Archive | February, 2017

Maintaining Our Distance from God

28 Feb

I know….we are used to thinking of it the other way around. We seek closeness to God – kirvah. But after taking a close look at the symbolic architectural artistry that adorned the centerpiece of the tabernacle – the holy ark – it seems that maybe there is such a thing as getting too close to God.

The cherubs shall spread their wings upward so that their wings shield the cover [of the ark]. The cherubs shall face one another, but their faces shall [also be inclined downward toward the cover.] Place the cover on top of the ark [after] you place into the ark the testimony that I will give you. I will commune with you there, speaking to you from above the ark-cover, from between the cherubs that are on the Ark of Testimony.  (Exodus 25:20-22)

We first meet the cherubim in the Torah as appointed guards, stationed at the path to Tree of Life (Gen. 3:24), preventing humankind from passing that way, preventing us from overstepping our limits, from embracing eternal life and losing perspective on the difference between ourselves and God. It is a strange epilogue to the creation story, isn’t it? I mean, it makes you wonder: Isn’t it ultimately up to God what happens? Can a person really just eat a ripe fruit from the right tree and then live forever, even if the all-powerful God does not will it so?

What is the actual message of that passage?

Here in Exodus, we meet them again.  But here the cherubim reappear in the form of man-made gold figurines, two figures with child-like faces, placed in such a way that they are on guard again;  but this time, rather than standing with swords brandished, they stretch out their wings and shelter the cover of the ark, the place from which the voice of God is meant to emanate.

Is there a connection?

I think so.

Pardon my candor, but seeking closeness to God is not always a good thing.  In fact, there seems to be a built -in concern that religious life will breed a form of familiarity that risks dethroning God, that risks making God into a friend, a buddy, a lover –  into a less-than-awesome presence in our lives.

For instance, I am not a steibelachphile* in the least.  While some find seeking God in the neighbor’s living room or basement as the ultimate in down-to-earth-making-prayer-meaningful, I am not one of those. A visit two weeks ago to the sanctuary of the Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh gave me goosebumps….stepping into that high-ceiling work of architectural mastery that exudes majesty filled me with a sense of great humility before the King of Kings.

I wonder if that is why the cherubim of Exodus, here in Parashat Terumah, in the first prototype of the Temple, are bent over and extending their wings to cover God’s seat on earth.  Maybe they are there stationed there to remind us to maintain our distance, to preserve the aura of awe and reverence at the place from which, we are taught, the voice of God will emanate.

This fits in very well with the description of the cherubim in Solomon’s Temple as well (1 Kings 6:23-28), which were ten cubits (approximately twenty two feet) high. They were gigantic in size and instead of facing each other they both faced the door, perhaps to intimidate people, frightening those who might come too close, protecting the majesty of God in the Temple specifically, and in the world in general. In point of fact, the image of wings above a king or even a god serving as protection was a popular image in the ancient Near East (see picture).

Our son Akiva will soon complete his army service in the IDF.  Of late, he served as a commander of new recruits.  It is well known that for the duration of boot camp, the commanders are to “maintain distance” from the newbies – not to be their friends, not to be their buddies.  It is critical that they do this in order to maintain order and discipline, and to indoctrinate the new soldiers into their new reality, where honor and discipline translate into saving lives.

I would suggest that maintaining distance from God is one way that we actually protect the image of God in our world today.

Refraining from claiming to know God’s will is another...but that is for another time.


*Latin for “Lover of close-knit small prayer groups”