“Terumah, 2/28/98, Fabrangen”
Terumah is the first of the Tabernacle portions, the last five in Exodus. As a whole these five portions form a kind of sandwich — with instructions for building the Tabernacle and the actual building broken up by the Golden Calf incident in the middle. This juxtaposition brings up questions about the relationship between forbidden and prescribed worship practices:
Is the Tabernacle meant, as many commentaries see it, as a direct means of atonement for the Golden Calf incident? Why is the Golden Calf forbidden, while Cherubim are commanded? Is it simply a matter of Divine command versus human desire? Were the Cherubim hidden away where only Moses and the priests would see them on a regular basis in order to co-opt an old, diehard mythology without giving it a central role?
I’ll leave these and other questions to someone else, because I want to concentrate specifically on the Cherubim, the two winged figures on the Ark cover, between which God and Moses are to meet.
In this portion, we’re told that the Cherubs’ wings should be raised above their heads, that they should be made in one piece with the cover, confronting one another across the cover, and facing downward toward it. Otherwise, no details appear — it seems to be assumed that everyone would know what they were. The word Cherubim or Keruvim is not translated.
A cherub might have been similar to the Egyptian sphinx or other such half-human creatures, which symbolized a meeting of human and divine. In the Talmud, in several places (Suk 5a, e.g.), the Cherubim are said to have faces “like children,” based on the Babylonian word, “rabia,” for child. A 19th Century commentator, Rav Simcha Zissel, took this to imply that only in being “like a child,” in openness to learning, are we able to receive the Torah.
At another point in the Talmud (Yoma 54a), the Cherubim are described as a boy and a girl, who would appear to be intertwisted as lovers; so, three times a year, during festivals, the curtain would be moved and the people told, “Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman.” Rashi said that it was permitted for the people to view this otherwise forbidden sight because God and the Jewish people are like an engaged couple who are permitted to see each other once married. Elsewhere, one Cherub is said to represent God’s quality of mercy and the other, justice. The Cherubim are said to protect those who study Torah, and there are many other images.
When I was trying to focus my thoughts for this discussion, I asked my
two young teachers — Avery who is almost 5, and Tracy who is 7 now — what they thought.
Tracy was interested in stories she’d read about miracles surrounding the Tabernacle. She understood some of them, she told me. For example, the story about how light the Ark felt when people carried it meant that the people were glad to have God with them. But she wasn’t at all sure about the story that the two Cherubim turn away from each other when the children of Israel displease God. She kept showing me how awkward it would be for figures made in one piece with the cover to turn their heads. She said, even if it was a miracle, it would mess up the “keyhole” shape where Moses was supposed to meet God. Would that mean that Moses couldn’t meet God unless everyone was cooperating? Another good question I couldn’t answer.
I also asked my children if we can still meet God, even though we don’t have Cherubim and a fancy Ark cover today. Tracy suggested that we meet God in prayer, and Avery elaborated. He told me: “If you don’t know God, and God doesn’t know you, then you can pray, and you’ll be friends.”
At first I thought, “oh, isn’t that nice — he still sees the world as made up of friends he knows and friends he hasn’t met yet.” But Avery’s response helped me pinpoint something striking about the phrase “I will meet with you there.”
To explain what I mean, I have to take a small detour, back to Genesis. An important theme in these Tabernacle portions is the parallel with Creation. Martin Buber says that the phrase “you shall make” in this parsha is meant
as a direct echo of “and God made” in Genesis.
The Tabernacle is built in six days, just as the world is created in six, and the concept of Sabbath rest as imitating God’s rest is also developed in this section. So, in effect, the instructions for building the Tabernacle are an invitation to imitate God. This is one indication that the God-human relationship is changing. Whereas the Torah suggests that Adam and Eve are banned from Eden because they were becoming too much like God — knowing good from evil — in this parsha the Israelites are now explicitly commanded to imitate God.
The appearance of Cherubim is another parallel between the Creation story and this parsha. After Eve and Adam are banished, Cherubim are set up east of Eden to bar the way back to the garden. Having chosen the Tree of Knowledge, access to the Tree of Life was lost. Just as soon as Eve and Adam leave the garden though, they begin having children, thus starting a new creation process in partnership with God. After much travail, the Jewish people is born through the Exodus from Egypt.
By the time we reach Mt. Sinai, God can offer us the Torah and, when we accept, a new level of partnership in creation. In this parsha, the Cherubim are set up to guard the tablets which form the core of that partnership agreement. They also represent the promise of continued revelation, a new means of access to the Tree of Life.
In this way, the two pairs of Cherubim frame remarkable changes in the God-human relationship. In the beginning, Eve and Adam were simply told the rules of the garden; now the people must agree to accept the rules before being bound by them. Throughout Genesis and Exodus, God “speaks” to humans, “calls” them, and “appears” to them; now God and human will “meet,” — or, as in some translations, “commune.”
In the beginning, the Trees of Knowledge and Life are set up in either-or opposition; now it looks like the “Or” doesn’t have to be exclusive, after all. Even though — or more likely, because — Adam and Eve chose Knowledge of Good and Evil, God can now offer access to the Tree of Life, but this time under different terms. God and human will no longer walk together in the garden in the cool of the evening, but Moses — later, the priests, and finally, the Jewish people — will meet with God over the Covenant, having chosen to enter into that partnership.
When I first considered the phrase, “I will meet with you there,” I was still thinking in terms of Mt. Sinai images — three days to prepare for words spoken out of thunder and fire. But after considering just how much the God-human relationship evolves between the first appearance of Cherubim at the end of Genesis 3 and their appearance here, I had a different vision. Suddenly, “I will meet with you there\” sounds less like “don’t get too close or approach before you’ve purified yourself, lest you die,” and more like I’ll meet you under the Marshall Fields clock” or “We’ll meet at the top of the Empire State Building.”
I’m reminded of Syd Lieberman’s poem, “A Short Amidah,” (in the back of the siddur [Kol Haneshamah]), which replaces the Amidah’s royal imagery with a chance to share a bottle of schnapps with God.
Certainly the Ark cover — like the rest of the Tabernacle — is meant to be awe-inspiring. Early commentators note that the cherubs’ wings were ten handspans above the Ark, symbolizing the fact that God never comes all the way down to earth.
The prophet Ezekiel saw the Ark cover as God’s royal chariot. In Psalm 99, the cherub’s raised wings form God’s throne, while the Ark cover is God’s footstool. Today, we still recite “vehistahavu lahadom raglav,” or “bow down before God’s footstool,” when the Torah is brought out. But the Tabernacle can also be understood, as was once common in Near Eastern sanctuaries, to be God’s house — complete with lamp (the menorah), table (for the show-bread), bed (the altar), and chair (the Ark/throne).
Moses is asked to meet with God at the foot of the throne, to be sure, but nonetheless in God’s house. The house, too, is portable, because God’s people are without a home and God is willing to share that homelessness.
Commentators, such as Cassuto, see in the Tabernacle a symbol that the magnificent, terrifying, once-in-an-eternity experience at Mt. Sinai will not be the end of our experience of God. Maybe we can continue to find God somewhere in the tension between this parsha’s exalted throne imagery and Avery’s “you can pray, and then you’ll be friends.”