(Dvar Torah given on Shabbat Terumah, Friday evening 2/24/12)
וְהָי֣וּ הַכְּרֻבִים֩ פֹּֽרְשֵׂ֨י כְנָפַ֜יִם לְמַ֗עְלָה סֹֽכְכִ֤ים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם֙ עַל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת וּפְנֵיהֶ֖ם אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו אֶ֨ל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת יִֽהְי֖וּ פְּנֵ֥י הַכְּרֻבִֽים׃
And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover shall the faces of the cherubim be.
I have always found it difficult to look people in the eyes --- whether it’s at a job interview, or in a deep conversation with a friend or loved one, or during a pastoral visit with a congregant. I will myself to do it as long as I can, but it’s uncomfortable for me. Maybe it’s just because of my vision problems – I’ve worn glasses since I was two years old, had a couple of eye operations as a kid, and I don’t have stereo vision -- so I’m constantly switching off between using my left eye and my right eye.
However, I suspect that even if I had perfectly healthy 20-20 vision, I’d still find it difficult. There is something so intense about staring into someone’s eyes. It’s like looking at the sun. In fact, when I really want to hear what someone is saying, I do it best by trying to push aside visual distractions, just as when we cover our eyes in order to aid in hearing and internalizing our declaration of faith:
שְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל: ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ, ה' אֶחָד
"Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One."
But the idea of being “panim el panim”/ “face to face” remains as a paradigmatic example of communication, of connection, of true meeting. And so God, in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, instructs that two cherubim -- two golden angelic figures --- be sculpted so as to protrude out of the top of the golden cover of the ark containing the Ten Commandments. In the medieval Jewish commentaries, the two cherubs are described as having the faces of a boy and a girl, and wings like birds – and they are compared to the angels seen in Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne and Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot.
Parshat Terumah as a whole (Exodus 25:1 - 27:19), among some thirteen of the remaining chapters of the Book of Exodus, is devoted the details of the mishkan, or portable tabernacle, that is to accompany the people through all their journeys. Tradition sees it as the precursor of the Temple that would be built centuries later in Jerusalem under the reign of King Solomon. In what is probably the most well-known verse of our parasha, Exodus 25:8, God declares:
וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם
("v'asu li mikdash v'shachanti betocham")
“They shall make for me a sanctuary and I shall dwell within them.” Not, as we might expect – ”btocho”/ within it (i.e. within the sanctuary), but rather “btocham” -- within or among them. The actions of the people in building the mishkan and fabricating its contents bring them together in holy community. Although God is everywhere, the community building project helps the people to be better able to experience God’s presence.
And within that sanctuary, Torah teaches that God will most palpably be found in the space between the two cherubs – those two humanlike figures of which it says:
וּפְנֵיהֶם, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו
("ufeneyhem, ish el achiv")
“Their faces – one towards another.” And so it is with us, that when we truly face one another, to quote Buber, “we feel the pulse of Eternity.”
But those cherubim, while facing one another, at the same time turn slightly downward toward the cover of the ark that houses the stone tablets, as the verse concludes:
אֶל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת--יִהְיוּ, פְּנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים("el hakaporet yiheyu pney ha-keruvim")
"towards the ark-cover shall the faces of the cherubs be."
And so it is with us: We strive for the blinding intensity of relationship, yet also avert our gazes so that we can try to understand it all, to place it into some meaningful context.
But God is to be found in the space between us when we see and hear one another.
Could we really achieve such a level of sensitivity?
We’re having a lot of conversations in Duluth these days about recognizing our common humanity with our neighbor --- and about how racism can hinder such recognition.
And we’re having a lot of conversations in our State about recognizing our common humanity with our fellow Minnesotans and about how homophobia and heterosexism can hinder such recognition.
And, each day, in every interaction we have with one another, we strive to face one another, to hear one another, to understand one another – because such meeting is when God can truly be found and experienced.
Of course, we can’t reach that pinnacle all the time. We often just “go through the motions.”
But the memory of each such meeting lives within us, and sustains us for the meetings to come.
© Rabbi David Steinberg, 2012/5772