Tag Archives: slavery

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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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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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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Behar and an Exemplary Doctor

Baharart by Laya Crust

Leviticus: Chapter 25

Parshat Behar begins, “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe the Sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord.” (v 2-4)

It’s a fascinating way to talk about the land. It is not to be taken for granted. The land is to be respected. We are commanded to respect the earth that brings forth food. We are not to take even the dust for granted. Being told to give the soil beneath our feet a rest helps us to recognize that every element around us has been created by a higher being. We are reminded  “…the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me.” (v.23)

The discussion of the land is followed by rules relating to the treatment of slaves. Slavery is a forbidden concept in today’s western world. Although it does still exist throughout the world it is illegal in the west and many people pretend it doesn’t exist at all. However it WAS legal and accepted in the ancient world and in the ancient Jewish world. So, God gave rules about how to treat slaves and how to treat Jewish slaves. Respect for all human beings was elucidated in Judaism.

Individuals losing their livelihood, going into debt, and becoming impoverished were also realities as they are now. People sold themselves into slavery. The Torah presents laws which address that as well.

The laws of taking care of the aged,  poor, the widow and the orphan appear throughout the Torah, and here we read about treatment of those who have fallen on hard times, and have lost everything.  “If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority…let him live by your side; do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, or give him your food at accrued interest…” (v. 35, 36, 37)

Daddy with Jeep - croppedJoseph Crust   z”l

This Shabbat, the 20th day of Iyar, happens to be my late father’s yahrzeit. My father, יוסף חיים בן יהודה לייב ז״ל (Yosef Chaim ben Yehuda Leib) was a man who exemplified the lesson of helping others in financial need and supporting those who needed support. He was an outstanding doctor who had many farm families as patients. My Dad accepted cucumbers, potatoes, and honey as payment for his medical services. Medical fees were often waived. He treated his family with love, and his employees with respect. His first secretary was a young widow who needed a job. She was inexperienced  at being a medical receptionist but my Dad offered her the job because she needed the livelihood.  She learned on the job and worked with him for his 35 year career in Fort Garry, Manitoba. He was dedicated to his patients and they were dedicated to him.

The life my father led was modeled on the “middot” or attributes in the Torah.

We remember him fondly and with love.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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Ki Teitze

1f82m[1]art by Laya Crust

Ki Teitze: Devarim (Deuteronomy) 21: 10 – 25: 19

Haftarah- Isaiah 54: 1-10

This week’s Torah reading is devoted to rules and laws that affect family and community life. The laws look at relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, neighbours, the underprivileged, and even between humans and animals. This is the parsha that includes the unexpected  decree that before taking eggs out of a nest one must shoo away the mother bird- supposedly to save the mother bird the anguish of seeing its  (future) young being abducted.

P1130683art by Laya Crust

The range of laws and guidelines is impressive. They look at family and seemingly personal issues – the unloved wife, the rebellious child, a lost object… and treat those issues with the same gravity as crimes such as murder. The poor and weak members of society are also noticed in this parsha. The treatment of one’s servants is addressed.  All those must be cared for and treated with dignity.

Laws concerning women are quite prominent here. Yibbum or levirate marriage, unloved wives, questioned virginity, and the treatment of women who have been captured in war are all considered in this parsha.

P1130686art by Laya Crust

To our modern eyes the reading is often disturbing, but we have to remember what was going on in biblical times. Abuse and murder of women was ignored because it was seen as being under the jurisdiction and purview of the husband or father. In those days women had no status and no rights. They left their  home and family to lead a probably cloistered life with their husband’s family. Judaism recognized these injustices and established laws to erase the inequality and unfairness.

Many of the laws listed in Ki Teitzei  were ground breaking. For the first time a woman’s status and treatment were deemed important enough to discuss. Women were recognized as deserving respect and protection.

Judaism is a model for a just and generous society.   “And thou shalt remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt: therefore I command you to do this thing.” Deuteronomy 24: 22).  That one phrase communicates humility and the pursuit of integrity and justice.

Have a meaningful Shabbat,

Laya

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Mishpatim

Mishpatim sigJeremiah 34: 8-22, 33: 25-26

Jeremiah (prophet) c. 655 BCE -.586 BCE.

Parshat Mishpatim follows the parsha in which G-d gives the Ten Commandments to b’nei Yisrael on Mount Sinai. The first commandment is commonly translated as “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” It is fascinating that G-d could have introduced and described Himself in many ways. What did he choose? He chose “Who took you out of the land of slavery”

This parsha begins to describe various of G-d’s laws and the first laws discussed are about slavery.

Judaism gave the world its moral code. The Ten Commandments deal with many things from recognizing one G-d to keeping the Sabbath, to the prohibition of murder, theft, and adultery. Why then would the first laws that are discussed in the Torah concern slavery?

If you remember, the Israelites had just been released from Egypt where they had been enslaved. Those many years of servitude had been imprinted on their psyche. When G-d introduces Himself to the Israelites He uses slavery as part of the introduction. “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of slavery.” Bondage was obviously in the forefront of the Israelites’ minds. G-d knew that laws concerning slavery would resonate strongly with the Children of Israel. Consequently it was a wise strategy to introduce a moral code starting with issues of slavery.

The haftarah for Mishpatim is from the Book of Jeremiah. It is set during the final siege of Jerusalem. In 588 BCE Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, invaded Jerusalem. King Zedekiah ordered the release of all Jewish slaves, thinking this might reverse the conquest of Judaea. Two years later, when things had calmed down slightly, the slave owners re-intered their slaves. G-d  told Jeremiah that since the people had put men and women back into servitude they would be punished.

– oneworldeducation.org

 When thinking about an illustration for this week’s haftarah I thought about the laws of servitude and what freedom would mean to an individual. Then I thought about modern slavery- the notorious sweatshops in China. The chained children in India who weave carpets, the slave trade in prostitution,  the collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh last year. How could I remind people that even in modern times Jews, too, have been the victims of slavery and have been involved in it. I remembered the tragic situation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.

The slave conditions of sweatshop workers in the “shmatteh” business are well documented.  Young immigrants from Europe were put to work there. The hours were long, the pay was miserly, and the workers would be locked in so they couldn’t take breaks for lunch or supper, or meet with union leaders to organize. Although the workers were not “owned “by their employers as they were in biblical times- they were owned by their employers in terms of their lives.

2811 × 1919 – en.wikipedia.org

My illustration at the top of the page shows the infamous fire in 1911 at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Company. It killed 146 young sweatshop workers; most of whom were Jewish immigrant girls aged 16 – 23. The image of the workers is based on a photograph of the young women and men striking, trying to get better working conditions.

P1110081I took these two photographs of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Building, now called the Brown Building. It has two plaques on its  exterior memorializing the fire and its victims.

P1110080

It is fitting that many of the union organizers throughout time and throughout the world have been Jews, and just as G-d commanded us not to enslave and torture others, Jews have fought throughout history for human and employee rights. Human dignity, respecting other people, and treating all humans as equals are concepts central to Judaism. Jewish laws are concerned with those ideas and have communicated them to cultures around the world. We are a people who believe in justice and freedom and will continue to work for it and fight for it. Our stubbornness in this particular arena is a stubbornness we can all be proud of.

“Five Thousand Years of Slavery” by Marjorie Gann and Janet Willen gives a thorough history of world slavery with fascinating photographs and reprinted documents. It is a great educational tool for home or school.

2700 × 2700 – openbookontario.com
 

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