Tag Archives: torah

Sarah and the Divine

VaYeira Sig
art by Laya Crust

Vayeira- Genesis 18 – 22 Haftarah- Kings II, ch. 4: 1-37

This week’s parsha is a series of at least five incredible narratives, each worthy of detailed study. Today I will focus on Sarah, the woman chosen to be the mother of the Jewish nation.

When Gd told Avraham to leave his homeland and that he would become the father of a great people, he left Ur Kasdim, taking his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot with him. Sarai was 75 years old when she and her husband left their home for an unknown destination. She was described as beautiful- so beautiful that King Avimelech took her to his harem. We may wonder how a woman of 75 can be that appealing, but some have an ageless beauty that is enhanced by grace and wisdom.

etching by Laya Crust

Gd chose Sarai to be the mother of His nation. Her name was changed from Sarai to Sarah at the same time Avram’s name was changed to Avraham. Twice Gd protected her from the leaders of alien nations- first from the pharaoh of Egypt and later from Abimelech, the king of Gerar. After Sarah suggested that her handmaiden bear a son to Avraham Gd made it clear to Avraham that Sarah was to be the matriarch of the nation and that no other woman would fulfill that role.

In this parsha, the Lord told Avraham that he and the men in his group would need to be circumcised. Then Gd had told Avraham that he and Sarah would have a child together. It seemed so ridiculous Avraham fell on his face and laughed. Gd declared that the baby would be called Isaac, after the Hebrew word “to laugh”.

The circumcision was, and is, the sign of the covenant between Gd and the Jewish people. Sarah did not become pregnant until after Abraham was circumcised. As a dear friend pointed out, the covenant between Jews and Gd had to be initiated before the line of the Jewish people was created.

Abraham and Sarah by Marc Chagall

Like Avraham, Sarah laughed when she heard she was to bear a child at the age of 90. When Sarah laughed “within herself” Gd asked Avraham why she had laughed. The question was actually two questions. Did Avraham not tell his wife and partner that she was to become pregnant and have a child? Is that why she was incredulous and laughed? The second question was – why did Avraham and Sarah still not believe that Gd can make unusual and unexpected things happen? The Torah and commentaries seem to criticize Sarah for laughing when she heard the news, but the rebuke wasn’t just to Sarah. It was to Abraham as well. That whole incident can be seen as a larger conversation Gd had with Sarah, the future matriarch.

There are many criticism of Sarah and her attitude towards Hagar. We can’t judge. Life and community were very different in biblical times. Recognizing her infertility Sarah offered her handmaid Hagar to her husband, hoping that way he would become a father. Recognizing Hagar’s behaviour Sarah handled the situation as she thought she had to. When the three angels appeared at their tent in the desert Avraham and Sarah worked as a team to create a feast for them. It appears that Sarah ran her community with wisdom and level-headedness.

May we learn from Sarah’s strengths and have wisdom in dealing with our challenges.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya

The illustration at the top of the page is from the haftarah of VaYeira. It shows the prophet Elisha with the Shunammite woman who had a room built for him for when he visited Shunem. This woman, like Sarah, was childless for many years. Her son, like Isaac, almost died. Unlike Sarah, she was able to watch her son grow to adulthood.

The print is from my collection of 82 paintings of the haftarot. The collection is currently on display at Beth Tedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. The address is 1500 Bathurst Street. The exhibit is free and open to the public 7 days a week, 9 a.m. through 9 p.m. I am currently working on a book focusing on the haftarah paintings and their meanings.

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Lech Lecha and Respect

Compass Rose by Laya Crust

The Torah reading For “Lech Lecha” begins, “Gd said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation’…” (Gen. 12:1)

Three weeks ago we read about the creation of the world and the creation of humanity. There were problems. Adam and Eve, the first people, did not listen to Gd’s instructions and were punished. The first children were Cain and Abel. From feelings of anger, jealousy, and shame Cain killed his brother. The negative behaviours of humanity increased until Gd decided to wash the world clean and start again.

Noah, a righteous man was chosen to restart the community of mankind. But once again murder and disrespect became rampant in the civilization. Rather than destroy the world again Gd chose Abraham and Sarah to become the ancestors of a new and righteous nation.

“Turn your gaze towards the heavens and number the stars. if you can count them. And Gd promised him, and so shall your seed be.” (Genesis 15:5)

In Genesis chapter 13 there is a description of a quarrel between Abraham’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. The men were arguing over the grazing fields for their cattle. The situation could easily have gotten out of hand but Abraham used calm and wisdom to find a solution. “There should be no quarrel between you and me, and your herdsman and mine, for we are close kin. The whole land lies before you! Please, part from me. If you go north I will turn south and if you turn south, I will turn north.” (Gen. 13:8,9)

Abraham was the patriarch and Lot’s uncle. It would have been acceptable for him to choose the best land for himself. Alternatively, there could have been a skirmish over ownership of the grazing lands. Abraham’s approach was an example of insight and sympathy delivered with respect, attributes of a good leader.

In Toronto the week leading up to November 11, Remembrance Day, is Holocaust Education Week. There are hundreds of films, talks and presentations throughout the city and neighbouring communities. Millions and millions of people were exterminated because of horrible arrogance and the lack of respect or acceptance of difference. The presentations address heroism, compassion, anger, and resolution.

The understanding and calm Abraham displayed is a model we can take forward to our interactions. If everyone looked at the person across from him/her and said: “What is on their mind? How can I understand them and communicate my position respectfully?”, maybe strikes, fights, and wars could be avoided.

I guess the lesson we can learn is very basic. Everyone has their own story. Everyone has their own approach. By explaining ourselves and listening to others, problems can be solved respectfully, without anger or bloodshed.

May you have a week of joy, peace and understanding.

Laya

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Noah, a righteous man

The Promise by Laya Crust

The story of Noah is a favourite for children’s book illustrators. (I will include a list of some of my favourite Noah’s Ark books at the end of this blog.)

A dove and a raven have leading roles, and we can imagine all kinds of fantastic exotic and not so exotic animals tumbling out of the ark. Coming out in a disorderly fashion (they’ve been cooped up for a looooong time) they smell the fresh air and gaze at the beautiful rainbow in the sky. They accept and appreciate Gd’s promise that there will never again be a flood that will destroy the world. And long-suffering Noah who has worried about his family and cared for the animals is now free to plant vegetables and fruit groves.

We think of it as a joyful story but in truth, it is a very heavy one.

Noah lived in the tenth generation after the creation of the world. His father named him Noah נח, from the verb ינחם, comfort or console. During that time people behaved sinfully and with moral depravity. But Noah was, as mentioned, a righteous man, and at the beginning of this week’s parsha it says that Noah walked with Gd.

Cover of “Noah’s Ark” by Lisbeth Zwerger

Noah was told to gather two of each animal, a male and a female. He was told to build an ark. He was told to gather his wife, his sons, and his daughters-in-law, and to go into the ark with them. All the animals came to him. Then Noah, his family, and the animals went into the ark and made themselves somewhat comfy.

Image result for peter spier noah's ark
Noah and his wife in the ark by Peter Spier

There has been much discussion about whether or not Noah was truly a righteous man, or whether he was only righteous when compared to the others of his generation. Looking at the basic text we notice that Noah did not take initiative. Although he didn’t do immoral things he didn’t reach out to others in order to model his behaviour. He built the ark but didn’t ask questions. He was told to put animals into the ark but he himself didn’t gather them. Instead, they came to him. He may have walked with Gd, but he didn’t talk with Gd, as did his ancestor Adam or his descendant Abraham. The first time he spoke in the text is when he cursed his son Ham.

The story of Noah is a story of isolation. Noah was isolated from the society around him. He was a righteous man who walked a righteous path. His lifestyle was foreign to those around him. He seems to have been isolated fro his family as well. When he boarded the ark he walked on “with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives”. (Gen. 7:7) This is notable because he didn’t walk with his wife. He walked with his sons.

After the flood, when the waters had receded, Gd told Noah to “Get out of the ark with your wife, your sons, and their wives”. (Gen. 8:16) Gd specifically enjoined Noah to partner with his wife, his helpmate, his עזר כנגדו. But once again “Noah went out, together with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives”. (Gen. 8:18) The text continues stating that the animals “departed from the ark in family groups“. (Gen. 8:19) So it seems that Noah kept himself isolated emotionally from his wife and this was passed on to his sons. It doesn’t say they departed from the ark in family groups.

The Book of Genesis is a description of the beginning of our universe and our nation. Our religion is family and community-based. The stories in Genesis chart the growing pains of family and community. Noah may not have been a communicator or a man who cared about his family and his legacy. But he knew what was moral and what was not and ran his household in that way. That is what Gd saw in him as the progenitor of the new nation.

Noah’s standards of behaviour were passed down through the generations to Abraham, also a man who walked with Gd. In addition, Abraham cared about his wife, his sons, and the strangers who passed by his tent.

When we read the delightful Noah’s ark books to our children and grandchildren we leave out the dark parts. But Noah faced that darkness, lived through it, and was able to expose the light enough for Abraham to take on the next chapter of our legacy.

For good entertainment watch the following link for a great gospel Noah song sung by the Jubalaires. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CLFwW85O20 or this delightful one from Matti Caspi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uxoQZi_oro

My favourite illustrators of children’s Noah books are: Lisbeth Zwerger, Peter Spier, Jane Ray, and Barbara Reid. The books are delightful.

Have a Shabbat Shalom. May we have peace, and just the right amount of rain.

Laya

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VaYeilech- Shabbat Shuva

VaYeilech- Shabbat Shuva by Laya Crust

Shabbat Shuva is the Shabbat between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur. On Rosh haShana we were in synagogue thinking about our past year and obstacles we faced. Many of us wondered about the coming year and what it would bring. Many of the prayers remind us of the fragility of our lives and the inevitability of death. Who will die? What is in store for us, our friends, and for our families?

The Torah reading begins with Moses’ words, “I am 120 years old today. I can no longer go out and come in, for Gd told me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan’. HaShem your Gd, He will cross before you…” Moses, the greatest prophet and leader, had to face death. But he reminded the Israelites that Gd is the eternal leader of the Jewish people.

The haftarah reading is a combination of texts from three prophets. Hosea, Micah, and Joel. The three prophets, each in their own way, ask us to endeavour to improve ourselves.

I based my painting at the top of the page on a piece by the American artist Ben Shahn. It is based on his painting called Ram’s Horn and Menorah. It illustrates Joel’s words, “Blow a shofar in Zion, consecrate a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, ready the congregation…” The words describe our communities getting ready for the Days of Awe, and Shahn in his unique way used colour and movement to convey the awe, fear and unity of these important days of reflection.

His life was dedicated to human rights and social action, and he expressed that through his prolific artworks. His paintings, graphic art, photographs and essays are devoted to the “human condition”.  The strength of human beings to survive difficulty and stand tall in the face of adversity and unfairness runs through his works. His paintings are gritty, honest, and thought-provoking.

Image result for ben shahn poster
Image result for ben shahn paintings

Shahn’s work communicates the struggle of the human spirit to succeed, not just to survive. He reminds us that we don’t live in a bubble. We must care for ourselves and those around us. Those are among the meditations of Rosh HaShana.

We are reborn each day. Each day we have the opportunity to make new choices and make them good choices. Each day we can forgive ourselves for what we didn’t do yesterday, or what we wish we had done differently. We can begin anew and strive to have a fulfilling day.

May this year be a year of health, growth, improvement and goodness. Enjoy your Shabbat and have a meaningful Yom Kippur. To you and your family from me and my family,

Laya

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Mattot- Masei

Jeremiah’s Despair Laya Crust

It is the height of summer and we are observing a period of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. There are three “Haftarahs of Rebuke” which are read in the three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av, all words from the prophet Jeremiah. On this week’s Shabbat we read two parshas: Mattot and Masei.

Jeremiah was a prophet whose life spanned the reign of 5 kings. It was a tumultuous time in Jewish history, a time of idolatry and war. Jeremiah warned B’nei Yisrael that they were going to be punished for their idol worship, . At the end of his life, in 586 BCE, Judah was destroyed and Jerusalem was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah, who was reviled for his messages, escaped to Egypt but the majority of Jews were exiled to Babylon. The illustration I created for Mattot is an homage to Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”. I have drawn Jeremiah looking out of his window watching his beloved city’s destruction.

The path the Israelites followed from Egypt to Canaan is described in great detail in the first 49 verses of the parsha Masei. It was a long and arduous journey for the Israelites and they strayed from Gd’s lessons throughout.

The Perilous Desert Journey Laya Crust

In the haftarah of Masei the prophet Jeremiah reminded B’nei Yisrael how Gd led His people “out of the land of Egypt, through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and pits, through a land of drought and of the shadow of death…. And into a land of fruitful fields…” (ch.2: 6,7). 

There is negativity and sadness in the haftarah. Jeremiah reminded B’nei Israel of the difficult trek through the desert and how Gd protected and took them to the Promised Land. Then Jeremiah describes B’nei Yisrael’s sins. At the very end of the haftarah Jeremiah mitigates the message slightly by telling the people that if they return to Gd “in sincerity, justice and righteousness nations will bless themselves by you and praise themselves by you.”

The word “איך”- How? is used twice in the haftarah asking how Israel can have changed so much, turning to sinning and base behaviour. This reminds us of the word “איכה”- the Hebrew word for “Lamentations”. On the Ninth of Av we will read the book of “Lamentations”.

Messages from the haftarah still resonate today. We are blessed to be in the “Land of Milk and Honey”, creating, cultivating, and helping nations in need. During these three weeks Jews all over the world will read Jeremiah’s words and hopefully try to improve themselves and society around them. Have a good week, and let’s look forward to a time of jubilation and more positive growth.

The artwork featured in this and most of my blogs is part of a collection of art created to illustrate the haftarahs read throughout the year. Currently the collection is on exhibit at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. It is a great exhibit of my work and will be on display to the end of December, 2019. And, to let you know, I am currently working on a book of the art pieces and accompanying commentary. Exciting!!!! Have a Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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Pinchas- Changes in Leadership

Pinchas- The Silent Voice art by Laya Crust

The Torah reading “Pinchas” deals with different types of leadership seen through Moses, Pinchas, Joshua, Zelophehad’s daughters and Elijah.

In this parsha Moshe was once again told that he would die before reaching the Promised Land. Knowing this Moshe asked Gd to appoint someone to take over his role as leader. Beautifully he said, “…so that Gd’s community will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Numbers 27:17). Gd told Moshe to appoint Joshua, son of Nun , to take over to take over the leadership.

This choice may have been unexpected. The Torah reading begins by focusing on Pinchas, a Levi and Aaron’s grandson. He was a passionate and zealous man who killed two idolators in front of the אוהל מועד, the holy Tent of Meeting. It was a shocking act but it averted Gd’s wrath. Gd rewarded Pinchas by giving him hereditary priesthood and also gave him “My covenant of peace”. Pinchas and his descendants were given the honour because of his zealousness for Gd. Why was Joshua chosen rather than this hero and man of action?

Joshua appears a number of times through the Torah. The first time he appears he was appointed to lead a group of refugees from Egypt in war against Amalek. He must have had leadership qualities and experience to have been chosen for the task of leading untrained men into battle. Later, when Moshe went up Mount Sinai, Joshua accompanied him and waited 40 days and 40 nights until his leader descended. In addition, when Moshe appointed 12 leaders to spy out the land of Canaan Joshua and Caleb were the two men who were enthusiastic about the the land and confident in b’nei Yisrael’s ability to conquer their enemies and settle there.

These qualities- as well as Joshua’s experience of traversing difficult land and situations, and witnessing Moshe’s leadership qualities made him an excellent choice as leader.

Image result for zelophehad's daughters by Gustave Dore

The narrative includes a story which shows insight to two other leadership qualities. As the division of land is being discussed five sisters, Mahla, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah from the tribe of Menashe came forward and asked for the portion of their father’s land. They told Moshe their father Zelophehad had died. There was no son to take the land. They asked for their father’s portion in order to preserve their father’s legacy and name.

Their confidence in coming forward and questioning what they felt was an unfair law shows insight and leadership. Moshe’s reaction as judge and arbitor also shows wisdom in leadership. He was unsure how to answer and turned to Gd. Gd answered that the women were correct and should receive their father’s portion.

V’Zot haBracha by Laya Crust

The haftarah also addresses a change in leadership. Elijah appoints Elisha to take over from him

We see different types of abilities, strengths, and skills in the players who take part in this week’s parsha and haftarah. It helps us to recognize how one set of abilities may be appropriate for a certain task or role. That same skill will create a leader in one situation but not another. We also see that a person who acts on his or her own is not necessarily fit for the larger role. The leaders should act in concert and with the support of others.

Shabbat Shalom, Laya

Remember: Come to the exhibit of my haftarah series and other art works at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto, Canada. It continues until October 24, 2019. The exhibit is open during synagogue hours, 7 days a week . For more information e-mail me at layacrust@gmail.com

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Va Yak’hel

Inspired Va Yikahel sig

“Inspired Workmanship” by Laya Crust

In the previous Torah reading, “Ki Tissa”, we read about the sin of “the golden calf”. Just to remind you, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God and bring them down to the Israelites below.  When Moses didn’t arrive at the expected time the nation grew worried and anxious, fearing that something bad had happened. They demanded a god, an idol,  to pray to. Breaking off their jewellery they fashioned a golden calf. The nation was punished by God. The golden calf was destroyed and three thousand men were killed.

In this week’s Torah reading Moshe invited all the people, whoever was generous of heart, ” נדיב לבו“, to bring forward gold, silver, brass, dyed linen and goats’ hair, wood, oil, spices, and precious gems. All these materials would be used to craft holy objects for the mishkan. The items to be crafted were listed and described, and  the people came forward with all that had been requested. The magnificence is described close on the heels of the sin of fashioning the golden calf. 

Wasn’t it contradictory- to punish the people for creating a golden calf but then command them to make expensive objects to be used in religious observance? The Israelites loved ornamentation and beauty. They gave their gold and precious jewelry to Aaron to make an idol to replace the absent Moshe. The answer to this seeming contradiction is in the wording.

Phrases like “wise hearted”  and “willing of heart” appear 15 times in this parsha. Only individuals who were wise hearted and generous could see past the expense and glitter of the materials through to the purpose of  prayer and service to God.  Those who are wise and generous can understand and facilitate elevation of spirit.

Beauty feeds the soul and God understood- and understands this. This parsha acknowledges the need the Israelites had for something beautiful and tangible to help them find comfort and help the on their journey.

Image result for 1299, Perpignan manuscript illumination

1299, Perpignan

Bezalel was chosen to be head architect and designer. He was filled with the spirit of God, with creativity, with understanding and with the knowledge of all kinds of craft. His aide, Oholiab, was also filled with wisdom of heart. Men and women were all invited to contribute and participate in the building of the mishkan and all the objects within it as long as they were generous of heart.

The value God places on creativity is the theme of my illustrationThe vessels are the brass pieces used in the mishkan. The painting is based on a  beautiful and timeless illumination from 1299, Perpignan, Aragon.  The two quotations are from the parsha:  “Take from among you an offering of the Lord, whoever is of a willing heart let them bring it…” (35:5)     “And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing of heart.” (35:22) The sparkling watercolour wash behind the quotations represents imagination and spirituality.

So, artists, artisans, wood workers, poets, musicians, playwrights, weavers, silversmiths,  authors, painters, dancers, photographers and potters, when you work with integrity and inspiration remember that it is God’s gift to you. This is your contribution to the spiritual beauty of the world.

Have Shabbat Shalom- one full of beauty and joy and of course – creative thinking. Hoping for peace and equality in the world,

Laya

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