Tag Archives: Torah story

Ethics and Power

An explanation  of the artwork is at the bottom of the postI See an Almond Branch and a Cauldron by Laya Crust

The prophet Jeremiah was born in the small town of Anatot, outside of Jerusalem the same year King Josiah began to reign over the Southern Kingdom of Judea.  While Josiah was in power a scroll was found in the Temple containing laws that the Jews had forgotten. King Josiah began to introduce and enforce religious reforms based on the scroll. Jeremiah was about thirteen years old when this happened, and was appointed by God to be a prophet.

Jeremiah was not accepted or liked by his fellow Jews. He witnessed the rise and fall of other Jewish rulers and the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE. He ended his life in exile in Egypt. Jeremiah’s words and trials are fitting for the Weeks of Rebuke before Tisha B’Av.

The Calling of Jeremiah by Marc ChagallImage result for jeremiah chagall

On the three Shabbatot preceding Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we read “Haftarot of Rebuke”. This is the first “Reading of Rebuke”, taken from Jeremiah ch 1-2:3.  Jeremiah, like Moses, was a reluctant prophet. He told God that he was young and couldn’t speak. God tried to give Jeremiah confidence, saying, “Be not afraid of them for I am with you to deliver you.” (1:8) That did not reassure Jeremiah, so God touched Jeremiah’s mouth saying He had put words into Jeremiah’s mouth. Moses, too, was afraid to speak and tried to reject God’s request. ( spoiler alert- it didn’t work.)

Both men had been chosen by God for a certain roles and had been chosen before they were aware. In this week’s haftarah God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you came out of the womb I sanctified you; I have appointed you a prophet unto the nations.” (1: 5)

Jeremiah and Moses were leaders who taught morality-  not politics and not war. They didn’t speak of who should be the next leader. Instead they communicated God’s wishes and preached ethical behaviour. Throughout our teachings we are told that it is not might that will win wars against our enemies. We are taught that it is faith in God and adherence to ethical and moral behaviour that will allow us to triumph over our adversaries.

Just as Jeremiah and Moses were chosen before they were born and given a role before they were born the same is true for each of us. We each have been blessed with specific talents, strengths, insights and abilities. It is up to each of us to recognize what is within ourselves and use those abilities to make the world a better place. We need to look at what we can do and use our tools to help make our society healthy, safe and accepting. It seems that respect and ethical behaviour are seen as weaknesses. Guns, bombs and threats are preferred methods of negotiation.The fights and wars we see around us today will never allow the people of the world to live in peace and security.

Let’s endeavour to make words, art, music, poetry and scientific improvement our preferred currency over hatred and insults.

Have a good Shabbat and let’s make the world happier!

Laya

The drawing for this haftarah was inspired by Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. I have shown a despondent Jeremiah looking out of his barren room  at the sacking of the city. It looks like any modern city  but represents Jerusalem. In the corner of the room are an almond branch and a steaming cauldron representing the enemy coming from the north. This illustration and others will be featured in my forthcoming book.

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Korach and a Change in Leadership


KorachKorach   art by Laya Crust

I Samuel 11:14- 12:22

Samuel (prophet and judge) 1070 – 970 B.C.E

This Torah reading tells how Korach, a Levi, led a group of people and confronted Moses. They wanted to know why Moses and Aaron were so special and they wanted a change in leadership. The accompanying haftarah is also about a call for change in leadership.

Samuel was prophet and judge and as things turned out he was to be the last of the judges of Israel. The Israelites asked for a King so that they would be like the neighbouring nations. In this haftarah Samuel reluctantly anointed Saul as the first King of Israel. He reminded the people of all that God had done for them, and how he himself had been an honest and caring prophet and leader. He told the children of Israel that if they did not listen to God and obey His commandments they would be punished.

The image I painted shows Samuel advising Saul.  My painting is based on a woodcut in a book from Southern Germany, 1450 called “Meshal ha-Kadmoni” (The Ancient Proverb) written by  Isaac ben Solomon ibn Abi Sahulah.  He was born in 1244 and lived in Guadalajara, in Castile. Isaac ben Solomon was worried about the influence of secular writings on his fellow Jews.  He noted that Jews were reading and being influenced by non-Jewish books. For example The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor  and Kalila and Dimna- fables from India- were translated into Hebrew and read extensively by Jews in the Middle Ages. Below are two illustrations from an edition of Kalila and Dimna dated 1210 CE.

               

To counter the effects of these non-Jewish texts Isaac wrote his own book of  stories, poems, fables and parables. The book was illustrated with miniatures and wood cuts. The “Meshal ha-Kadmoni” was so popular it was reprinted six times in Hebrew and nine times in Yiddish! It was a popular book, but of course it didn’t stop Jews from reading and loving secular literature.

Samuel was concerned that the people were going to turn away from God; that they would subconsciously conclude that because they had anointed a King as leader of their country they could ignore God’s commandments. Samuel wanted to remind the people that their fate would always be in God’s power. It was the wheat harvest season. After Samuel was finished speaking he called to God, asking for thunder and rain When the thunderstorm came the show of force the frightened Israelites. They realized, “…we have added to all our sins to request a King for ourselves…” (Ch 12 v.19).  Although they admitted their error the statement did not prevent the Israelites from sinning against God as they continued their lives.

People are always looking for a change in power. When the leader is a good leader it is the forces of extremism or selfishness that want to change the status quo. When someone with poor vision or evil intentions is at the helm those with good leadership abilities must try to change the direction of politics. It is important element to have the wisdom to recognize good leadership and bad leadership, and to further the goodness.  Let’s all hope for good directions in this crazy world of crazy leadership that just seems to get crazier.

Have a good Shabbat,

Laya

 

 

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Shemini- Flames of God

shemini“Shemini” by Laya Crust

Parshat Shemini is an unexpected combination of two very different narratives. The first half of the parsha focuses on the sacrifices Aaron and the priests offered to God to make atonement for themselves and the children of Israel. Aaron and his sons had spent weeks spiritually purifying themselves for these important offerings. The second half of the reading describes which animals are kosher and which animals are not. Why would these two very different subjects be combined in the same weekly reading?

The priests (Aaron and his four sons) had been warned to follow their preparations exactly, or they would die. After seven days of isolation and purification Moses called Aaron and told him it was time to offer the sacrifices.  In a dramatic scene “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And there came a fire out from before the Lord…which when the people saw they they shouted and fell on their faces.” (Lev. 9: 23, 24)  God’s fire consumed the sacrificial remains and the flames ascended to the heavens.  In the excitement of the moment Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offered their own fire to God. In anger God sent down flames that killed the two men. It was a shocking incident, especially after the powerful acceptance by God towards Aaron and Moses.

Aaron and his two remaining sons were told to continue their duties, and be an example to the children of Israel. Aaron was told, “לְהבדיל בּין הקדשׁ ובין החֹל ובין הטמה ובין הטהור” –to distinguish between holy and common, between impure and pure. Those were the tenets he was to teach the children of Israel.

Following these extraordinary events the Israelites were told about kosher and non-kosher animals. It seems strange that after an awesome display of sacrifice, flames from heaven, and the death of two priests, the people were given a list of animals. The two narratives are very different- one is a drama the other is a list of guidelines. They are united by a phrase at the end of each of the 2 sections. After the nation was told what it could and could not eat, it was told: “לְהבדיל בין הטמה ובין הטהור”  to distinguish between the impure and the pure. The words are very similar to those spoken to Aaron. But why is it so important?

Differentiating, “לְהבדיל”, creates separation and awareness. That is a theme not only in this Torah reading but in all of Judaism. The list of acceptable and unacceptable animals make us conscious of our dietary choices and separates us from the eating habits of the nations around us. The dire punishment of Nadav and Avihu separated them as priests from their brothers and father who followed God’s directions. The Sabbath separates one day from the rest of the week and we behave differently on that day. Dietary rules, rules about Shabbat and instructions for different festivals separate us from the nations around us, and create limits for us.

The painting of flames above shows the accepted fire from Aaron, Elazar and Itamar reaching up to the heavens. The outer flames are duller in colour. They become blue in tone and disappear before they reach the heavens. The outer flames represent the fire offered by Nadav and Avihu, who had not learned the difficult lessons of discipline, purity and discernment.

In this week’s Torah reading God used fire to separate the holy sacrifice from the profane sacrifice, and taught the nation to separate kosher animals from non kosher ones. On Saturday night we use fire in the “havdalah” ceremony (from the word לְהבדיל in the quotation) to separate the holiness of the Sabbath from the rest of the week.  So, enjoy the distinctiveness of Shabbat. We have this one day that gives us the quiet of nature and time amidst the bustle of regular weekdays and workdays.

The painting for this parsha was part of a project called “Women of the Book”. 54 women from around the world were invited to paint an interpretation of each of the parshiot, To see these extraordinary paintings go to http://womenofthebook.org/artwork/  .

You can click on the flames at the top to see the painting enlarged.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

 

 

 

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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,

Laya

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A Perfect 10

Related image

10 is the number that is often used to describe perfection. We use that scale whether we are talking about judging a gymnastics competition, getting 10 out of 10 on a spelling test, or rating an event (“On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate this shopping experience/ hotel stay/ trip to Florida?”) Can we talk about 10 as a perfect number when we are talking about the Torah reading Va’Eira? That’s the reading where the 10 plagues begin to be rained down on the Egyptians.

We all have heard of the 10 plagues. When God commanded Moses to go to Egypt and liberate the enslaved children of Israel, He didn’t set Moses up with an army. Instead, He described how ten plagues would be visited upon the Egyptian people. The horror of one plague after another would build up until the Pharaoh couldn’t stand it any more.  Finally, God told Moses, the Pharaoh would let the Israelites go – to their own land and to freedom.

Va’Eira by Laya Crust

The number 10 is a significant number in Judaism and in western culture. In the story of creation the phrase “And God said” is repeated 10 times.  Within the seven days of creation, 10 categories of being were created. There were 10 generations between Adam and Noah- the generation that was destroyed by the flood. Abraham was given 10 tests. God required 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorra in order to avert divine punishment. Most important of all, God gave us the 10 commandments.

The “yud” is the first letter in God’s Hebrew name, י-ה-ו-ה.  Each letter in the Hebrew language has a numerical value. The letter “ י ” has the value of  10.  The letter yud gets its name from the Hebrew word יד  “Yad” which means hand.

Image result for history of letter yud

In the earliest writing a yud looked like an arm with a hand at the end of it. And of course, we have 10 fingers on our two hands. (or 10 digits, if you want to be more accurate). Those 10 digits are the basis of our counting and mathematical structures. The metric system is completely based on values of 10. The “yud”, 10, is therefore the foundation to both our language and commerce systems.

As mentioned before, God when created the world, the phrase, “And God said” was used 10 times.  When the God spoke to Moses He used the term “outstretched arm”. We read about “the hand of God “and the “finger of God”. Moses and Aaron stretched out their hands before a plague appeared. The image of hands with their 10 fingers occurs over and over again.

Going back to the plagues, it appears that God specifically visited 10 plagues on Egyptian society. The use of 10 to achieve good when surrounded by evil underlines the power of God in the details and in the large picture .

Rosh Hodesh by Laya Crust

God established a people through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob which was to be a “light among the nations”. God gave us the 10 commandments as our guidebook for good and moral behaviour – the opposite of slavery and cruel dictatorship. The beautiful world that God created was (and still is) to be enjoyed by humankind, and was (and still is) to nurture humanity.

God used the plagues to undo the ancient Egyptian civilization. Visiting 10 plagues on tyrannical Egypt carried the pointed message that ethics and justice can, and will, undo evil.

Creation and the 10 commandments are the good that infuses the world. The symbol of that righteousness and beauty encompassed in 10 is symbolized by the letter “yud” which appears in every letter of the Hebrew alphabet and therefore every expression of creation, law,  justice and beauty.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, and may at least 10 good events come your way!

Laya

 

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Shemot- Nameless

Shemot by Laya Crust

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

The Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians. Not slaves, not 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.

Although we read of Moses’ entanglement with an Egyptian taskmaster and three 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 are named are those who stand 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. 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.

Moses knew that the Israelite slaves needed a name for God in order to believe.Let’s read about it.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.

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

Snake made out of children’s backpacks, Ai Wei Wei, Art Gallery of Ontario, 20013

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 and then it 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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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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