Tag Archives: Shabbat

VaYikra: Willows and Water

Vayikra sig“Willows and Water” by Laya Crust

Vayikra : Haftarah- Isaiah 43:21 -44:23

This week we read the first parsha in the Book VaYikra- the Book of Leviticus. VaYikra means “and He called”. The English name, Leviticus, is a Latin word meaning “from the Levites”. The theme of Leviticus is one of holiness, and holiness is described in different forms throughout the book.   

The haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah lived and prophesied in the Southern Kingdom of Judah from around 740 – 681 BCE.  At the beginning of his life both kingdoms were successful and prosperous. During his lifetime the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed.  The Southern Kingdom of Judah barely survived a takeover by Assyria.

At the time of this haftarah the Jews were in exile. They were worn down, defeated, and turned from God to worship idols. Isaiah told them that God had noticed the abandoned the altars and sacrifices. Even though they were offering sacrifices to man-made gods. God told the Israelites He would not abandon them.  He said, “Even as I pour water on thirsty soil and rain upon dry ground, So I will pour My spirit on your offspring”.

I wanted to show that although the Jews had forgotten God, He is waiting for them to return and resume their observance of God.  In the text God said, “And they shall sprout like grass, Like willows by watercourses…”  In my haftarah painting at the top of the page there is a willow tree by a river. Although there are sheep grazing in the background, abandoned altars overgrown with grass are in the foreground. God waits until the Jews return and and then He will bless them and their children.

On a historical note, many scholars think the Book of Isaiah was written by more than one person. Dating back to the 12th Century Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra was convinced that chapters 40 – 66 were written by one or more prophets who lived in exile in Babylon, after the destruction of the the Southern Kingdom. That would have been about 150 years after Isaiah died.  This second section is often called “Deutero Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah”.


I hope you enjoyed the artwork and the post.  Many people have asked when I am going to turn my haftarah paintings into a book. I have decided to take the plunge and I’m working on one right now. I’ll keep you posted on how things progress.

Shabbat Shalom, Happy new month of Nissan, and all the best,


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Shabbat Shira- BeShalach


Miriam’s Song by Laya Crust

This week’s Torah reading is given the name Shabbat Shira- the Shabbat of Song. We read three songs-  Miriam’s song after crossing the Red Sea, Moshe’s “Song of the Sea”,  and Devorah’s song of victory.  Not only do women sing and play music in both the Torah and haftarah readings, they are major figures in these biblical stories.

Miriam is called a prophet in this parsha. She accompanied her younger brothers, Moshe and Aaron, leading b’nei Yisrael to freedom. Miriam was the female role model for the nation. She exemplified strength and leadership and the confidence that God has in the abilities and wisdom of women. After crossing the Red Sea, Miriam led the women with a celebration of song and dance.

h shabbat shiraDevorah and Barak by Laya Crust

 Devorah was a judge and prophet who led the Israelites  for 40 years. She would sit under a palm tree to meet with her people. The haftarah tells of a battle waged by the Canaanites against the Israelites. The Jewish leader, Barak, asked Devorah to lead the battle with him. She warned Barak that a woman would be credited with the victory if she went, but he still insisted on her help.

Maciejowski Bible, ca 1240

Yael, the other major woman in the haftarah was not a Jew, but a Kenite. After the battle Sisera, a general fleeing from the Jews,  sought refuge with Yael. She gave him warm milk to drink, covered him with a blanket, then drove a tent peg through his temple, killing him. The hafatarah is unusual in that it features two women- Devorah and Yael- as the heroic characters.

hallelu 1Hallelu  by Laya Crust

Devorah wrote a song of praise mentioning herself as a mother of Israel, Barak as a leader, and Yael as a heroine. The end of the song is powerful. Devorah described Sisera’s mother waiting at the window for her triumphant son to return home from battle.  Devorah sang, “…The mother of Sisera…moaned…’Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why are the  hoofbeats of his steeds so tardy?…Have they not found spoils and treasure? Have they not divided the prey; to every man a damsel or two; to Sisera many kinds of plunder…?”. Devorah described the scene- a mother waiting for her son- all the while knowing Sisera had been murdered. The mother’s confidence and pride that her son had been successful in killing, looting and abducting the Israelites is disquieting.

The women in the parsha and haftarah showed strength and leadership. God chose Miriam to be one of the three leaders of the children of Israel as they trekked towards freedom. God appointed Devorah and later Hulda to be prophets, and made Yael a hero. We must remember this and take it forward as we progress in religion, culture and politics. 

Have a joyous and tuneful Shabbat,


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Image resultJacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph,  by Rembrandt, 1656

The Torah reading, Va’Yechi, describes the last days of Jacob’s life. He led a complicated life. He  balanced the challenges of marriage and supporting a large family with his God given role as the third patriarch of a new people. He used strategy and manipulation to reach his dreams and accomplish his goals.

The word Va’Yechi  means “and he lived”,  emphasizing that Jacob had really lived and learned, that he had not merely coasted along in life and survived. In a way his life began when he had to run away from his brother Esau. At the end of his life we see how experience taught him deep wisdom and the clarity to understand people.

Jacob was raised in a family where his father, Isaac, loved the older brother Esau, and Rebecca, the mother, favoured Jacob, the younger brother. Although the two boys were twins Esau (the elder by only minutes) was expected to be bequeathed the greater inheritance and family rights. The parents’ preferential treatment towards different children and Jacob’s desire for some of his brother’s rights led to mistrust and maybe even hatred. The family splintered because of it.

Jacob repeated the preference of the younger over the older throughout his life. He chose  to marry Rachel, the younger of two unmarried sisters, countering common practice. Jacob presented Joseph, his favoured son, not Reuben the first born, with a regal tunic.

Jacob and Joseph, by Laya Crust

The choices led to a fractious relationship with his brother Esau, a bitter life with competitive wives, and the disappearance and supposed death of his favourite son. The family challenges coupled with a famine must have mellowed Jacob and increased his empathy and understanding of others.

Jacob learned and stood by an important lesson. Do not judge people by birth order or by wealth. I suspect he learned his respect for wisdom and leadership over birth order and wealth from his parents. His mother left a manipulative brother to live a new life. His father was a second son who inherited the role to establish a new nation. Jacob, like his father, recognized that he, not his older brother, was to be the leader of the Jewish people. Although it may have been contrary to the norms he and his mother devised a plan to make sure the most appropriate son received the appropriate blessing.

Isaac Blesses Jacob,  by Laya Crust

Jacob  raised Joseph differently from his brothers, possibly recognizing that Joseph needed a different education to fulfill his potential. In a stark replay of history he blessed his grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim, in the “wrong” order- the younger before the older.

At the end of his life he spoke to each of his sons, and seeing each for who they were. He recognized various sons as strong leaders, successful politician, merchant, trader,  warrior, baker, and farmer. The text says,”…and this is that which their father spoke to them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.” (Genesis 49: 28)

In the secular calendar we are beginning the year 2018-    20 “chai” or “life”. It is almost 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and now, once again, we live in our homeland of Israel. Let us hope that this year brings all of us the wisdom that Jacob showed – the wisdom to recognize each person for whomever he or she is, the wisdom to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of those around us, and the wisdom to recognize and value our children and friends for who they are.

May this be a year of peace, honesty, and goodness. I hope everyone will have the wisdom of Jacob to see what is good, what is evil, and to fight the right battles.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya



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Joseph- VaYigash

joeyJoseph and his Dreams by Laya Crust

This picture is a painting I made for my son named Joseph, named after his grandfather Joseph, and he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah reading parshat VaYigash, about Joseph.  I portrayed Joseph in his special coat gazing at the stars and dreaming of his future. In the border are symbols of the twelve tribes- symbols of his brothers as well as other images relating to the Bar Mitzvah boy.

The colourful story of Joseph and his brothers reaches its climax in this week’s parsha. The brothers and their father, Jacob, have survived the famine in the land of Canaan but cannot survive much longer. The heart-broken patriarch reluctantly sends the brothers to Egypt to get food. They had gone before and met the Pharaoh’s second in command- and had a strange experience there. But this time they go with troubled hearts because they were warned not to come unless they brought their youngest brother, Benjamin.

Joseph is playing a game with his brothers, and it’s difficult to understand exactly why he is making the demands he is making. This parsha begins just after Benjamin has been “framed”. Joseph’s personal silver chalice has been “planted” in Benjamin’s belongings, and the Israelite brothers have been told that Benjamin will become enslaved to Pharaoh’s court as payment for the infraction.

English: Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brot...

Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

The beauty/ pathos of the story unfolds from here.  Judah steps forward and begs for understanding. He pours out his heart, recounting the family history to this great Egyptian before him. Judah hopes 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 can carry on the charade no longer. He clears all the Egyptian attendants from the room. The text says, “and he cried out, ‘Send every man to go from me.’  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.”

The Recognition of Joseph by His Brothers, by Peter Cornelius, 1817

When I read those phrases I imagine a stately, handsome regent who is always in control. He is a man who has faced one challenge after another but has always kept his wits about him, analyzed, strategized, and succeeded.  He has played with his brothers, waiting for just the right time to reveal his identity.  I think he was “undone”, hearing Judah’s humility and love for Yaakov, the father Joseph hasn’t seen and possibly thought he never would see again. The narrative sets the scene in a compelling way. Joseph is so overcome that he loses his controlled facade. Alone with his brothers he lets out such a cry of anguish that the entire land of Mizrayim (Egypt) hears… What powerful text.

The story had begun many years earlier. Fraternal jealousy instigated a cruel joke at best or a malicious death wish at worst. That behaviour broke a family apart and had a ripple effect on the generations that followed.

The brothers and Jacob are reunited.  Judah will become one leader of the tribes and the other brothers will unite as a group called “Yisrael”. We know from the text in the Bible that just as they separated when Joesph was sold, the tribes of Israel will once again separate and form two kingdoms.

The conflict in the history of the Jews- the competition for leadership, the separation of the nations – is foreshadowed in the story of Abraham’s sons, Isaac’s sons, and now again in the story of Jacob’s sons. We have seen the story played out over and over again. We allow ourselves to be divided by traditions, dress, levels of observance, and politics.

In addition, we live in very frightening times which are harder to navigate if we are divided. We witness and experience international terrorism, tyrannical dictatorships waging war on its citizens and neighbours, slavery, rising opiad deaths, and bizarre weather related disasters. On the other hand we live in a time with potential for incredible good. Using medical innovation, social network, communication and the sharing of resources, we can create and heal the world.

Just as Joseph and his brothers could forge a better future together, we can do the same. Joseph saved Egypt and its neighbours from starvation through sharing wisdom and strategy- we have the potential to do the same.

With prayers for peace and understanding,

Shabbat Shalom,    Laya




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Isaac, Water, and Inheritance

Isaac Blessing His Sons by Laya Crust

The Torah reading of Toledot is about Isaac’s family- its travels and its conflicts. The most known portion concerns Esau and Jacob. From the beginning – even before birth – Jacob tries to take the place of Esau. Although they are twins Esau entered the world first, expecting the honours and responsibilities awarded the oldest son. This Torah portion describes the competition between the two brothers and concludes with Jacob leaving his home in order to avoid Esau’s wrath.

Nestled in the portion is an account of Isaac and his family traveling to Gerar to escape famine.  While there God tells Isaac not to leave the land of Canaan for Egypt , but to stay in Gerar. Isaac prospers in Gerar. “Isaac sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold the same year. The Lord blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer util he was very wealthy;  he acquired flocks and herds and a large household, so that the Philistines envied him. And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth.. And Avimelech [the king of Gerar] said to Isaac, “Go away from us as you have become far too big for us”.  (Genesis 25:  12-16)

It becomes a struggle over water. He moves his entourage to another area and reclaims wells which Abraham had dug. As Isaac and his household discover new water sources and dig new wells the herdsmen of Gerar argue with them, claiming the water as their own.

Landscape after Anna Ticho by Laya Crust

The Philistines had, the Torah states, covered up Abraham’s wells. The land was tough and barren. Water was the most important commodity. Without water one cannot survive in the desert, cannot grow crops, cannot sustain herds. By filling up Abraham’s wells and arguing about the newly dug wells the Philistines were trying to chase Isaac away and destroy the possibility of cooperation between the two groups.

The story has been repeated over and over throughout history and is being played out today. The Jews have been expelled from many countries. Their crime? Being too successful therefore creating envy in the general population. We are seeing an upsurge in Antisemitism and anti-Zionism today. As for the water issue- our wells are still being claimed by neighbouring states and peoples. surrounding Israel.

Israel provides water to Jordan and to the Palestinian Authority. As a matter of fact it has increased the amount of water it sends to Jordan due to the Syrian refugee crisis.  But- Israel is often accused of not sharing enough. Israel is the world leader in water reclamation and water management, having developed drip irrigation and desalinization methods. One hundred and fifty countries are being helped by Israeli water technology innovations. But, as in the text,  Israel has “become far too big…”

Isaac stayed in Canaan- now known as Israel, believing in God’s promise to him. “…stay in the land that I point out to you. Reside in this land and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I made to your father Abraham…” (v 2-4)

Isaac is often thought of as the Patriarch who stays in the tent and doesn’t move. Genesis, chapter 26 presents a different side of Isaac. He is shown as a leader of his family, a negotiator, a man who provided for his household and managed his wealth. He moved within Canaan to find water and land for his family, carrying on the leadership of a new and future nation. As Nehama Leibowitz said,  let us “…appreciate the greatness of the Patriarchs who combined their dissemination of the true faith with the practical reclamation of the soil by digging wells and watering the ground.” (Studies in Bereshit,  Alpha Press, Jerusalem, 1981, page 260)

Have a Shabbat Shalom,




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Isaac’s Role

King David Departing,   art by Laya Crust

The haftarah of “Chayei Sarah” (The Life of Sarah) recounts political discussions at the dying King David’s bedside. In the Torah reading Sarah and Abraham both die. Isaac marries Rebecca and he carries on from Abraham in the role of patriarch.

Isaac was not an active figure. He was not a traveler and fighter like his father Abraham, or a strategist and negotiator like his son Jacob. He seems to have been a quiet man who stayed at home and was content with the status quo. He didn’t even choose his own wife. Abraham’s servant found a suitable wife for Isaac. When the servant returned with Rebecca she saw him “meditating” in the fields.

Image result for chagall rebecca aND isaacRebecca and Isaac, Marc Chagall

… “and Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the evening time…” (Genesis 24: 63). It seems fitting that Isaac, a quiet man, would go out into the fields to contemplate at dusk, when there is a solitude and calm in the air.

We can look at each of the patriarchs and relate them to the different times of day. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that that Rabbi Jacobovits “used to point out that the position of the sun at the various stages of the day mirrored that of the patriarchs themselves.”  Lord Jacobovits  likened Abraham to the sun which rose in the east, just as Abraham started his life in the east and traveled west to Canaan. Isaac was like the sun in the afternoon which is centered in the sky. He remained in Canaan, not straying from that chosen land. Just as the sun sets in the west, Jacob ended his life away from Canaan, in the land of Egypt.

The personalities and behaviours of the patriarchs also reflect the patterns of the day. Abraham rose early in the morning to do God’s bidding. Just as the sun ignites action, Abraham was a  man of action- not needing others to prod him along. The sun heralds a new day and Abraham founded a new nation.

Jacob is the night. He had the vision of angels climbing a ladder at night. God spoke to him at night. He fought with the angel at the Jabok River throughout the night. Jacob had many experiences with angels. They were mysterious and miraculous, and we think of the night as mysterious.

    Image result for abraham and isaac rembrandt 1634Abraham and Isaac,   Rembrandt, 1645

Isaac was the path between Abraham- man of action and obedience to God,  and Jacob- man of manipulation and negotiation.  Isaac obeyed his father and God at the akeida, when Abraham almost sacrificed him on Mount Moriah. Isaac accepted the role of patriarch, never questioning it. He remained in Cannan, managed the flocks, married whom he was told to marry, and raised his sons. He was a thinker, renouncing Abraham’s aggressive movement and Jacob’s passionate reactivity. If Abraham was morning and Jacob was night, then Isaac was the day, moving through the sky connecting morning to night.

If we relate the patriarchs to prayer Abraham is shacharit (morning prayer) Isaac is mincha (afternoon prayer) and Jacob is ma’ariv (evening payer).

Isaac’s personality is not described in the Bible. We read about Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob and each of Jacob’s wives, but Isaac is passive. He was a quiet leader who held it all together. He was a bridge between those who waged war, who took over land, and who grabbed what they felt they deserved. He was a figure of calm and permanence who meditated and lived simply.

We need all kinds of personalities to balance the world and Isaac’s quietude is a trait to integrate in our commercial, materialistic, and goal oriented world.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya



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Abraham’s Test?

Bird’s Head Haggadah,  1290, Southern Germany

This week’s parsha is “VaYeira”. The parsha is comprised of beautiful narratives. It includes the story of the 3 angels who visit Abraham and Sarah, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorra, the birth of Isaac, and the binding of Isaac on the sacrificial altar.

We are told that God tested Abraham 10 times. The final trial was Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac.

“Take now your son, your favourite son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will point out to you.” (Genesis 22: 2)

Abraham followed God’s words. This narrative and its conclusion has disturbed, inspired, or puzzled Jews since it was first read in the Torah. How, we ask, can a father be told to slay his son on an altar? And, even more so, how can a loving father, the  patriarch of the  Jews, have agreed to this murderous sacrifice?

File:The sacrifice of Isaac.jpg

 Beit Alpha Synagogue Mosaic 5th C. CE

We do not see Abraham as a meek character. God chose him to be a leader because he wasn’t afraid to strike out on his own or to defy adversity. We saw Abraham argue and then bargain with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, so why didn’t he challenge God this time? He and Sarah discussed strategy for entering the land of a foreign king and talked about not having had children, so why didn’t Abraham discuss this with Sarah, his life partner? He could have refused God and defended his position or he could have tried to run away like Jonah did, too afraid to stand up to God and unwilling to slay his son. But when it came to the situation of “akeidat Yitzchak” (the binding of Isaac) Abraham chose to quietly obey.

Image result for sacrifice of IsaacRembrandt, 1636

We are told that Abraham passed God’s test. But what was God’s test? Is it that if we do whatever God tells us to do without question, it will all work out? I have a different theory. I think the test was to see whether or not Abraham would be scared off by God’s instructions.

Would Abraham continue to engage with God, even when given such an unbelievable task? Abraham could have run away from God and tried to hide as the prophet Jonah did, saying, “No more. I will no longer follow you.”  It could be that any reaction that acknowledged God – whether it was arguing, bargaining, discussing or  accepting would have been good enough to pass the test of God’s search for the patriarch of a new nation who would not run away from adversity and confrontation. Rather than enter discussions, Abraham decided to follow with blind faith.

Image result for rembrandt Abraham and IsaacAbraham and Isaac, Rembrandt, 1645

Abraham proved his faith and passed the test but it was at a very high cost. It ends with Isaac alive but relationships are  broken. Abraham and Isaac never spoke to each other again. Abraham and Sarah never saw each other again. She died, and midrash (apocryphal story) relates that she died when she heard of Abraham’s intention to sacrifice their son.  Abraham and God never spoke again either.

The story is tragic. The lack of communication we saw here is a pattern that is repeated throughout the book of Genesis. Other than the lesson of faith in God we can take away another lesson- the importance of communication and honesty within a family facing all sorts of challenges.

As always there is much to think about and learn through our Torah and our sages.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya





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