to be cured. Her master, Naaman.  follows her advice and is indeed cured.

art by Laya Crust

The second haftarah tells the story of four lepers who are sent outside the gates of Jerusalem- they are essentially in quarantine. They are starving as are the Jews in the city. They come across an abandoned Aramean camp filled with food, clothing and precious goods. After having their fill of food they tell the city about the camp and this alleviates the starvation.

One element the two stories have in common is that the lowest, most overlooked members of the population are key to saving the protagonists. In Tazria a young slave girl helps an Aramean army captain become cured of tza’arat. In Metzorah four banished men save the people of Jerusalem.

art by Laya Crust

Yom Ha’Atzmaut- Israel’s Independence Day- is a reminder that the smallest can overcome greater forces. Tiny, unprepared Israel overcame huge enemy forces in 1948. In 1967 once again Israel conquered the attacking surrounding countries. It happened again in 1973. These victories were miraculous, and are evidence of God’s invisible help. To recognize that we say the “Hallel” prayers on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. 

The victories, although miraculous, did not come easily or without a steep and painful price. Many lives were lost defending Israel- most of them the lives of young soldiers cut down at the beginning of their paths. The day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut we observe Yom haZikaron and recognize the sacrifices of those who died defending  Israel’s sovereignity and right to exist; and defending the lives of Israeli citizens. Following is an 11 minute film dedicated to those fallen heroes, posted by United With Israel.

https://unitedwithisrael.org/watch-a-moving-tribute-to-fallen-idf-soldiers/

Throughout Israel on Yom Ha’Atzmaut there will be barbecues, music, parties and celebration. Light up YOUR barbecue- and celebrate too!

With blessings for peace, Laya

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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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Balak, Bilaam and a Donkey

Balakart by Laya Crust

Balak:    Numbers 22:2–25:9

Haftarah:   Micah 5:6 – 6:8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

engraving by Gustave Dore

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

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

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

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

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

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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BeHa’alotecha- Not By Might nor by Power

Behaalotchaart by Laya Crust

BeHa’alotecha-   Numbers: ch 8- ch 12

Haftarah:   Zechariah:  ch 2:14 – 4:7

Zechariah was a prophet in Jerusalem around the year 520 BCE.  The Jews had been exiled to Babylon but under King Cyrus were allowed to return to Jerusalem. Zechariah and Haggai encouraged the people to stop being so despondent and start rebuilding their destroyed temple.

Zechariah by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

This haftarah is replete with angels- angels talking to Joshua and angels talking to and waking Zechariah.  Zechariah tells the angel that he has had a vision of a golden menorah flanked by two olive trees. A bowl  above the menorah has seven pipes funneling olive oil to the menorah.  When the angel realizes that Zechariah doesn’t understand the symbolism of the vision he explains that the trees represent the leadership of Joshua and Zerubbabel in building the Second Temple. The angel says, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” meaning that the reestablishment of the Jewish people will come through faith, not war.

Cervera, Spain, c. 1300

My illustration at the top was based on this beautiful manuscript painting from Spain, with the menorah panted in gold leaf. The menorah was a central fixture in the Temple and was lit by the Kohanim. The wicks of the menorah were arranged to shed light in one flame. That light can be seen as  the light we bring to the world.

The menorah is the symbol of Judaism. In 1948, the year Israel was declared a state, a competition was held for a Coat of Arms. Gabriel and Maxim Shamir‘s  design was chosen. In 1949 the design below was unveiled as the Israeli State Coat of Arms.On that thought , may you have an illuminated week and weekend, full of flaming conversation and bright ideas.

Laya

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VaYigash 5776

joeyart by Laya Crust

Haftarah: Ezekiel      37 15-28

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

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

The beauty/ pathos of the story unfolds from here.  Judah stepped forward (VaYigash) and begged for understanding. He poured out his heart, recounting the family history to this great Egyptian before him. Judah hoped that by telling this leader of his father’s frailty the leader may accept Judah as a slave rather than take his youngest brother.

Joseph could carry on the charade no longer. He cleared all the Egyptian attendants from the room. It says, ” And no man stood with him while Yosef made himself known to his brothers. And his voice cried out with weeping, and Egypt heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard.”

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

VaYigashart by Laya Crust

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy this holiday time,

Laya

 

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