Tag Archives: Torah study

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,


Share this with your friends on Facebook.  “Follow” this blog and invite your friends to “follow” it too.   If you have a comment  we’d love to hear from you. If you click on the picture at the top it will enlarge.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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





Filed under Uncategorized


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

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

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

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

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

Jacob and Joseph, by Laya Crust

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

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

Isaac Blesses Jacob,  by Laya Crust

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom, Laya



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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




Filed under Uncategorized

Dreams and the Dreamer

Joseph’s dream by Laya Crust

Joseph was the ultimate dreamer in the bible. As we know it got him into trouble with his brothers, yet saved him and an entire country when he was in Egypt. In parshat Miketz we read how Joseph interprets dreams for Pharaoh, changing the course of economic and agricultural history, as well as changing the course of history for the children of Israel.

Joseph came by his ability to remember and read is dreams honestly. His father Jacob was guided both by his dreams and by angels. (The angel connection did not figure as highly in Joseph’s life.)

Jacob and the Ladder by Laya Crust

Dreams are important in many cultures. There are dream journals, dream symbols, and the idea that each element of a dream symbolizes something specific. One commonly held theory is that each person in a dream represents one characteristic of the dreamer. The truth is that successful people, those who achieve greatness, are dreamers. They have an idea, a focus, and they follow it. They hold tightly to the goal they wish to achieve, and imagine or strategize how to reach their objective.

We are celebrating Hanukkah this week. The Jewish leaders who fought and overcame the Greeks were focused dreamers who achieved what they had to achieve in order to survive. Herzl had a dream as did other Jews throughout the millennia. The dream was to return to Israel and make the land flourish, allow it to become a homeland for all Jews once again.Herzl by Laya Crust

Before Jews resettled the land in the early 1900’s the country was a barren, dusty, desert. The Jewish pioneers came and irrigated, cleared, drained swampland, and created what is now a flourishing agriculturally rich and technologically amazing jewel.

Spoiler alert– what follows is a short rant: I am pained by the world’s inability to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland that it has always been. There has NEVER been a time in history when Jews have not been in Jerusalem. I am saddened and sickened by world reaction to the logical idea of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital,  hosting embassy buildings. Jerusalem has always been a focus of Jewish culture and religion, and has been part of modern Israel since the country was recognized in 1948. If the embassies are erected in west Jerusalem why should there be any doubt or argument?

We have dreams. Dreams can lead to beautiful results. We can pay attention to our dreams- analyze what they may mean, and how we can do something better or differently. The dreams may help us reach a goal that we thought was impossible but really isn’t. We can make our lives- and the world- a happier place.

Dream One and Dream Two,  by Laya Crust


Have a Happy Hanukkah. May it be full of light, of joy, of peace, and happy dreams.

Shabbat Shalom,




Filed under Uncategorized

Jacob and His Angels

Jacob and the Angel by Laya Crust

Of all the individuals in the Torah, Jacob had the strongest relationship with angels. He first encountered those ethereal beings when he left his home and traveled to Cana’an. When he fell asleep Jacob dreamt of a golden ladder reaching to heaven with angels traveling from him on the ground to the heavens above. Jacob had further encounters with angels- they bumped into him at an encampment. An angel wrestled with him when he was alone, on the night before he was to meet his brother Esau after decades of separation.

That fight with the angel was dramatic. It was a fight that lasted all night, injured Jacob permanently, and culminated with a new name for Jacob. He was given the name Israel and his descendants have been called “The Children of Israel” until to this day.

Jacob’s struggle at the river is probably the most represented by artists. Each presentation shows a slightly different perspective of the confrontation.

Inline images 1Those of you who have been to Toronto may be familiar with this sculpture by Nathan Rapoport. The Angel is swooping down from heaven with huge velocity, but Jacob stands his ground, holding his own. They are very evenly matched.

Inline images 2


This piece by Don Saco shows Jacob pulling the angel down. Jacob is struggling to keep the ethereal being earthbound, and winning.

Phillip Ratner created this piece which looks like two dancers- waltzing. They areImage result for jacob and the angel

evenly balanced and seemingly each  is trying to gauge the worth of the other.

Image result for jacob and the angelGustave Dore is known for his hundreds of engravings of biblical stories. This engraving shows Jacob literally on the brink of survival. He is struggling with all his might against the strong and relaxed angel who definitely seems to have the upper hand.


The painting below by Chagall shows Jacob on his knees, possibly at the point when he is given the blessing by the angel. In the text Jacob doesn’t seem to be asking or begging. Chagall has given the angel a stance of superiority whereas in the text Jacob is acting as if he is in control of the situation. Related imagePossibly the most intriguing piece I have seen is this sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein.

Image result for jacob and the angel  Image result for jacob and the angel

Both figures are large. Heavy. Monumental. The angel, with his fine, strong features and flowing hair seams to be squeezing the air out of Jacob. The 2500 kilo marbled brown stone is beautiful and adds a feeling of power to the composition. It appears to be a fight almost to the death- a struggle between two enormously strong equals.

There are questions about this struggle with the angel at the Jabok River. Was the angel sent by God to give Jacob a blessing but Jacob was too suspicious so that’s why the fight ensued? Was it actually a dream? Was it Jacob’s conscience and he was fighting himself?

Every part of Jacob’s story is a struggle. He seems to have been a man who wanted a quiet life but was thrown into strife every step of the way. It’s true that he did traded his stew for Esau’s birthright. But he had to be convinced by his mother to deceive his father. He was sent away to find a wife; essentially exiled. He had to find a profession, learn it, and work for a begrudging and selfish father-in-law. Rather than stay near his parents’ successful herd and home he left to support two wives, two concubines, and a large family. When he achieved financial success God told home to return to Cana’an.

Jacob needed the encouragement of God and God’s angels. Each step of the way they were there to accompany him- in essence hold the door open. The struggle at the Jabok River was a struggle within Jacob, looking at his history with his brother and fearing to face the consequences. It was the opportunity for Jacob to reflect on his years in exile with the difficulties between his two wives. It was the point in time where he faced his challenges and accepted with full heart his position as patriarch- leader of a future nation.

We all have angels and we all have struggles. Hopefully we can recognize and remember the angels in our lives and access them with growing strength and wisdom.

With prayers for peace and wisdom, have a Shabbat Shalom.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Isaac, Water, and Inheritance

Isaac Blessing His Sons by Laya Crust

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

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

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

Landscape after Anna Ticho by Laya Crust

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

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

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

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

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

Have a Shabbat Shalom,




Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized