By Shlomo Riskin ~
“Bezalel made the ark… He made two cherubs of gold… at the two ends of the cover… The cherubs had their wings spreading out upwards… with their faces turned towards each other…” (Ex. 37:1-9)
This week’s Biblical portion repeats the detailed construction of the Tabernacle, including the protective cover of the Holy Ark, which featured the two winged cherubs facing each other. In the previous portion of Terumah, the Biblical text noted: “It is there I will set My meetings with you, and I shall impart to you – from above the Cover and from between the two cherubs who are above the Ark of the Covenant – everything that I will command to the children of Israel” (Exodus 25;22). Thus, God spoke to Moses from between the cherubs.
The Bible insists that from the time of the Divine Revelation at Sinai the Almighty continues to communicate with us in “a great voice that never ceases.” The Ramban says that the Tabernacle was a continuation of the revelation on Mount Sinai, hence the Divine Voice was heard from between the cherubs. (See Deuteronomy 5:19, Targum ad loc).
But how do we hear God without the Tabernacle, and without a Holy Temple? Who speaks for God when there is no Sanhedrin whose sages were infused with some of the Divine Spirit, and no prophets who can speak in the name of the Lord God? How does God communicate with us today?
The symbol of the cherubs will help us find our answer: God communicates through people. After all, did not the Almighty create the mortal in His own Divine Image (Gen 1:27)? Does not the Bible picture the Divine act of creation as God’s “breathing (in-spiriting)” into the dust of earth the breath (nishmat, soul) of life,” and does not the Sacred Zohar make the point that “everyone who exhales, who breathes out, exudes the inner essence of Himself, as it were”?! Hence there is a trace of God within each and every one of us – and it is that Godliness within which He reaches out and communicates to us.
You will remember that when the Biblical Joseph searched for his brothers, an unnamed personage pointed where they had gone. Rashi suggests that this anonymous man was the angel Gabriel, literally, a man of God (Gavri-El). The Ramban adds that he was merely a mortal, probably unaware of the function he was performing, but thanks to him, Joseph – and the entire family of Israel – realized their destiny through the enslavement in and exodus from Egypt.
Many years ago, I was invited to speak in a synagogue in Munich. The congregation consisted of approximately 150 Polish Jews, survivors of the Holocaust who had come from displaced persons (DP) camps outside the city. They had remained in Germany after the war to begin new lives.
It was the strangest congregation that I have ever encountered. It was not only that people were engaged in conversation during the prayers; they acted as if there wasn’t a synagogue service being conducted in the room at all. They walked around, conversed, and called out to friends from the windows. And although they were respectfully silent for the fifteen or twenty minutes that I spoke, I could not understand why they came to shul!
My host gave me the answer. “Every one of them lost most if not all of his family in the Holocaust. They cannot live with God and they cannot live without God. They are traditional Jews, so they come to synagogue, but it is as if they are on strike: they speak to each other but not to God. They are too angry to speak with him. And they let Him know how angry they feel by speaking to each other when the service dictates they should be speaking to Him!’
I think about this synagogue a great deal. I even admire their faith; after all, if they questioned God’s existence, they couldn’t be angry at Him. I even believe God loves their “prayers.” Does not God Himself say according to the Midrash Rabbah, “Would that you forget about Me and remember my children”?
Rav Haim Vital teaches that when we enter the synagogue to pray, we must intone the verse, “You shall love your friend like yourself”, since closeness to God must bring us close to all humanity, to all God’s children. As the anonymous poet wrote:
“I looked for myself and could not find me I sought my God and couldn’t find Thee I reached out to others and found all three.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.