Wednesday, June 24, 2009


The Torah group met again last night. I hadn't had time to read the parashah for the evening, which was not a narrative. Instead, it described the specifications for building the Ark of the Covenant and setting up the Mishkan, the portable Holy of Holies that supposedly traveled through the desert with the Hebrew people on their way to the promised land.
The commentary said it was most likely never built, but we wondered at the absolutely shovel-ready detail of the instructions, which had to be followed to the T if the builders were to avoid death. What a deal! God offered this special partnership, and in return, the people were to turn over everything they had and risk death.
One amazing detail discussed a special form of ritual gambling for making decisions on which the leaders could not agree. The priests in the temple wore a special breastplate that contained something like dice. When such a difficult decision came up, they were to use those dice to decide the issue. Given that divination was a total no-no, this seems like a form of fudging. Also, although all graven images were supposedly forbidden, on the cover of the ark of the covenant itself, hammered out of a single piece of gold, were to be two cherubim, their wings spread, facing each other, with a space between them. God's voice would be issued from between these wings.
A cherub is not a rosy little angel of the sort we are used to imagining on Valentine's Day. Instead, it is a fearsome beast something like a sphynx, with the body of an animal and the head of a human. God set cherubim to guard Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve so humans wouldn't sneak back in.
One commentary said that the image of the cherubim evoked the idea that justice could not exist without communication between human beings. We need to face each other and engage in dialogue before God can be present in the world. That sounds like a Reconstructionist reading of the matter, one I feel comfortable with.
The whole deal of the Mishkan brings up the big controversy in Judaism: the conflict between the idea of God's immanence and God's transcendance. The big thing that was supposed to make this God different from the others of the period was that God could not be encompassed by a particular form or image. Yet that God was also seen as something different from the pagan gods who were supposed to be identical with forces of nature. It is a fine line, very abstract and hard to get one's mind around.
This section of the Torah is not, frankly, compelling to read, at least not for me. I love the narratives, the ancient stories of our extended family, with all their disfunctions and questionable exploits. I look forward to more of these shenanagans coming up soon.


Lou said...

I am fascinated by your discussion of the image of the cherubim on the lid of the ark. How, in this reading, however, do the cheribum so easily come to represent humans talking to each other? As always, thanks for these posts, Robbi.

Robin said...

An absolutely fascinating analysis, even if it isn't your favorite part of the Torah! I believe,you are becoming somewhat of a scholar on this subject, yourself!

Robbi said...

They have the face of human beings, even if they have the body of animals. The commentator from whom I borrow this reading says that there must have been a special reason for God to have made an exception to the rule against graven images in the holy of holies. These cherubim are God's footstool, and they are not facing away from each other, like the cherubim in Eden, but toward each other. So they must be speaking, and through their communication, God speaks, because it was between them that God's voice was supposed to issue forth.
Thanks for the kudos, again, but I am far from a Torah scholar. I cannot read Hebrew or Aramaic, and have only read this segment of the Torah once. Years from now, when I have read the same passages repeatedly and delved into word derivations, etc., I may become more of a scholar, but right now, not really.