Tag Archives: Torah study

Yom Kippur and the Fast

art by Laya Crust

As we approach Yom Kippur- for many of us the most serious day of the year- we prepare for a day of fasting, prayer, and meditation. I expect that the significance of Yom Kippur differs for many of us. Is it a cleansing of the mind or the soul? Is it a day to take stock? Even if we can define what we think it is, can we achieve what we have defined?

The haftarah is from the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah’s message isn’t focused on the self. Rather it is focused on social justice. He 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)

This central message is that in and of itself the fast of Yom Kippur does not get God’s attention. Filling the world with justice and positive actions is the true goal of healing oneself and one’s relationship with the Creator. We can pray, we can fast, we can cry over our failings. If we don’t work to improve our actions and act in ways to improve the world round us, the tears and lack of food and water on the Day of Atonement are meaningless.

art by Laya Crust

Isaiah continues, saying, “…if you give of your soul to the starving, and answer the hunger of your souls oppressed- then your light will shine out in darkness, and your night will shine like noontide.”

There are many ways- large and small- to help those around us. Every small positive action betters the world around us and betters our selves.

Have a meaningful Yom Kippur, and let’s make the world better and brighter.

Shana Tova- May you be blessed and inscribed for a good and healthy year.

Laya

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Justice, Justice

צדק צדק תרדף   

SofetimFrankfurt Mishneh Torah, Northern Itlay, dated to 1457.  Illuminated by the Master of the Barbo Missal

Justice, Justice, you will pursue. These are among the first words in this week’s Torah portion. The words echo in my ears, louder and louder.

We live in a western democracy. I live in Canada which has a democratically elected government. The United States to the south also has a democratically elected government. Here in Canada we are tolerant- at least we think we are. We strive to be more tolerant to others than ever before. Gay marriage has been legalized. Sex change operations are accepted. All modes of dress- from halter tops and shorts to burkas are seen on the streets. Acceptance and school accommodations for learning disabilities, autism, hyperactivity, physical disabilities and attention deficits are the norm not the exception. Employers cannot discriminate according to gender, race or religion. It all sounds good and right.

BUT- strangely enough we seem to have lost our way. In the environment of free speech and inclusion, free speech and inclusion are disappearing. And it seems that not enough people, including those espousing human rights on University campuses, are noticing.

Those in favour of abortion, or in favour of Israel are shut down and excluded from public discourse. Those who are concerned about extreme Islam and doubt the direction of “Islamophobia” are called bigots and anti- Muslim. Those who want to use normative pronouns are pilloried and fired. This is not free speech. It is censored speech. Free speech is respectful speaking and listening without descending to hatred and threats. Free speech has too often morphed into aggressive speech and action. Unfortunately violent and hateful rallies are happening here, in Canada, and on university campuses. There is a problem with how the population defines free speech and democracy.

It’s true- Black Lives Matter. However, ALL Lives Matter.  White Lives, Men’s Lives, Women’s Lives, and Children’s Lives. Brown Lives, Indigenous Lives,  Jewish Lives, Christian Lives, Muslim Lives, Somali Lives, Yazidi Lives ……..

Two weeks ago there was a demonstration in Halifax calling for the removal of a monument honouring Edward Cornwallis. The Mik’maq people are among those calling for the removal of the statue. Although the Mi’kmaq are marginalized indigenous people who have lost land and rights in Canada, their leaders ensured that the rally was peaceful. They understand that the “fight ” for human rights and recognition does not have to be violent.

Currently too many activists from the far left and the far right resort to violence, hate messages and even murder. It’s frightening to read about the attacks in Barcelona, Spain; Turku, Finland; Halamish, Israel;   Charlottesville, USA; London, England; etc. etc. The behaviour of the Mi’kmaq is a model for discussion, understanding, and behaviour.

The balance of respect and dignity is part of justice. So when we read “Justice, Justice, you will pursue” let’s endeavour to bring that practice into our lives, our world,and the world around us.

With prayers for peace, acceptance and understanding,

Shabbat Shalom,  Laya

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Pomegranates and Bells

Emor sigart by Laya Crust

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

Haftarah: Ezekiel 44: 15-31

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

The ivory pomegranate is famous.

               

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

Laya

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Acharei Mot

art by Laya Crust

Haftarah- Ezekiel 22: 11 – 19

The Torah reading this week deals with strict rules for religious and moral behaviour. One of the abhorrent practices mentioned is performing child sacrifice to the god Molech. Different aspects of blood are discussed- blood that the cohanim sprinkle during the sacrifice ceremony, blood that is shed during forbidden sacrificial rites, and the prohibition of eating blood. “You will not eat the blood of any flesh for the life of all flesh is its blood.” (Leviticus 17:14)  It is a fierce section of the Torah.

The haftarah is equally fierce. The prophet Ezekiel starts off condemning the children of Israel. Ezekiel communicates that God spoke to him and said, “…will you judge the bloody city? Then cause her to know all her abhorrent deeds…You stand guilty in the blood you have shed…” (Ezekiel 22: 2, 4)

The illustration is based on a painting  called “Allegory 2” by the great American social realist Ben Shahn.  Shahn was eight years old when his family immigrated from Lithuania to the United States. He apprenticed as a lithographer and studied biology and art. He was a social realist , very concerned with human rights, discrimination, poverty and social justice. Throughout his career he did  number of works integrating Jewish text and liturgy. Among other projects he illustrated a haggadah, wrote out and illustrated the Book of Ecclesiastes, and wrote “The Alphabet of Creation”.

“Allegory 2” shows a man huddled in fear, trying to escape God’s accusing hand. Painted in 1953, during the McCarthy era, the American “Establishment” was petrified of Communism. High profile individuals, many of them artists, actors, writers, film makers, and Jews were professionally destroyed after being accused of having communist affiliations. Shahn did not agree with this flagrant abuse of power which branded creativity and human rights as evil communism. Some think that Shahn’s use of red in this painting was his criticism of America coming down against the “Red Commies”. In this illustration God is berating those in power (like McCarthy and his cronies) for abusing power.

The haftarah “Acharei Mot” is frightening in its list of punishments and it is rarely read. Usually the week this reading appears it is paired with another section which is chanted instead.

It is spring- a time of blossoms, new growth, beauty and beginnings. Let’s take advantage and do good things in the world around us!

B’vracha, Laya

 

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Miracles and Humility

art by Laya Crust

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

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

art by Laya Crust

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

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

art by Laya Crust

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

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

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

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

With blessings for peace, Laya

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Shemini

art by Laya Crust

Haftarah: Samuel II :  6:1- 7:17

The Torah reading of Shemini and the accompanying Haftarah both describe two tragic events. In the parsha two of Aaron’s sons- Nadav and Avihu- die because they have offered sacred sacrifices at the wrong time. In the haftarah one of King David’s attendants, Uzzah, is afraid the Ark of the Covenant will fall. He reaches out to steady it and dies as a result of this action.  In both cases the men who died were trying to serve God but were punished because they were serving God but not within the proscribed boundaries. These incidents are examples of crossing boundaries with extreme results.

Within the haftarah we read how King David leads the ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem with great exuberant dancing and leaping. His wife Michal looks out of her window disparaging him for his less than regal behaviour. I based the painting at the top of this page on illustrations from a 19th Century book written and illustrated in Meshed, Persia. The book is a love story of Yusuf and Zulaikha  (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife) as recounted in the Koran. The Sufi poet Jami (1414- 1492) wrote a passionate love poem about them which became very popular with the public. The painting below is from a Yusuf and Zulaikha book created in  Meshed, Persia in 1853.

illustration from Jamil’s Yusuf and Zalaikha, collection of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York

 The text is written in Persian transliterated into Hebrew letters. The text was presumably written by a Jew but it is unknown whether or not the illustrations were painted by Jews. The patterning is lovely with the interlocking swirls inspired by leaves and vines. The clothing is interesting, very different from the styles we see in Western manuscripts art of the same period.

Meshed and Isfahan were two communities in Persia that had strong artistic Jewish communities.  They produced illustrated Judeo-Persian books such as  Yusuf and Zalaikha featured above;  Ardashir-nameh -a book about Esther and Ahashveroshand  Musa-nameh which is the story of Moses.

Ardashir -Nameh, collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary,  New York

The Jews had a long history in Persia, dating back to 700 BCE.  The Jews continued to live there although their conditions varied depending on the forces in power. For instance from 1656 – 1663 there were forced conversions. The Jews, called “anusim” (forced converts), practised their Judaism in secret.

In 1839, almost 200 years later,  Muslim riots burst into the Jewish quarter of Meshed and forcibly converted the entire  community to Islam. Again the anusim lived outwardly as Muslims but continued to practice Judaism in secret. It wasn’t until after WWII Jews began to practise their faith openly.  
Jewish manuscripts and ketuboth from Isfahan, Meshed, and other Persian communities are interesting and unique.  It was fascinating to come across these beautiful illustrations and I had the wonderful experience of looking at the original books in the JTS library. They are colourful and evocative. It’s beautiful to see Jewish art done in Eastern style.
 I hope you enjoyed this little taste of Persian Jewish culture. 
Laya

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Va Yakhel and Pekudei

Va Yakhel – Pekudei

Exodus (Shemot): Chapters 35 – 40

The Torah readings of Va Yakhel – Pekudei are often described as the most boring parshas of the year, as an obsessive investigation of detail, and as parshas that are difficult to regard as giving important lessons. Why would these particular parshas be considered so boring? Aren’t there sections of the Torah that are lists of names, lists of battles or lists of the order of sacrifices? When I read the parshas and paid close attention I came to my own conclusion. These two readings from the bible are about art, craft, and aesthetics. We live in a society that seems to value economics and technology. Therefore the unadventurous reader doesn’t appreciate the insight and spirituality that goes into creating holy objects.

Va Yakhel explains that Gd chose Bezalel to be chief architect and designer, “and filled  him with the spirit of Gd, in wisdom, and in understanding and in all manner of workmanship, to contrive works of art…” (Exodus 30: 3). This quotation shows that those trusted with creating the holy space should have spiritual depth and understanding beyond the average individual. The parsha describes the collection of all the materials that would be needed to create the Tabernacle, the “Tent of Meeting” that would hold the two tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

We see that everyone was invited to participate in building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The only proviso was that they had to be “wise” or “willing hearted”. Phrases like “wise hearted” and “willing of heart” appear 15 times in this parsha. The construction of this holy place was incredibly democratic.

Gd understood ( and still understands) the importance of beauty in life. In the midst of the wide expanse of desert and rugged mountains He gave detailed instructions to create a place of beauty where people could focus prayer and thought. Just a beautiful place wasn’t enough. True beauty has a foundation of wisdom and goodness. To that end Bezalel and his assistant Aholiav were imbued with wisdom and understanding. Furthermore  people from B’nei Yisrael- a group of rag tag people traversing a desert- would be contributing. Gd said, “In the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom that they may make all that I have commanded thee.” (31:6)

As we go forward in life let’s remember to be wise hearted and introduce integrity and beauty in order to elevate our lives and the lives around us.

Have a good week,

Laya

The illustrations I painted are based on manuscript paintings from 1299, Perpignan, Aragon. There were a number of beautiful manuscript pages done in the 14th and 15th centuries featuring the Temple’s holy objects.

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