But it wasn't always like this. At a point in our history, the suit-and-tie, all business, formal types were duking it out with the all-you-need-is-love, pray out in nature, T-shirts in services folks, and the uptight-ers (called the Mitnagdim) won out over the laid back-ists (the Chasidim). And yet, the influence of the more mystically-minded groups couldn't be eradicated entirely. Especially in the texts of our tradition, we still find hints of superstition, magic, sorcery, and Divine beings that dwell in the Heavens above who are NOT God. Hard to believe, I know.
This week, in a Torah portion primarily focused on blue prints for a construction project (riveting, to be sure), I would like to offer a small nod to our mystical ancestors who are often not given their due. You see, right in the middle of giving Moses the instructions for building a Tabernacle (worship space) in the desert, God says: "Make two cherubim [Hebrew plural of 'cherub'] of gold... at the two ends of the [Ark] cover" (Exodus 25:18).
And then God also says, "The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover" (v. 20). What we've got here are angels. And a lot of commentaries I read about this focused on the etymology of the word 'cherub,' or on the purpose of having their wings face one another on top of the Ark (I'll get to that in a bit). But the part that really strikes me is the fact that God doesn't feel the need to explain to Moses what the heck a cherub is. Moses, and by extension the Israelites, seems to know it perfectly well. But what do Moses and the Israelites know of angels??
If I asked you to picture an iPhone, you'd all see it in front of you instantly. If I asked you the same question 30 years ago, most of you would think I was asking you to picture an eye... and then an old-fashioned rotary phone! Right?? It's all about context. So the fact that
God could just say 'cherub,' and Moses was good to go, means that angels were a VERY early feature in our tradition. And these same cherubs, by the way, were also stationed at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, after Eve and Adam were rudely thrown out, in Genesis 3:24. There, the cherubim were a symbol of God's power and awe, and here too they serve the same purpose, since the Ark was not to be approached by most Israelites. Today, we imagine cherubs as cute babies with tiny wings, but the Biblical, prophetic, and rabbinic imagination pictured them much fiercer; with a lion's body, eagle's wings, and possibly FOUR different faces!
So what do we make of these scary angels; so well-known (and feared) to our ancient ancestors, but either forgotten or Disney-fied in our modern minds? One great interpretation that I found focused on the cherubim standing face-to-face - so explicitly stated in Exodus - and how it's a model for us to live by today.
Rabbi Michael Gold wrote, "If we are to meet God anywhere, it is between two human beings who stand face to face." Making eye contact, giving another our full and undivided attention, these are challenging things to do. But right at the source of God's relationship with us, the Ark, are two imposing reminders that we MUST honor other people if we want to honor God. As our ancestor Jacob said to his brother Esau, after seeing him for the first time in 20 years: "To see your face is like seeing the Face of God" (Genesis 33:10). In today's analytical and sometimes cynical world, we often get distracted by TV, news, computers, and yes, iPhones. But our mystical ancestors, and their angelic (albeit terrifying) friends, also remind us to look up once in a while and see the Face of God in the wonderful people all around us.
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