Based on research from my previous Parashat Terumah sermon, and updated with some new thoughts.
Valentine’s Day is upon us.
Maybe you wouldn’t expect the rabbi to talk about it on Shabbat. Especially given the hyper-commercial nature of the day, and the unfortunate antisemitism associated with St. Valentine. But I was thinking about it, because of all the angel imagery that seems to pop up on Valentine’s Day.
What is it about the power we humans have given to the idea of angels? For thousands of years, they have captured the attention of artists, writers, and religious figures. And Hallmark cards.
Turns out they also make a stunning appearance in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah. Terumah is all about God’s instructions to build the portable tabernacle – the house of prayer known as the mishkan – that the Israelites carry through their wandering trip through the desert.
The Torah says: For the ark (just like our ark here), make a cover of pure gold… [and] make two cherubs of gold.
These cherubs have long seized our imagination. What exactly are they?
To begin with, a cherub is not the chubby, angelic baby with bows and arrows of Valentine’s Day cards and Renaissance art. Most scholars agree that when the Torah talks about cherubs, they are probably a winged hybrid of a lion and a human: a sphinx.
Now I want to point out something that is entirely confusing to me. One of the foundational rules of the Torah is that we can’t make idols. But here, God tells the Israelites to carve these strange human/lion statues out of a solid piece of gold. And then to place that statue right inside the most holy of places!
Doesn’t this contradict God’s fiery command: “You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image”!?
The paradox becomes even stranger, since in just a few weeks, we’ll read the Torah’s story of what is viewed as one of the most heinous of errors – the construction of the Golden Calf.
Both of these statues – the cherubs, and the golden calf – are virtually identical. Both are emblems of mysterious golden beings. Why is one animal statue kosher and one not?
I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in the way these two icons are constructed.The medium is the message.
The cherubs are to be made of solid gold, delicately hammered by hand and smithed to an exact pattern. Moses receives specific instructions from God that require a careful eye and steady hand to hammer out their complex details point by point. The Torah says that the cherubs must be crafted slowly and deliberately by the precise hand of a craftsperson.
The Golden Calf, on the other hand, is a molten image cast in a fiery furnace that melts together the Israelite’s gold with no discrimination. This smelting – is rushed work, a response to a perceived crisis. What was the crisis? Why did they build the golden calf?
Moses, their only physical connection to an invisible God, has disappeared into the clouds up on Mount Sinai. I imagine the anxiety and pain our ancestors must have felt.
They are panicked and feeling a great deal of uncertainty.
They are so desperate for leadership; so desperate for a sense of God’s presence; that they give up their most precious belongings and cook up this idol in the form of a calf. It is a reactionary, rash attempt to meet short-sighted needs.
So what’s the difference between these two images?
On the surface, it’s is a question of craftsmanship: of smithing versus smelting.
But on a deeper level, they represent two ways to frame our religious vision, two approaches to living in relationship with God. Two approaches to life as a whole.
While the cherubs are part of intentionally building a place of holiness – something that symbolizes a long-vision with enduring significance; the Golden Calf is built upon fear rather than hope. It represents a rushed, reactive project that ends up in a communal failure.
I empathize with the Israelites and their anxiety that prompted the construction of the calf. I know what it feels like to lose a sense of control, to be plagued with anxiety and fear, and to desperately search for anything that might offer protection from the turbulence. Our ancestors were in search of certainty, of a presence to guide and nurture them. Can we fault them?
Even today – the world can seem like a pretty turbulent place – something that induces panic and anxiety.
The question is – how do we respond to that anxiety-inducing turbulence? Do we search for the quick, reactive responses, or do we hold onto something with a more enduring message?
When I think about these two images the Torah gives us, the message I hear is that our responsiveness should not come at the expense of our vision. In our own lives, in our Jewish community, we need sensitivity to the world, alongside a proactive, eternal vision.
And in fact, this is what some of our rabbis who read the Torah said about the Golden Calf itself. They knew that there wasn’t that much different between the Calf and the Cherubs. So they argued that the building of the Calf itself wasn’t the sin, it was what it was used for. Had it been a project of hope for God, rather than one out of fear and absent holiness, then there wouldn’t have been any problem at all.
For me, the question today is: in our own community-building projects; in our relationships with others, and in our responses to the challenges of the world: do we want we to be like the reactive populism of the Golden Calf, or like the proactive, visionary builders of the cherubs?
We find ourselves, again, in one of these remarkable moments, of increased focus on what it means to be a leader. And on what it means to be in community together. With elections forthcoming here in the US, in Israel, in Canada, in Germany; with Brexit and NATO and NAFTA, and other international alliances on shaky ground – what should our response be?
When we hear our aspiring leaders share their ideas and plans – it’s an opportunity to ask yourself: are they reactionary, rushed, and designed to just calm the masses? Or do they present a more active, thoughtfully engaged vision?
Because the Torah wants us to know: it’s human – even understandable – to want the quick fix; to look for the closest salve for your anxieties.
But you can’t do that at the expense of communal responsibility, and thoughtful vision for the future.
Pretty soon people are going to be asking for your vote. Or for your money. Or for your time and energy and emotional support.
It’s the equivalent of the gold that the Israelites once gave.
You’re going to be asked to pick a side – to join a community. And the real truth is – this isn’t just something that comes up around elections; this is not a matter of the politics of the left or the right; we’re always being summoned to be thoughtful about who we associate with.
Our Torah this week is calling out to us: when the time comes to give willingly of what is most valuable to you – when the time comes to join together in community – make sure that you’re not signing on to the quick fix.
Instead, make sure that you’re a part of a project that makes room for each other; that is committed to a vision of integrity; that brings more holiness to the world.