Tag Archives: Shabbat

BeShalach-Shabbat Shira

B'Shalach
Miriam’s Song by Laya Crust

This week’s Torah reading, Beshalach, is called 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. Women sing and play music in both the Torah and haftarah readings, and they are also significant figures in these biblical stories.

Before focusing on our heroines, Miriam, Devorah, and Yael, I will mention some elements from this week’s parashah. The Israelites have fled Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army are in quick pursuit. God splits the Red Sea so the Israelites can cross to the other side. We read about the manna that appears to feed the hungry people. God introduces the notion of “Shabbat” by sending two portions of manna on the sixth day so that everyone can refrain from collecting food on the seventh day, Moses sweetens the water in this parashah and we read about the battle with the Amalekites.

Miriam is called a prophet in this parashah. She and her brothers, Moses and Aaron, lead b’nei Yisrael to freedom. God has confidence in the abilities and wisdom of women and chose Miriam to be the female role model for the nation. She exemplified strength and leadership. After crossing the Red Sea, Miriam led the women, celebrating with song and dance.

h shabbat shira

Devorah the Prophet by Laya Crust

 Devorah was a judge and prophet who led the Israelites for 40 years. She sat under a palm tree to meet with her people. The haftarah tells of a battle waged by the Canaanites against the Israelites. The Jewish commander, Barak, asks Devorah to lead the battle with him. She warns Barak that a woman will be credited with the victory if she goes, but he still insists on her help.

Yael Killing Sisera Maciejowski Bible, ca 1240

Yael, the other significant woman in the haftarah, is not a Jew but a Kenite. After the battle, Sisera, a general, flees from the Jews, seeking refuge with Yael. She gives him warm milk to drink, covers him with a blanket, then drives a tent peg through his temple, killing him. The haftarah is unusual in that it features two women- Devorah and Yael- as heroic characters.

Devorah writes 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 describes Sisera’s mother waiting at the window for her triumphant son to return home from battle. Devorah sings, “…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 describes the scene- a mother waiting for her son- all the while knowing Sisera has been murdered. The mother’s pride that her son has successfully killed, looted, and abducted the Israelites is disquieting.

The women in the parashah and haftarah show 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 as prophets and made Yael a hero.

Women may not be mentioned in our writings as often as men, but women were essential leaders and educators then, as women are today. Let’s work in strength and harmony, and sing in harmony too!

Have a joyous and tuneful Shabbat,

Laya

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Bo, The Stand-off

Bo sig

Haftarah:  Jeremiah 46: 13-28

This week’s haftarah is from the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived most of his life in Israel, witnessing both sieges of Jerusalem (597 and 586). In this haftarah, after the fall of the First Temple, he warned the Children of Israel not to ally themselves with Egypt. He prophesied that Egypt would fall to the Babylonians.

In the illustration Egypt {Pharaoh) is being confronted by Jeremiah (Moses). The images Jeremiah uses in his warnings about Egypt are painted in the background. The heifer, gadflies, serpent, locusts, and trees that will be cut down have been painted to look like an Egyptian wall painting. The images the prophet used echo the plagues visited upon the Egyptians in parsahat Bo.

The Egyptians had already experienced 7 plagues. Some were unpleasantly uncomfortable (being overrun with frogs) and some were devastating (pestilence killing the cattle and hail destroying crops). In this week’s parashah, Moshe warned Pharaoh that if he didn’t free the children of Israel there would be even more dire consequences. Three more plagues were to be visited upon the Egyptians. Pharaoh lost patience with Moses. After the plagues of locusts and darkness, he wanted the threats to stop. Bombastically, he proclaimed, “Depart from me, take heed of yourself. Make sure never to see my face again. For on the day you see my face you will die.”  (Exodus 10:28) Moses answered, “You have spoken well. I will not see your face again.” Pharaoh’s threat was answered. He did not ever see Moses’ face again.

Pharaoh had been given opportunities to let the Israelites leave. His pride would not allow Moses to threaten him or speak of a Gd more powerful than he. Pharaoh threatened Moses with death. He would never see Moses again, but he paid a horrific price. His eldest son- and the eldest of all Egyptian families would die. Pharaoh’s decree not to see Moshe’s face again had negative implications and terrible results.

Rabbi Ari Kahn, a rabbi in Israel, points out that children are the focus of the Exodus narrative. Our all-powerful Gd could have freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery with little pain and fuss. For instance, the plague of darkness immobilized the Egyptians for three days while the Israelites had light. Moses could have led Gd’s people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea without their oppressors even knowing what was happening. Why the elaborate choreography of the plagues?

The cries of pain began with overwork and Pharaoh’s decree to kill newborn Jewish babies. Midwives and mothers risked their own lives to save the babies. The lives of children are precious to Jews. In this parashah Gd tells Moses that our children may forget the story of Egypt, slavery, and deliverance. The seder itself will be the reminder. That reminder will ensure our children’s education and the continuity of our people.

We are told to remember the stranger because we were strangers. We are reminded to remember our past and learn from it. We live in challenging times and hopefully if we remember to be kind to those around us we will get through this period without too many bruises.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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Shemot- Those Who Are Nameless

Hopeless Desperation by Laya Crust

“Shemot”, meaning “Names”, is the title of the second book of the Five Books of Moses.  The book begins with the names of the patriarch Jacob and his sons, and tells how Jacob went down to Egypt with an entourage of 70 people. It says, “And the children of Jacob were fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied and grew very very mighty, and the land was filled with them.” (Shemot/ Exodus 1:7)

The Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians. Neither slaves, taskmasters, nor nobility 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.

We read of Moses’ entanglement with an Egyptian taskmaster and three Israelite slaves, yet the next person who is named is Re’uel (Jethro), the Midianite priest who kindly took Moses in.

There is a pattern here. The people who were named were those who stood up against the norm of apathy and acceptance. The midwives risked their own lives because they didn’t want to kill innocent baby boys. The adopted boy Moses grew up to rail against the injustice he witnessed. Jethro the priest took in a needy stranger from a rival country.

photograph by Malcolm Peterson, 2003

Names are important. When Moses met God at the burning bush surprisingly Moses asked for God’s name. Moses knew that the Israelite slaves needed a name for God in order to believe. He demanded a name from a powerful, unknown, force. God complied and furnished Moses with a name – “אהיה אשר אהיה“, “I Will Ever Be What I Will Be”.Names are a key to identity and self-determination.  The Israelite slaves were nameless. Black slaves were stripped of their birth names and given new monikers. Victims of the Nazi regime were numbered in order to add one more level to their dehumanization.  Victims of famine and genocide; and victims of large natural disasters like tsunamis, mudslides, and earthquakes, are unnamed. Missing Indigenous women needed their names shared in order to be noticed, and for their disappearances to be investigated.

When we see a face or hear a name we are more capable of empathizing with a person or an unfolding tragedy.  That is why, when a memorial is set up for fallen soldiers or victims of the Shoah (Holocaust), the invisible individuals can then be remembered, and why the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem is called Yad V’Shem (“A Monument and a Name”).

Ai Weiwei's Snake Ceiling, a serpentine form made from children's backpacks, is currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum's "According to What?" exhibit. It commemorates the thousands of students who died in poorly constructed schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
A Snake made out of children’s backpacks, Ai Wei Wei,
Hirshhorn Museum, 2008/ photograph by Cathy Carver

Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese dissident artist, took another approach in one of his installations.  In 2008, thousands of school children were killed by an earthquake in Sichuan, China, in shoddily constructed government schools. Wei Wei has produced a list of all the victims of the earthquake on his blog. He also created a number of art pieces made from thousands of children’s backpacks to memorialize their lives.

The thousands of victims have been given identities.

Referring to the narrative from the bible, it may seem that calling this story “Shemot” or “Names” is ironic, but on second thought it is a lesson. The people who were named were doers and helpers. They were people who stepped beyond normal expectations to change a condition and make it better.

When we see people in need it may help us to find out their names. That may make it easier for us to see them as individuals and allow us to reach out more quickly.

Claiming a name

May this be a Shabbat of welcoming and hope, of reaching out to help the other- the nameless and those in need. And through our actions may we bring peace and healing to the world.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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Vayechi- Family Continuity

Va'yechi Sig
King David and Solomon by Laya Crust

Both the haftarah and the parashah are narratives of handing over the reigns of power. Jacob, in the parashah, is on his deathbed. He describes each of his sons and predicts how they will lead their lives. King David, in the haftarah, tells Solomon to vanquish their enemies, be strong, and follow Gd’s laws. Yaakov and David recognize that their death means a new beginning for their sons.

 We have a beautiful prayer we say each morning, “My Gd, the soul You placed within me is pure. You created it. You fashioned it. You breathed it into me. You safeguard it within me, and eventually, you will take it from me and restore it to me in time to come. As long as the soul is within me, I gratefully thank you, my Gd and Gd of my forefathers, Master of all works, Lord of all souls…”

Morning Prayer by Laya Crust

Each day we have the opportunity to see our life as a new beginning. We can make a change for the better, face a challenge, or make a fresh start.

Jacob was 137 years old. He had lived in Egypt with Joseph and his other 11 sons for 17 years. Jacob was about to die and called for Joseph, Ephraim, and Menashe (Joseph’s sons). “…he kissed them and embraced them. And Yisrael said to Joseph,’ I had not thought to see your face: and lo, God has also shown me your children.’ ” (Genesis ch 47 v..11). Jacob expressed the pain he had felt for decades, never believing he would see his son Joseph again. Neither Abraham nor Isaac had ever spoken to their children with such honesty and warmth.

We go on to read the first ethical will to be recorded. Jacob spoke to each of his sons and to his two favourite grandsons. He foresaw how they were going to navigate the world. While speaking to his children, Jacob insisted that he be buried in Canaan, indicating that Canaan, not Egypt, was their homeland.

Jacob cemented the family unit with his words. It wasn’t a public speech, and it was a speech only for his sons. He valued them as a unified family, and they would retain their nationhood and integrity if they stayed together.

In this week’s texts Yaakov and David, reflecting on their own lives, gave their sons guidance for the future. Their sons could listen to the exhortations and ignore them or take them on a more profound level. The deeper level would be for the sons to listen to their father’s words and ask themselves- “What can I change in myself to heed this wisdom and at the same time become a better person using the wisdom?”

When we read the morning prayer thanking Gd we remind ourselves that we have a fresh soul each day. Let’s remind ourselves to do things we love that make us feel good and are beneficial to others. We can use the newness of each day to move towards a great ideal.

Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Reunited- VaYigash

The brothers selling Joseph to passing traders from the parasha VaYigash

For the last number of weeks we have been reading about our ancestors, Jacob’s children. More specifically, we have read about Joseph’s trajectory from favoured son at home, to being a slave, and then to becoming viceroy of all Egypt. By the time he was thirty years old Joseph ruled Egypt. He ran the finances and oversaw all of Egypt’s policies.

In this week’s Torah reading Joseph’s brothers still did not know that the leader they were speaking to was their brother. This parsha begins just after Benjamin had been “framed”. Joseph’s personal silver chalice had been “planted” in Benjamin’s belongings, and the Israelite brothers had been told that Benjamin would become enslaved to Pharaoh’s court as payment for the infraction. Joseph was playing a game with his brothers.

English: Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brot...Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother, c. 1896-1902
 by James Jacques Joseph Tissot    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 
 
Judah, The same brother who decades earlier had suggested Joseph be sold rather than be killed, begged for understanding. He pouredout his heart to the great Egyptian before him. Judah hoped that by telling this regent of his father’s heartbreak and frailty the leader might 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. The text 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…” 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. Joseph forgave his brothers. He feasted with them, gave them gifts of clothing and food, and convinced them to return to Egypt and live in comfort.

Although the story had begun many years earlier with fraternal jealousy, the brothers reunited and rebuilt their family. This was contrary to the patterns we had seen before. Cain killed his brother Abel. Isaac grew up without his brother Ishmael.  Jacob and Esau never truly reconciled. In this story we see Joseph and Judah build the unified family which would become a nation.

VaYigashReunited  by Laya Crust

The haftarah features the prophet Ezekiel. He lived from around 622 BCE – 570 BCE and was among the 8,000 Jews exiled to Babylonia. God told Ezekiel to take two beautiful branches, carve phrases on them and display them. One branch represented the nation of Judah and the other represented Joseph’s lineage, the nation of Ephraim. Ezekiel wrote phrases about the two Jewish nations onto the branches and held the two branches together. The action was to indicate that just as the branches could be rejoined, the Israelites could be reunited and grow together as one unified nation.

Both readings are about unity. In every era and in every generation there are disagreements between different sectors of Jews. The competition for leadership, the separation of the nations – began as early as the story of Cain and Abel. 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. We are stronger as a united people.

We live in frightening times which are harder to navigate if we are divided. We witness and experience the Covid-19 epidemic, international terrorism, increasd anti-Semitism, 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

The painting “Reunited”, showing Ezekiel writing on a branch,  is one of the images in my forthcoming book, “ILLUMINATIONS: The Art of Haftarah”. Stay tuned for more information!

Shabbat Shalom,  Laya

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Lech Lecha

Dear Reader,

I painted the pictures you see here as part of a collection of pieces for a sefer haHaftarah- a haftarah scroll. You have seen many of these images over the years if you have been following my blog. I’m excited to announce that a collection of these paintings and their explanations will be published in a book called “ILLUMINATIONS, An Exploration of Haftarah through Art and History”. I will share more information about the book in the coming weeks.

“Count the Stars”

If you’ve ever been camped in the desert or in the countryside at night without artificial light, you will have seen a  sky studded with stars. The heavens are so full of stars it seems amazing the sky can hold them all.

The parasha of Lech Lecha introduces us to Abraham, the man Gd chose to begin a new nation. Gd tells Abraham that He will bless him. Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the dust on the ground and the stars in the skies. Gd said, “Look now toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them. And He said, “and so your descendants shall be…” (Genesis 15:5) Looking up at that night sky Avram couldn’t have begun to imagine how many stars there were. There were too many to count, too many to even guess at.

God told Abraham to leave his birthplace and travel to where God would direct him. Just as Abraham was called by God and promised a new homeland, the haftarah relates that God will gather all Jews from the corners of the earth and take them to their homeland – to the land of Israel.

This week’s haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah. The Jews have been in Babylon, in exile, for decades. They are sure they will never be able to return home. It seems that King Cyrus is about to conquer Babylon and Isaiah is hopeful that Cyrus will allow the Jews to go back to Israel. Isaiah assures the Jews that Gd will not abandon them. Gd reminds the Jews that they are His chosen people. “The coastlands look on in fear, the ends of the earth tremble … But you, Israel my servant … whom I drew from the ends of the earth and called from its far corners …”(Isaiah 41:5, 8, 9)   

Compass Rose by Laya Crust

The references to coastlands and the ends of the earth evoke thoughts of maps and atlases. This painting shows a section of the famous Catalan Atlas which incorporates Majorca, Spain, and the compass rose which is found on every navigational map.

One of the most accomplished medieval mapmakers was Abraham Cresques who lived in Majorca, Spain. He was the mapmaker to the king. In 1375, Prince John of Aragon commissioned Cresques to make a set of nautical world charts as a gift for the future King Charles IV of France. Abraham and his son Jehuda created the Catalan Atlas, which is recognized as the most important atlas of the medieval period. The Catalan Atlas included the names of coastal towns, locations of houses of worship, and drawings of traders, rulers, and flags of the empires.

Although he had worked on maps which were commissioned by royalty, ironically, Jehuda was caught in the snare of the Spanish Inquisition. He was forcibly converted to Christianity during the anti-Jewish outbreaks of Spain in 1391, and took the name Jaume Riba. He continued to create maps and was called Magister Cartarum Navegundi – “Master of Navigational Maps”.

Abraham was chosen to begin a new nation, the nation that would one day be known as Jews. Even back then Gd told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a strange land, referring to their enslavement in Egypt. Abraham was warned that life would be tough for the Jewish people, his descendants.  The hardships have continued throughout history. In this haftarah Isaiah gave encouragement to his exiled brethren in Babylon, telling them that Gd would not abandon them.

Every time period is a time of challenge for the Jews. Right now we are still facing challenges and terrible anti-Semitic tides. We are reminded that Gd made a promise and will always keep that promise initialized with Avraham Avinu- Abraham our father.

Have a good week and a good Shabbat. May it be one of peace and health for klal Yisrael and the world.

Laya

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Yom Kippur- Your Light Will Shine

Yom Kippur Shacharit
Yom Kippur- Your Light Will Shine             by Laya Crust

On Yom Kippur morning  haftarah we read is from the Book of Isaiah. It is a dynamic reading. Right at the beginning we read, “Build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of my people!” The painting above is part of my “haftarah series”, in a style inspired by Marc Chagall.  Images from the haftarah text appear in the picture. The blues evoke “A spring whose waters will not fail” (ch 58:12) and there is “light that bursts through the dawn”(ch 58: 8). Click on the image to enlarge it.

 Isaiah’s message isn’t focused on the self. Rather it is focused on social justice. The prophet tells says, “The fast you perform today will not make your voice heard on high.” (58:4) …”Loosen the bindings of evil, … shatter every yoke of slavery. Break your bread for the starving and bring the dispossessed home. When you see a person naked, clothe him; do not ignore your kin. And then your light will break out like the sunrise…”(58: 6,7)

Yom Kippur is a difficult day for many of us. We fast  (some of us start weaning ourselves off caffeine a week early) and participate in prayers of fear and longing. Many of us are attending ZOOM services which is challenging in its own way. The prayers help us to face ourselves. Thinking about our weaknesses is difficult, and deciding to improve realities is even more difficult. 

Acts of justice and positivity heal oneself and one’s relationship with the Creator. Tears and fasting can be an element of our prayer. Improving ourselves and the world round us is another outcome of prayer and hope for a healed world.

These are very troubling times all over the world. I won’t list all the challenges in front of us because it’s too depressing. Let’s focus on the millions of wonderful innovators, optimists, do-gooders, and creative givers who make the world a better place. Let’s support the positive changes and work towards greater mending in the world.

Have a “positive” fast. May your year be filled with peace, health, happiness and “parnassa” (financial security) for you and your family. Happy 5782!

-Laya

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Korach- Rebelling against the Establishment

Samuel and Saul by Laya Crust

Parasha: Korach Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14- 12:22

In the Torah reading Korach, a priest, gathered 250 followers and challenged Moshe’s authority. Korach thought it was presumptuous of Moshe and Aaron to retain the leadership of the Israelites. He said, “You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them…” (Numbers 16:3). The accusation was particularly galling since Korach and his followers were already distinguished as men of note with special roles.

Later in the parasha there was another rebellion concerning Aaron’s role as High Priest. Gd proscribed a test where each tribe inscribed a wooden staff with its name then put the rod into the Tent of Meeting. The rod of the true leader would sprout leaves overnight. The next morning Moshe brought out the twelve rods. Not only had Aaron’s rod sprouted leaves but it had flowering buds and almonds on the staff.

The haftarah echoes the rebellions against the established leadership. The prophet Samuel was the prophet and leader of the Jews around the year 1000 BCE. The Israelites saw that other nations were ruled by a king, and they wanted to be like other nations. Samuel saw this as a betrayal of Gd and Gd’s rule. Moshe and Samuel each attempt to convince the Israelites not to overturn the leadership. Moshe says, ” I have not taken a single donkey of theirs, nor have I wronged even one of them.” (Numbers 16:15) Samuel says, “Whose ox have I taken or whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to turn the other way?” (I Samuel 12:4)

The parasha is resolved with Moshe and Aaron each retaining their positions and the rebels being punished. In contrast, Samuel loses his position as leader. He anoints Saul as king and becomes Saul’s advisor.

The Israelites wanted a king so they would be like all the other nations.  The change wasn’t being sought for positive, constructive purposes. Rather the change was being pursued so that the Israelites would be like the other nations.  Similarly, Korach’s goal was not the improvement of his people. His goal was self-promotion and personal power.

The issues of self-interest and personal power are issues that plague us to this day. To create a healthy society and a healthy world we need leaders who are leading for the betterment of society, not for self-promotion. At the grassroots level, we need to strive to make the world a better place by supporting wise leaders and with our own fair and caring actions. Hopefully, through these actions we will see peace,  justice, and equality in the world sooner rather than later.

A word about the illustration for this haftarah: The painting is inspired by a woodcut from a book by Isaac ben Solomon ibn Abi Sahulah. Born in Castile in 1244, he was a scholar and Hebrew poet. He noticed that Jews were reading foreign novels like “The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor”, fables from India, and books from other cultures. Isaac wanted Jews to read about Jewish subjects so he wrote his own book of poems and parables called “Meshal ha-Kadmoni” (The Ancient Proverb). It was so popular it was reprinted six times in Hebrew and nine times in Yiddish! My painting shows Samuel speaking to Saul, based on a German reprint from 1450. 

Let’s all hope for good directions in this crazy world of crazy leadership that just seems to get crazier. Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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Jeremiah’s Story

A Contract of Sale by Laya Crust

This week we read two parshas- Behar and B’Hukkotai. Each parsha has a haftarah from the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in Judea, prophesying from 626 BCE until the fall of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE. He lived in difficult times which spanned the reigns of five kings and ended his life in Egypt.

Jeremiah - Wikipedia
Jeremiah by Michaelangelo, Sistine Chapel painting

The haftarah for Behar took place during Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem. When Jeremiah advised King Zedekiah to surrender to the Babylonians the king threw him into prison. While Jeremiah was in prison Gd told him that Jeremiah’s cousin would come and ask him to buy their family’s parcel of land. Although the country was under siege Jeremiah was to buy the property.

As foretold, his cousin Hanamel asked Jeremiah to buy his land. Jeremiah went to great efforts to make the transaction legal and formalized by witnesses. He weighed out the silver, wrote two bills of sale – one sealed and one unsealed, and carried out the sale in the prison courtyard. The documents were then stored in an earthenware jar for safekeeping. The sale was a symbol that the siege of Jerusalem would end and land would become valuable once more.

Jeremiah said, “For so said Gd, Master of Legions, Gd of Israel, ‘Houses, fields, and vineyards will yet be bought in this land.'” (Jeremiah 32:13)

A Tree by the Water by Laya Crust

Jeremiah constantly reminded the Jews to follow Gd’s laws and ethics. Buying a parcel of land when the country was under siege was an inspiring and selfless act, but he was still disliked by the population because of his constant warnings and negative messages. In the next haftarah, B’Hukkotai, Jeremiah told the nation that a person who is good will flourish. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose trust the Lord is. He will be like a tree planted by the waters… Its foliage will be lush and will not be anxious in the year of drought. And it will not cease from yielding fruit.”   (Jeremiah 17: 7,8)   

Jeremiah’s message ring true today. The world is in terrible disarray. There is a pandemic, economic crises, war, and natural disasters. Yet there is good being done, acts of kindness, and progress throughout the world (as well as the disasters). Let’s keep that in mind and do our little bit to improve the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Shemot- Those Who Are Nameless

Hopeless Desperation by Laya Crust

“Shemot”, meaning “Names”, is the title of the second book of the Five Books of Moses.  The book begins with the names of the patriarch Jacob and his sons, and tells how Jacob went down to Egypt with an entourage of 70 people. It says, “And the children of Jacob were fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied and grew very very mighty, and the land was filled with them.” (Shemot/ Exodus 1:7)

The Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians. Neither slaves, taskmasters, nor nobility were named in the narrative. The first names we read are those of two heroic midwives, Shifra and Pua, who had the courage to ignore the edict to drown every Israelite boy at birth.  The next name we read is that of Moses- not when he was born but after he was rescued by Pharaoh’s (nameless) daughter, then taken by his own (nameless) sister to be nursed and raised for three years by Moses’ own (nameless) mother.

We read of Moses’ entanglement with an Egyptian taskmaster and three Israelite slaves, yet the next person who is named is Re’uel (Jethro), the Midianite priest who kindly took Moses in.

There is a pattern here. The people who were named were those who stood up against the norm of apathy and acceptance. The midwives risked their own lives because they didn’t want to kill innocent baby boys. The adopted boy Moses grew up to rail against the injustice he witnessed. Jethro the priest took in a needy stranger from a rival country.

photograph by Malcolm Peterson, 2003

But names are important. When Moses met God at the burning bush surprisingly Moses asked for God’s name. Moses knew that the Israelite slaves needed a name for God in order to believe. He demanded a name from a powerful, unknown, force. God complied and furnished Moses with a name – “אהיה אשר אהיה“, “I Will Ever Be What I Will Be”.

Names are a key to identity and self-determination.  The Israelite slaves were nameless. Black slaves were stripped of their birth names and given new monikers. Victims of the Nazi regime were numbered in order to add one more level to their dehumanization.  Victims of famine and genocide; and victims of large natural disasters like tsunamis, mudslides, and earthquakes, are unnamed. Missing Indigenous women needed their names shared in order to be noticed, and for their disappearances to be investigated.

When we see a face or hear a name we are more capable of empathizing with a person or an unfolding tragedy.  That is why, when a memorial is set up for fallen soldiers or victims of the Shoah (Holocaust), the invisible individuals can then be remembered, and why the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem is called Yad V’Shem (“A Monument and a Name”).

Ai Weiwei's Snake Ceiling, a serpentine form made from children's backpacks, is currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum's "According to What?" exhibit. It commemorates the thousands of students who died in poorly constructed schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Snake made out of children’s backpacks, Ai Wei Wei, Hirshhorn Museum, 2008/ photograph by Cathy Carver

Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese dissident artist, took another approach in one of his installations.  In 2008, thousands of school children were killed by an earthquake in Sichuan, China, in shoddily constructed government schools. Wei Wei has produced a list of all the victims of the earthquake on his blog. He also created a number of art pieces made from thousands of children’s backpacks to memorialize their lives.

The thousands of victims have been given identities.

Referring to the narrative from the bible, it may seem that calling this story “Shemot” or “Names” is ironic, but on second thought it is a lesson. The people who were named were doers and helpers. They were people who stepped beyond normal expectations to change a condition and make it better.

When we see people in need it may help us to find out their names. That may make it easier for us to see them as individuals and allow us to reach out more quickly.

May this be a Shabbat of welcoming and hope, of reaching out to help the other- the nameless and those in need. And through our actions may we bring peace and healing to the world. Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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