This week’s Torah Insight is available web-exclusively at The Times of Israel
Kli Yakar Exodus: Trumah
Moderate Extremists and The Miraculous Middle
My paternal grandparents were born in the same town but into different nationalities. The currently Ukrainian town of Beregszász was part of the Austrio-Hungarian empire. The other nations that have since claimed and administered this vibrant town in the Carpathian mountains included Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and most recently, Ukraine. It sits at the current intersection or close enough to Romania, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary.
My father often likes to point out some of the personalities that this town gave birth to. My grandparents were apparently middle-of-the-road Jews, working people, modern in the sense of clothing and working with Gentiles, yet respectful and learned in the Jewish laws and traditions. There were a number of ultra-Orthodox Chasidic Rabbis on one hand, and on the other hand it was also the birthplace of Rabbi Hugo Gryn who went on to become an extremly popular leader of Reform Judaism in the UK.
From my grandfather’s point of view, he might have considered himself in the middle of this spectrum of Judaism. Yet one might also argue that both the ultra-Orthodox Rabbis and Rabbi Hugo Gryn also saw themselves firmly and properly in the middle of their worldviews.
In Exodus Chapter 26, the Kli Yakar recounts how there was a miracle surrounding the central pole that connected the beams of the Tabernacle. Apparently the pole was able to bend in a supernatural fashion and thereby group all the beams together, from one end of the Tabernacle to the other.
According to the Kli Yakar, there are three other things that have the power to join disparate elements together, to unite even extremes. That is the prime purpose of the Tabernacle (and afterwards the Temple) to join Heaven and Earth, the spiritual to the material, the elevated to the mundane. The second item are stars. Apparently, in some cosmological sense that I don’t fully understand, stars are bridges between our world and otherwordly, cosmic forces. I’ll just take the Kli Yakar’s word for it.
The third and final uniter is man himself. Man has the ability to encompass an extreme divergence of viewpoints. Man can bring together people from opposite sides of political, religious, economic, educational and almost any other divergence we can think of. Man has that power.
May we learn to unite what is appropriate and stay away from the rest.
To the protestors in Egypt (and several other places) dealing with various issues of moderate, extremists and unity. Good luck. I just hope we don’t end up with a worse situation…
A new and revised version of the story will now be available web-exclusively at The Times of Israel: Ops & Blogs
Religion of Exceptions
I have a theory of Judaism, and specifically Jewish law. Jewish law has copious, endless rules. Rules about basically every imaginable aspect of life. The rules are regularly stringent, difficult to understand, and often very arcane-seeming. However, one interesting aspect that I found is that there always seem to be exceptions to the rules.
Some are more blatant than others.
One of the Ten Commandments includes:
“Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Exodus 20:3
However, just a few chapters later, God also commands:
“And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, at the two ends of the ark-cover.” Exodus 25:18
Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) explains that this is one of many exceptions in Jewish law. God not only allows, but commands the creation of graven images in this unique circumstance (to see one reason, look at last year’s Sforno piece). Hizkuni then goes on to list several other exceptions in Jewish law, as well as the Rabbinically supported rationales.
I am not saying that one should start searching for ways out of, or loopholes to laws that are inconvenient. However, it seems that God designed throughout the Torah and its Rabbinic interpretation a variety of exceptions that in cases of great need justify or even call for ignoring or contravening the otherwise firm laws.
Some popular examples include the exception to desecrate the Sabbath for life-threatening situations. However, threats to life do not trump all laws (there are exceptions). One must submit themselves to death rather than commit murder, idolatry or illicit relations.
We should always pay attention to the exceptions. They can often teach more about the rules.
To Rabbi Avi Baumol on the launch of his first book, Poetry of Prayer, an exceptional analysis of the Psalms of King David that are part of our liturgy. Congratulations as well on the starting of his new girl’s seminary in Jerusalem (see ad).
After previously denouncing and prohibiting in multiple instances, on pain of death, creation of statues, portrayals of the human form, or anything even remotely resembling idols, God throws an unusual command.
In the building of the sanctuary, in the Holy of Holies, on the very top of the Ark of the Covenant, where the Tablets of the Law are devotedly concealed, God tells us to place, not one, but two human figures.
These two Cherubim, as they are called, have the form of young children with wings on their back.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the seemingly contradictory declaration, by allowing one of the most abhorrent issues in Judaism, in the heart of the most sacred spot of Jewish ritual service.
Sforno claims that it is nothing less than a powerful and overt message. These Cherubim are representations of what today we more commonly refer to as Angels: heavenly ethereal beings that directly fulfill the will of God on earth. In rare occasions they present themselves and allow themselves to be seen by human beings. At times they may appear as unassuming humans, unrecognized in their mission. Most of the time, however, it seems they are invisible to the human eye.
So why are there angels on top of the Ark, and why specifically the winged variety?
I’ll paraphrase from Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz’s notes (the Sforno translator), who draws from Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed (I:49 and I:54):
The act of flying represents the ability to soar to heights as well as swiftness of movement, both of which require wings. Humans also can aspire to develop spiritual and intellectual potential so as to soar to greater heights of apprehension and understanding of God.
This can only be realized by examining God’s ways, as we see from Moses. One can only know Him, through His ways, which is through his 13 attributes, which can only be gained through the Torah. That is why the Cherubim are not only on the cover, but are gazing at the Ark cover – the source of truth and wisdom – the Torah.
Sforno believes that the Cherubim are an implicit message. That at the heart of the Jewish religion is a belief and a demand that we can and must elevate ourselves. That elevation is accomplished through God’s Law. If we keep our eye on the truth – we can soar like the very angels themselves.
To my sister and brother-in-law, Ilana and Daniel Epstein, on their 13th Anniversary. Besides the 13 Attributes of God and Bar-Mitzvah, 13 are also the Principals of Faith that Maimonides enumerates, and Kabbalists also refer to the 13 petalled rose, among other uses (i.e. great number). May they continue to grow and elevate themselves and may they soar to health, happiness and success with their beautiful family.