Facing Out: Dr Paul Farmer z’l and the Cherubim

Yadid, our oldest, is turning 18 this week. It seems that just yesterday he had the cherubic face at the top of this blog.

All of my children all still my little angels, even if they are bigger than me. Where did the time go?

Despite or because Yadid has to shave more regularly I got to thinking about the Cherubim that we read about in VaYakel, this week’s Torah portion. Amidst a description of the construction of the Aron, Holy Ark, we learn about the top of it. There we read:

He made two cherubim of gold; he made them of hammered work, at the two ends of the cover: one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; he made the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at its two ends. The cherubim had their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They faced each other; the faces of the cherubim were turned toward the cover.

Exodus 37:7-9

This is at once our most holy image and one which is just too hard to understand. Why are they facing each other? On this the Talmud says:

Rabbi Kattina said: Whenever Israel came up to the Festival, the curtain would be removed for them and the Cherubim were shown to them, whose bodies were inter-twisted with one another, and they would be thus addressed: Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman.

Yoma 54.

It must have been amazing for those three times a year for the Cherubim to touch, but what of the rest of the year? It must have seemed like the Cherubim are perpetually caught in a state of yearning for each other. Rabbi Kattina’s Cherubim spent much of the year frozen, facing inward, and reaching out to each other.

I was thinking about this image as it juxtaposes an image we see in this week’s haftarah, had we read if it was not Shabbat Shekalim. There we learn about the Molten Sea or Brazen Sea. This was a large basin in the Temple in Jerusalem made by Solomon for ablution of the priests. It stood in the south-eastern corner of the inner court. We read in the haftrah:

The structure of the laver stands was as follows: They had insets; and on the insets within the frames were lions, oxen, and cherubim. Above the frames was a stand; and both above and below the lions and the oxen were spirals of hammered metal. Each laver stand had four bronze wheels and [two] bronze axletrees. Its four legs had brackets; the brackets were under the laver, cast. Its funnel, within the crown, rose a cubit above it; this funnel was round, in the fashion of a stand, a cubit and a half in diameter. On the funnel too there were carvings. But the insets were square, not round. And below the insets were the four wheels. The axletrees of the wheels were [fixed] in the laver stand, and the height of each wheel was a cubit and a half. The structure of the wheels was like the structure of chariot wheels; and their axletrees, their rims, their spokes, and their hubs were all of cast metal. Four brackets ran to the four corners of each laver stand; the brackets were of a piece with the laver stand. At the top of the laver stand was a round band half a cubit high, and together with the top of the laver stand; its sides and its insets were of one piece with it. On its surface—on its sides—and on its insets [Hiram] engraved cherubim, lions, and palms, as the clear space on each allowed,-d with spirals round about.

I Kings 7: 28- 36

Here is an artistic representation of what it might have looked like:

The Molten Sea being a big laver. Beyond the connection between this and the ark both being instruments of the Mishkan/Temple, they both have cherubim. That is an interesting connection. What is more interesting to me is their differences. While on the Ark the cherubim are inward facing, here on the Molten Sea they and and the rest of the menagerie are facing out. What do we make of this difference?

I was thinking about this difference this last week when I heard of the passing of Dr Paul Farmer z’l. Farmer a pioneer in global health died this week at the age of 62. In is the award-winning book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Tracy Kidder he described Farmer as “the man who would cure the world”. In reading this book it was impossible not to be moved by Farmer’s heroic effort to bring health care to rural Haiti. There Kidder writes:

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.

Mountains Beyond Mountains

The book’s title comes from a Haitian proverb, which is usually translated as: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” According to Farmer, a better translation is: “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” The phrase expresses something fundamental about the spirit and the scale and the difficulty of Farmer’s work. The Haitian proverb, by the way, is also a pretty accurate description of the topography of a lot of Haiti.

The life and legacy of Dr. Paul Farmer is to look over the next mountain to that next life to save. The cherubim on the ark were facing inward. While this is tender, sweet, intimate, and needed, it is not enough. We also need to balance that with the Molten Sea facing outward and pushing us to heal a broken world. We are not meant to wash our hands of the problems of the world, but rather be inspired by the memory of Dr Paul Farmer to be ever vigilant and expend every effort to traverse the next mountain to meet those needs.

As my little angel prepares to leave home, I see him turning his attention from the world within to his role in the larger world. I am excited to see his impact on the world.

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