I delivered this Dvar Torah at Saturday morning services during this past weekend’s KOACH Kallah at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this week’s parsha, Terumah, some of the details we read about the construction of the mishkan deal with the adornments on ארון העדות. Specifically, there are instructions about the figured to be placed on top of the ark: two כרובים, cherubim, commonly understood to be creatures which possess human heads and animal bodies.
“Make two cherubim of gold,” we read. “They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Pact that I will give you. There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”
So you have the image in your head. Two sphinx-like figures face each otherin hebrew, “ופניהם These statues are on top of the ark in which the Torah is held. And when God .”איש אל אחיו speaks to Moses, his revelation emanates from between these two figures.
What’s going on here?
The issue of these images in our otherwise pretty imageless religion is a strange one. But it’s also interesting to analyze what this image is telling us. The cherubim are facing each other, confronting each other, one might even say that they are encountering each other or engaged in a dialogue. The language used to refer to them, “איש אל אחיב”, literally, man to his brother, seems human.
These cherubim are telling us how to encounter God through human relationships.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber thought extensively about how our interpersonal relationships can lead to the divine. His famous work is “I and Thou”a book about how individuals relate to the world around them. The basic idea is that there exist two types of interactions: encounters with objects, or “it”s and encounters with “you”s or “thou”s . Any physical goods are “it’s” but even people who we only interact with having a specific goal in mind become part of the I-It world. The I-Thou, or I-You, world, then, includes all interactions that extend beyond that surface level. We’ve all had conversations where we can tell that even though the words aren’t coming out right, the person we are speaking with still understands our point. That’s an example of an I-Thou encounter.
Where this gets really interesting is that Buber sees I-Thou encounters with other humans as windows to I-Thou encounters with the “eternal You”–God–just as in this parsha God communicates from the space between the cherubim who are encountering each other.
“Extended,” Buber writes, “the lines of relationships intersect in the eternal You. Every single You is a glimpse of that. Through every single You the basic word addresses the eternal You.”
I-Thou encounters with other people are not meant to be vehicles toward IThou encounters with God–that would defeat the purpose, because if we entered relationships with the express purpose of getting something else out of them then we would transform those I-You encounters into I-It encounters. But God is still somehow in these encounters with other people, and on this weekend that we’re discussing ideal Jewish relationships that’s an important idea to keep in mind.
I’ll leave you with one final thought about the cherubim. Buber’s I-Thou encounters are not required to be romantic, but they can be. And it’s worth noting that this “model” I-Thou encounter on top of the ark in the mishkan is one that occurs between “identical beings rather than physical opposites” (Karen Erlichman, “We are the Cherubim”). Queer jews, like myself, have limited foundations for considering our attractions and relationships “textually justified” or “canonical”. But this relationship between cherubim is a powerful example of a relationship with divine content outside of the traditional man/woman, straight marriage model. And even if the gender isn’t the point, the parallel nature of the encounter certainly is. Two beings confront each other on top of the ark as equals. Stated a little differently, perhaps, one could say that “egalitarianism in relationships is holy.”