Tag Archives: torah

New Year Thoughts

art by Laya Crust, inspired by Ben Shahn

Rosh HaShana is a day of deep prayer and meditation- as well as an opportunity to connect with family and friends. Put another way, the time of prayer allows us to connect with ourselves and then connect with others. The Shabbat between  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva- a Sabbath of return.

The Haftarah for Shabbat Shuva begins, “Return o Israel unto the Lord your God…”  Within the haftarah we are told to blow the shofar, and gather together.

I’ve been thinking about the act of personal prayer and our place in society and the world. Much of the New Year and Day of Atonement is spent  in personal prayer. What do we get out of personal prayer? What are the benefits?

On the first day of Rosh HaShana we read the story of Hanna, a childless woman who goes to the Temple and prays silently, moving her lips, but making no sound.

art by Laya Crust

Hanna was the first person in Jewish text who prayed silently. She expressed her thoughts to God, conversing with God and stating her needs and desires. Hanna must have been a person who knew herself well. She did something unconventional and clarified her personal path to allow herself to go forward.

We live during a time that is full of natural disasters, spiritual disasters, leadership disasters and international tragedy. It’s possible that the world has ever been thus, but with the existence of internet, twitter, skype, cell phones, and immediate news we are aware of the international calamities immediately. The fascism and racism exposed in Charlottesville and the genocide in Myanmar are but two of the horrific “human rights abuses” (understatement if there ever was one)currently taking place in the world. The global peace watchdog- the UN is a disaster. The forest fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and droughts are all natural disasters that have destroyed lives and communities around the world- all disasters we have witnessed in the last couple of months.  It is very difficult for some of us to know what to do, how to respond to these world crises both man made and natural.

It makes me think of another narrative in the bible.

Elijah was a prophet who was being hunted down by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Although God told him to face his accusers Elijah decided to hide in a cave on Mount Horev in order to avoid his dangerous and overwhelming realities. God finally tells Elijah to step out of the cave. First a huge, violent wind comes by, breaking the mountains and rocks. Then after the wind there was an earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire. God was not in any of those forces. After the fire there was a still, small voice, and God was in that voice. At that point Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle , stood in the entrance of the cave , and “behold, there came a voice to him.” (Kings I 19: 13) The voice was the voice of God.

This story encompasses my thoughts about prayer and personal prayer.

Each of us is a compilation of experiences. Within our psyche we carry the lessons we have learned from parents, grandparents, teachers, wise individuals, illnesses and events we have experienced. We carry ethical truths based on what we have learned. Those ethical truths are God’s voice. It is the still small voice that speaks to us and can help us unravel difficulties that we face in a day or in our lives.

It is a thought I will take with me. As I enter synagogue to pray or meditate, like Hanna I will focus on my own prayers rather than pose for others. As the shofar is blown I will hear that pure, unusual call and know it is calling all Jews from every corner  of the world. When I am distressed by the earthquakes and fires and hurricanes I will listen to the still small voice and work out how I am able to best help and contribute to making the world a better place.

May you have a meaningful Rosh HaShana, May your year be one of health, peace, tranquility, and goodness throughout the world.

Shana Tova,  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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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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Toledot 5777

P1100804Red lentil soup, like Jacob used to make

 This week’s parsha is Toledot  (Generations). The parsha deals with the birth and sibling rivalry of Esau and Jacob- the twin sons of Rebecca and Isaac. Those babies were fighting even before they were born, to the point that Rebecca asked God what was going on with her pregnancy.

Esau loved being outside and hunting while Jacob stayed home, cooked, and according to the commentaries learned Torah. Esau traded his “birthright” for a bowl of Jacob’s soup – showing Esau’s impatience and disregard for tradition, and also showing Jacob’s desire to take advantage of his brother. The climax of the story is Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac. Rebecca convinces Jacob to masquerade as his brother in order to fool Isaac into giving Jacob the special blessing for the first born.

The story introduces all kinds of questions and puts flawed family dynamics into relief. Why did Isaac favour Esau while Rebecca favoured Jacob?  Why did Rebecca fool Isaac instead of talking to him? Was Isaac really taken in by Jacob’s deception? Maybe he suspected the truth but realized that Jacob was more suited to the blessing. Did the two brothers end up with the fates that most suited them in the long run? Esau would be a man of the field and Jacob would become the leader of the nation of Israel.

What seems to hold true is that poor family dynamics and communication skills certainly continued from generation to generation.  We see that this deception had repercussions that continued and echoed in the lives of our ancestors. Jacob fooled Esau and was fooled in turn by Lavan.

Toldot Sigart by Laya Crust

Although Jacob was promised Rachel as a wife he was presented with Leah. Lavan justified himself by slyly announcing, “It is not done in our place to give the younger before the elder…” (Genesis 29:26) The favouritism Isaac and Rebecca showed each of their sons was echoed in the favouritism Jacob showed Joseph, favouring him above his brothers. The sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau was repeated in the rivalry between Jacob’s twelve sons. Jacob’s sons lied to him as he had lied to Isaac.

The picture above  shows the “family dynamics. The blind, deceived Isaac is blessing his son Jacob. Rebecca is delaying Esau from coming in until the blessing is complete.  When Rebecca was pregnant Gd had told her that “the elder shall serve the younger”. She wanted to ensure that the prophecy came true.

Can we learn anything from this? There are many, many lessons. One is that hurt and dishonesty don’t disappear. They continue to spread like dust in the wind. The climactic story of the Isaac-Rebecca nuclear family was Rebecca and Jacob’s deception. It tore the family apart, causing Jacob to leave for many, many years. The two brothers never really solved their differences. Esau’s marriages never satisfied his parents. Deception and white lies were an undercurrent in Jacob’s own home.

I believe Jacob would have been the leader of our nation even without the ruse in today’s parsha. Without the ruse honesty and communication may have become a more utilised tool in our world.

IP1100803f you would like the recipe for this fabulous Red Lentil Soup you can find it at an earlier post of mine:https://layacrust.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/toledot-red-lentil-stew/

Scroll down past the text and the ingredients are all listed.

Have a wonderful (and deception free) Shabbat.

 

Let’s pray for more peace and less vitriol!

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

 

 

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Chayei Sarah 5777

Related imagelithograph, Marc Chagall

This week’s parsha begins with the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham. Sarah and Abraham were partners in their lives. They were ten years apart in age. They probably grew up together- Abraham told King Avimelech that they were married but they were half siblings- they had the same father.

The Torah focuses on Abraham. He follows Gd’s instructions and leaves his birthplace, he makes a covenant with Gd, bargains with Gd, travels throughout the land, and agrees to circumcision as a proof of his allegiance to Gd. Throughout all this Sarah is at Abraham’s side, almost a silent partner.

Sarah was a beautiful woman. “Behold now, I know you are a beautiful woman to gaze upon…” (Genesis 11: 11) Abraham was afraid  he would be killed if another leader wanted to marry Sarah. They discussed it. Sarah agreed to say she was Abraham’s sister. “And it came to pass that when Avram came to Mitzrayim [Egypt], the Mitzrim [Egyptians] beheld the woman that she was very fair. The princes of Par’o saw her and commended her to Par’o and the woman was taken to Par’o’s house.” (Genesis 11: 14, 15) Abraham had been correct. Sarah was very beautiful and she was taken by the Par’o- and that happened twice! (Spoiler- Gd intervened each time and she was returned to Abraham by each of the two rulers)P1140345

Sarah, etching by laya Crust

The point is that it seems Abraham and Sarah were true partners. They started their life’s journey together and discussed things as situations arose. They stayed together as a couple even though Sarah was barren. She accepted Gd’s word. When she understood that Abraham needed to have a son to build a nation she offered her handmaid Hagar to Abraham. Her understanding of situations was broad and deep. She said, “…when she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived , I was despised in her eyes.” (Genesis 16:5) Sarah realised at that point that Hagar would not allow her son to be raised by Sarah and Abraham in order to be an appropriate leader with Gd’s message. Instead Hagar felt superior to Sarah and would, in that case, naturally retain the molding of her baby’s character and behaviour.

It is hard to understand the breakdown in communication when Abraham is directed to take Isaac to Mount Moriah in order to  sacrifice Isaac. How could Abraham not have discussed this with his wife, the mother of their son, the visionary always at his side?

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests that Sarah did know what was happening. He suggests that Sarah heard Abraham in his preparations early in the morning. When she looked and saw Abraham packing a knife for “shechita” (ritual slaughter) and planning to take Isaac with him, she was concerned. Rabbi Riskin writes, “Sarah demands to hear G-d’s precise words, saying: “He didn’t say that you should slaughter our child; He merely said to lift him up, to dedicate him to Divine service. G-d could not possibly have commanded you to slaughter an innocent child!”

P1150568drawing by Laya Crust

While Abraham and Isaac were climbing up  the mountain for the sacrifice Sarah went in another direction. She went to Kiryat Arba/ Hebron to the place where, according to midrash, Adam and Eve were buried. There she prayed to Gd to stay Abraham’s hand and save her son.

She died there. Neither Abraham nor Isaac saw her again.

Abraham and Isaac didn’t see each other again after the “akeida” (binding of Isaac), and Gd didn’t speak to Abraham after that incident. It seems Abraham lived out the rest of his life quietly with no further leadership moments. He remarried, had 12 more sons and was buried beside his beloved Sarah by Isaac and Ishmael.

Sarah was the partner, the sounding board and support to Abraham. She accompanied him from their birthplace steeped in idol worship to a new land. She established a home open to visitors and partnered in nurturing a new belief system. Sarah knew how fragile their mission was. She did all she could to  shield her son- the future of the nation- from negative influences. When she died the matriarch of Gd’s new nation died, and Abraham was left without his equal and partner.

At the end of “Chayei Sarah” we read that Isaac married Rebecca. “And Isaac brought her (Rebecca) into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebecca, and she became his wife. And he loved her, and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)

And so it goes. And the story continues.

Shabbat Shalom.

Laya

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Lech Lecha 5777

Image result for remembrance day poppy

Remembrance Day and the remembrance poppy

Parsha- Lech Lecha (Genesis 12- 17)

Haftarah: Isaiah  40:27 – 41: 16

This year the parsha of Lech Lecha coincides with Remembrance Day/Armistice Day (11 November) in  Canada and the United Kingdom and with Toronto’s Holocaust Education Week. Toronto’s Holocaust Education Week is scheduled to correspond to the anniversary of Kristallnacht, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass” (November 9-10, 1938). Kristallnacht was seen as the beginning of the Holocaust.

There are over 100 educational programs during Holocaust Education Week. This year I attended a number of lectures and movies. They related the stories of some of the heroes who sheltered, protected and fought to save  Jews and other peoples being liquidated by the Nazi regime. It was humbling and emotional to watch the stories of teens who put their lives at risk because they were horrified by Nazi actions and philosophies. People of all ages risked death to help others.

The partisans, the spies, the messengers thought not of themselves. They knew the Jews were caged in and marked for death. Those heroes were determined to fight the evil around them and save as many people as possible.

pesach-rishon-sig Jewish partisans from Vilna,      art by Laya Crust

It is fitting that “Avraham avinu” (Abraham our father) is featured in our Torah reading this week.

We have read about the chaos and evil that prompted Gd to flood the world and start a new group of people through Noah. Unfortunately it didn’t seem that the new people who populated the earth were much better. In this week’s parsha we read that Abraham saved his nephew Lot from the men of Sodom who had captured him and his family.

Gd chose Abraham to become the leader of a new nation, a nation that would model morality to the rest of the world.  He was told that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Those descendants, through his son Isaac, were to be the models of morality in the world. .

Lech Lecha sig

 art by Laya Crust

 There are a number of qualities that separated Abraham from the people around him and indicated that he had a humanitarian and caring personality. Abraham and his wife Sarah are seen as the exemplars of hosting and caring for strangers. This is based on the narrative we will read next week when they entertain three men who, it turns out, are angels sent by Gd.  Next week we also read the story of Abraham’s argument/ negotiation with Gd. Abraham was told that Sodom and Gemorrah were two cities so corrupt and evil that Gd was going to destroy everyone in them. Abraham was horrified. He argued with Gd, begging Him to reconsider. He negotiated with Gd to the point that Gd agreed that if He could find as few as ten righteous people within the city the entire population would be saved.

Until that incident the people profiled in the Torah had, at best, thought only of themselves and had, at the worst, murdered others. This was the first time we saw someone willing to risk his life to save a relative.We see someone having the boldness to challenge Gd’s will. In addition we see the generosity towards strangers and a yearning from Abraham and Sarah for family.

Those are qualities that the heroes profiled during  Holocaust Education Week shared with Abraham. We can learn  so much from holocaust survivors and from their stories. Their strength and experiences are not to be ignored or forgotten. Unfortunately, as we all know, atrocities against humanity and genocide continue to this day. It has to be fought on many fronts in a variety of ways. We have to make ourselves aware of what is happening in the world and fight evil, fight for freedom, each in our own way.

If you are interested in watching some of the movies and programs that were showcased this past week I would suggest you look at the HEW program: http://holocaustcentre.com/HEW

You can see the list of movies they showed.. Many are available on you tube, in libraries, or in Holocaust Education Centres.

May this be a week of peace and memory.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,

Laya

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The Etrog- NeHedar! (Splendid!)

Image result for lulav and etrog
photo by Fort Tryon Jewish Center

It is the holiday of Sukkot, a beautiful holiday when we eat in a sukkah (a small structure with tree boughs in place of a roof) and make blessings over the lulav and etrog. It says in the Torah, “And you will take on the first day fruit of splendid trees, (עץ פרי הדר), branches of date palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook…” The Rabbis put the elements together to create the lulav and etrog as we know it. A palm branch is gathered into a bundle with myrtle and willow branches. And of course the עץ פרי הדר- the splendid fruit- is the etrog or citron.

p1150696

art by Laya Crust

The question is, how was the etrog chosen? It is not native to Israel and it’s inedible. Where did it originate, how did it arrive in Israel, and why was it chosen to be used as the splendid and magnificent fruit?

It seems to be widely agreed that the etrog didn’t reach Israel until the period of the Second Temple. It was native to Persia- archeologists have found evidence of it dating back over 4,000 years.  There are references to the etrog in Indian literature dating to 800 BCE. It was taken to Greece by traders. It seems it made its way to Israel after the campaigns of Alexander the Great.  It was so unusual, beautiful and aromatic it isn’t surprising that it was chosen to be the beautiful fruit to accompany the lulav.

Image result for bar kokhba coins

 

Bar Kochba coins

 

Image result for etrog mosaic

 

Mosaic from Tiberian Synagogue

 

 

Those who have tried to eat an etrog or make etrog jam know that it is beautiful and smells heavenly, but the fruit is bitter and needs a lot of help to become edible. I wondered how it was used in Indian and Persian cooking. It seems that it is used mostly for medicinal purposes- in teas, and mixed with oils to use as ointments. The fruit is never eaten on its own since it’s so bitter. But it is used for tea infusions, made with sugar for etrog jam or marmalade, the zest is used in rice and as a colourful accent, and some people candy it then dip it ion chocolate…that sounds like fun!

lulav-etrog

photo by Fort Tryon Jewish Center

I hope you enjoyed this little peek into the history of the beautiful, perfumed etrog. Enjoy your Sukkot, and maybe try something new with your etrog- but use an organically grown one !

Chag Sameach, Laya

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