Archive for the '2 The Book of Exodus' Category

Promised Assembly: On Suburbia

At the start of Vayakel Pekudai, this week’s double portion we read, “ Moshe called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Lord commanded to do” (Exodus 35:1). What does it mean to “assemble”?

We take it for granted, but for these recently emancipated slaves this coming together must have been a very powerful experience. In this context of communing, convening, and communicating they were giving the gift of Shabbat. For people who’s value is tied to their productivity for their masters the very institution of Shabbat must have been radical. For them then, and for us now, the experience of Shabbat itself creates the context for the communing, convening, and communicating. But for many of us this benefits of assembling allude us. In the words of Robert Putnam, religion and communal life are on the decline and we are all bowling alone. But why?

As we learn in the Mishnah (and in the classic song Yo Ya), “Mishnah Makom Mishnah Mazel– You change your place you change your luck”. One is left assuming that if changing the venue would have been enough for the slaves to assemble it would have done the same for the previous generation as they liberated themselves from the peril of city life and moved to the suburbs. When we started to leave urban centers across America we came together, collected the necessary resources, and formed communities. Many of these new synagogues were conceived of as new Tabernacles build in the wilderness as people escaped the city life. But has the reality of suburbia lived up to the promise?

In thinking about this question I think about the work of James Howard Kunstler. In his book The Geography of Nowhere, he traces America’s evolution from a nation of Main Streets and coherent communities to a land where every place is like no place in particular, where the cities are dead zones and the countryside is a wasteland of cartoon architecture and parking lots. Kunstler depicts our nation’s evolution from the Pilgrim settlements to the modern auto suburb in all its ghastliness. The Geography of Nowhere tallies up the huge economic, social, and spiritual costs that America is paying for its car-crazed lifestyle. It is also a wake-up call for citizens to reinvent the places where we live and work, to build communities that are once again worthy of our affection. Kunstler proposes that by reviving civic art and civic life, we will rediscover public virtue and a new vision of the common good.

Kunstler gives a related Ted talk that I just love:

“The future will require us to build better places,” Kunstler says, “or the future will belong to other people in other societies.” Beyond his assorbic tone, he is speaking the truth. As he says, “We’re going to need to get back this body of methodology and principle and skill in order to re-learn how to compose meaningful places, places that are integral, that allow — that are living organisms in the sense that they contain all the organs of our civic life and our communal life, deployed in an integral fashion.”

In some ways the Israelites in the desert lived the promise of suburbia assembling, coming together, and making meaning. And for us this has become a MESSH nightmare. The project of the Promised Land is also suffering from some of the same consequences of suburbia that Kunstler discusses. Israel is more divided then ever. Israel’s left and right have nothing in common and there is also a growing divide between Israel and diaspora. We have nothing common and no share vision of what is worth fighting for. As Kunstler said, “We are sleepwalking into the future. We’re not ready for what’s coming at us. So I urge you all to do what you can.”

What can we learn from the Israelite assembling to repair our communities all over the world?


Common Knowledge: A Riddle and a Thought on Tetzave

I have always loved a good riddle. I assume it came from my playful nature, the struggle to get the solution, or the joy of cracking it. There is a whole string of deduction/logic riddles that I really like that are based on what is Common Knowledge.

My favorite one is the Blue-Eyed Islander of Brown eyes people. Here is the simplest version I could find:

Spoiler Alert: #2 figures out his hat is red by combining what he knows, that #3 is yellow, with #1’s delayed response, because #1 must see a yellow and a red hat. I think there is much to be learned from the rest of our lives in the space between what know, what know we know, what we know other people know, and what we know that other people do not know.

I was thinking of this idea this week when reading Titzaveh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about the High Priest’s tzitza golden plate worn on the forehead. There we read:

Make a plate (tzitz) of pure gold, and engrave on it as on a seal, “Holy to God.” Place it upon a blue thread, so that it will be on the turban; it shall be opposite the front of the turban. It will be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron will absolve the guilt of the holy things which the children of Israel sanctify, all of their holy offerings; it shall be on his forehead constantly, for their acceptance before God.

Exodus 28:36–38

Why would this bear the inscription “Holy to God”? I believe in a profound way this creates Public Knowledge that the Priest is holy. This also creates an interesting question in the assembled people’s Common Knowledge. In what ways were they all “Holy to God”?

This gives a whole new context for what we think we know as we go into Purim, a holiday full of customs, costumes, and hats. That which is hidden might itself be very revealing. We all need to ask ourselves in what ways are we all “Holy to God”?

Painfully Parve: The Moral Challenge of Adiaphorous

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion we learn about many laws. Some of them deal with kashrut, food taboos. One of the laws states, ” You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.” (Exodus 22:30) Clearly eating without thinking about the experience of the animal is to be like an animal. Our holiness is connected to our being conscious consumers.

Another law states, “The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”(Exodus 23:19) At first glance it might seem that this prohibition falls in line with other taboos in Judaism of mixing things, I think that is an over simplification. Just as in the previous case, this is an argument for conscious moral living. Cooking a kid in it’s mother milk is an obvious case of cruelty. Not doing mixing milk and meat is not moral stance, but an occasion to be mindful in life and to strive not to be cruel.

This also creates categories of trief (not kosher), milk, meat, and “parve”. Pronounced PAH-riv or pahr-veh, “parve” is a Yiddish (and by extension, Hebrew) term for something that is neither meat nor dairy. Examples would be water, eggs, fish, and anything that is plant-derived, such as fruit, nuts and veggies. Thus, a cookie labeled as “parve” can be eaten together with cream-laden coffee, or after a steak dinner. Since meat and dairy utensils are also kept separate, dishes that are used for neither meat nor dairy are also known as “parve.” The origin of this word is unknowm. Perhaps it is from Middle High German bar (“bare, naked”), from Proto-Germanic bazaz (“bare, naked”), from Proto-Indo-European bosós, from bos- (“bare, barefoot”), and thus cognate with English bare. Or perhaps from a West Slavic source such as Czech párový (“occurring in pairs”), because it is something that can be paired with either meat or milk.

In a more general context, being “parve” can also mean being neutral, unremarkable, or lacking in distinctive qualities or characteristics. To be “painfully parve” would mean to be frustratingly neutral or unremarkable in a way that causes discomfort or dissatisfaction. This could refer to a person, an experience, or anything that is perceived as being uninteresting or bland. It suggests a sense of disappointment or a desire for more excitement or stimulation.

Similarly I just learned a new vocabular work, adiaphorous. Based on the ancient Greek “ἀδιάφορος” (“adiáphoros”), meaning “indifferent.” The idea of adiaphorous concepts is associated with the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, who split human life into categories of good, bad, and indifferent. The term for “indifferent” was “adiaphora,” and they used it to describe activities that were neither essentially good nor essentially bad. An early example of something adiaphorous is the pursuit of fame, which is neither bad in nature, nor necessarily a good thing. Stoics believed adiaphorous actions were decided as good or bad by the way one carried them out.

There is something painfully parve about moral indifference. I am interested in Jewish law being an expression of our values. When it come to food there is no problem being parve, but in life we need to pick teams. Being adiaphorous is trief. As Elie Wiesel wisely said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

Systems Fail: Accountability and Our Trash Heap

When I look around at the world I see many problems and issues. It is easy to become despondent as the world continues to go from bad to worse. What could we possibly do to make things better of this burning trash heap of a planet? It all seems out of control. And even if we think there is someone in control we jump to blame. Just to name a few of our issues:

  1. Climate Change: One of the major problems on our planet is linked to the global temperatures that are continuously rising. By 2100, studies show that there is a 50% likelihood of facing global warming that is higher than 3.5 degrees Celsius and a 10% probability of witnessing warming higher than 4.7 degrees Celsius (relative to temperatures registered between 1850 and 1900). This would result in more severe shifts in weather patterns, food and resource shortages, and the more rapid spread of diseases.
  2. Wars and Military Conflicts: There is a war in Ukraine. Russia one of the world powers will do everything to keep Ukraine out of the EU. This could easily escalate to a 3rd World War. This is just one region. Beyond any bloodshed or hardship in any of these war-torn regions, there is a huge issue caused for and by the refugees of war.
  3. Water Contamination and Shortage: 2.1 billion people in countries undergoing urbanization have inaccessibility to clean drinking water as a result of pollution, poverty and poor management of resources.
  4. The Relationship between Education and Child Labor: Despite a surge in funding for some countries and increasing attention through social media, education continues to be a luxury around the globe. Reasons include gender preferences and poverty, and child labor — the use of children in industry. According to UNICEF, 150 million children participate in laborious activities dangerous to their health.
  5. Violence: Violence is a global issue that exists in all shapes and sizes. Violence can be done towards a particular group like women or LGBTQ+ members, or it is an act that can be a result of a mentally disturbed mind. There is also violence in response to economic stress. All these varying forms of violence lead to attention on the safety and prevention of such acts. Despite COVID pushing #metoo out of the news, we still have not dealt with these abuses of power.
  6. Poverty: 1.3 billion people have difficulty obtaining food and shelter, regardless of the availability of homeless shelters and organizations.
  7. Inequality: According to a Global Wealth Report, 44 percent of global net worth is held by only 0.7 percent of adults. In a society where there’s a large gap between the rich and the poor, life expectancy tends to be shorter and mental illness and obesity rates are 2 to 4 times higher. In terms of social relationships, inequality on a larger level introduces more violence and crime.
  8. Terrorism: Terrorism like the bombing incidents of the last few years continue to claim the lives of innocents. It is a threat to the peace, security and stability of the world, so terrorism prevention methods have been implemented to illustrate what is wrong and should be/could be done to uphold justice.
  9. Child Marriages: One in five girls are married before the age of 18, and child marriages prevent children from becoming educated, can lead to severe health consequences and increased risk of violence.
  10. Food: By 2050, the world would need to find food for approximately nine billion people as cost of production for food will rise in response to the increased amount of individuals.
  11. Human Rights Violation: There are many place in the world where people do not live free. One example is how the China’s Uyghur Genocide.
  12. Global Health Issues: While we might feel that we are done with COVID- 19, what is coming next?
  13. Gun Violence: There is a huge problem in America around access and use of guns. We have become knumb to the regularity of mass shootings.

Individually I believe we have the power to fix each of these issues. But looking at this litany of crap in this sh!t storm of our lives today it is overwhelmed. When I dig deeper I am left seeing a theme to our issues. We just lack accountability. We could fix all of these things, we just do not have a culture of accountability to make it happen.

Here I quote my Accountability Rebbe Diana Bloom when she says, “ People do not fail, systems fail.”

Instead of running to blame people or just throwing up my hands in despair , I want to ask what systems we could put into place to make sure we working on solutions and making the world better.

I was thinking about this idea this week when reading Yitro, this week’s Torah portion. Here we see Moshe sitting from morning until night adjudicating cases. His father-in-law Yitro advises Moshe to appoint a hierarchy of magistrates and judges to assist him in the task of governing and administering justice to the people. We all need systems to be effective. Moshe himself needed a system to make sure that they could have a just civilization.

This story of having a judiciary system itself is the story that immediately precedes the give of the Torah. In many ways it seems that the Torah and the halacha we learn in it is what our wisdom tradition offers the world as a system of accountability. While you might not see this in modern Israel, but a separate judiciary system is critical to our culture. As we read about the giving of the Torah we should thing about what systems we can put in place to make sure we are doing our part to save this burning trash heap of a planet.

Take Heart: Learning from Worthy Rivals

Over the past few Torah portions we have returned time and again to the troupe of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened. There are many different explanations as for why this is the case. Regardless due to the sheer number of references to it happening, it cannot be dismissed as trivial. But why is it important?

And in Beshalach, this week’s Torah portion the Israelites are finally let go. You would think that enough would be enough, but no we still learn that God is not done hardening Pharaoh’s heart. There we read:

The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he chased after the sons of Israel as the sons of Israel were going out boldly.

Exodus 14:8

So, what do we learning from all of this heart hardening stuff?

In many ways Pharaoh represent the architype in our history, hell bent on the death of the Jews. But in many ways we are missing the lesson. To anyone who knows me knows that I am big chassid of Simon Sinek.

In the Infinite Game, his new book, he wrote:

Traditional competition forces us to take on an attitude of winning. A Worthy Rival inspires us to take on an attitude of improvement. The former focuses our attention on the outcome, the latter focuses our attention on process. That simple shift in perspective immediately changes how we see our own businesses. It is the focus on process and constant improvement that helps reveal new skills and boosts resilience. An excessive focus on beating our competition not only gets exhausting over time, it can actually stifle innovation.

The Infinite Game

What might we learn from Pharaoh if we see him as a worthy competitor? One thing is being determined. While there are a few different languages we use in the Torah to talk about Pharaoh’s heart hardening, the most common is Hazak. We see the same language used for Joshua when he is charged with the impossible task of replacing Moshe as the leader. There we read:

Hazak- Be strong and resolute, for you shall apportion to this people the land that I swore to their fathers to assign to them. But you must be very Hazak- strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the Teaching that My servant Moshe enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful. “I charge you: Hazak- Be strong and resolute; do not be terrified or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:5-9

In an interesting way we see their charge to Joshua is to be like the worthy rival of Pharaoh. Today more than ever we surround ourselves with people who share our convictions and vilify those we disagree with. In this divided political climate we need to have the strength to be asking ourselves what we can learn from our worthy rivals.

Between Toil and Work: Meaning Making in Our Effort

commercial from the Dutch mail-order pharmacy Doc Morris has left the internet in tears by showing the reason behind a grandfather’s drive to get in shape for Christmas with his family. What would inspired this elderly man to take on this bizzare fitness regimen with a rusty old kettlebell? Everyone thought he has gone crazy. Why would he be exercising at his age? And why these exercises? It seemed pointless until the end. It is worth a watch:

Watching this I got thinking about the end of Shmot, last week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites are enslaved to Pharaoh working tireless in his building projects. Moshe shows up to liberate them from their back breaking work. He asks Pharaoh to let them go three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to God, lest God fall upon them with pestilence or the sword. Pharaoh asked them why they caused the people to rest from their work, and commanded that the taskmasters lay heavier work on them and no longer give them straw to make brick but force them to go and gather straw for themselves to make the same quota of bricks. (Exodus 5: 4-11) The people scattered to gather straw, and the taskmasters beat the Israelite officers, asking why they had not fulfilled the quota of brick production as before.

The Israelites cried to Pharaoh, asking why he dealt so harshly with his servants, but he said that they were idle if they had time to ask to go and sacrifice to God. So the officers met Moshe and Aaron as they came from meeting Pharaoh and accused them of making the Israelites to be abhorrent to Pharaoh. There we read, “May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” (Exodus 5:21) Why are they yelling at Moshe? He was there to liberate them?

Now that Moshe has fomented a revolution- Pharaoh removed the resources needed for the slaved to do their work. Without the straw they needed they are left making crappy bricks. Even as slaves they had a job to do work. Even if they were not valued as human beings, they were the builders of great building. The could take pride in the quality of their work. The hatred to Moshe is because they could not longer see any value of their effort. Slavery was awful, but at the least the had value in their work. Without the needed resources their work was now just toil.

But was that the case? We see later as the Israelites were crossing the Red Sea a different image. They were marching through the mud as the Egyptians were coming for them in their chariots. We know that they water consumed the Egyptians, but how did the Israelited know how to walk across the mud?

All of those years building bricks, even if it was not yielding high quality bricks prepared them for this moment. It was not toil, it was training in how to use their legs to walk through mud. Just as this in the Song of the Sea Moshe says, “In Your great triumph You break Your opponents; You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw.” ( Exodus 15: 7) The slaves were no longer “loathsome to Pharaoh” due to their lack of straw to do quality work. What was perceived as pointless toil who lost hope in their own value redeemed their years of servitude. It is not just that they were liberated as people, their effort itself was redeemed. Like the grandfather in the commercial, what was seen as useless toil was actually very holy work of using our to time meaningfully. It is quoted in the name of Bobby Darin, “It isn’t true that you live only once. You only die once. You live lots of times if you know how.” May we all find meaning in our work and live every day with pride, purpose, and dignity.

Vulture Culture: A Thought on Tzipporah

As some might know the pantheon of ancient Egyptians  was a proverbial menagerie. They personified many of their major gods as birds.  Why they did is open to considerable debate.  Perhaps it was because birds could fly and thus be in areas unattainable by humans or perhaps maybe they were viewed as being powerful for being able to live in the harsh desert conditions.

One of these bird gods of Ancient Egypt was the vulture. The vulture was sacred to the goddess Nekhbet, the goddess of upper Egypt and also Mut, the ‘mother’ goddess.

The vulture represents eternal power and protection.  This makes a lot of sense, since vultures are scavangers by nature, it is no surprise that they had become associated with eternity.  As they eat the flesh of the dead, it can be assumed that they consume the soul of the departed.  When finished the vulture soars off into the sky, carrying the departed soul to heaven. 

The Egyptian dynastic mythology was caught up into immortality, it makes sense that the vulture was very often depicted in association with the many rulers of Egypt.

I was thinking about this culture of vultures when reading Shmot, this week’s Torah portion. There we meet the woman who will become Moshe’s wife Tzipporah. She was one of the seven daughters of Jethro, a Kenite shepherd who was a priest of Midian. There we read:

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moshe rose to their defense, and he watered their flock. When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread.” Moshe consented to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Tzipporah as wife.

Exodus 2:16-21

She has two children with Moshe, but she seems to be an NPC, barring the incident in the inn just before Moshe goes back to Egypt to liberate the Israelites. There we read:

At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when [God] let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

Exodus 4:24-26

Many interpreters depict Moshe as being “lazy” in not circumcising their sons. It is interesting in that a Bris and eating of the Korban Pesach are the two positive commandments for which not doing gets you koret- “cut off” from the Jewish people. In the case of Moshe this was the last thing he needed to do before going to Egypt and for the Israelites the Korban Pesach was the last thing they needed to do before leaving Egypt. In many ways both represent our version of Hernán Cortésburning the ships.

But we should get back to Tzipporah. Why is this her role in the story? We all want life partners who help us succeed and keep our commitments, but what does this have to do with vultures? Well , Tzipporah means bird. And just as the Egyptian vulture goddess represented eternal power and protection, she did this for Moshe.

May we all blessed with a Tzipporah in our lives.

Like a Reed: We Need Agility for Creativity

It is hard to be be creative when your world is falling a part. But in so many ways this is the story of Passover. In many ways when we think about creative breakthroughs we focus on the paradigm shifting moments like the splitting of the Red Sea, but for me I find a lot more inspiration from a different, more subtle, image by the water. I am very moved by the image of Miriam standing in the bulrushes. There we read:

When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?”

Exodus 2: 3-7

It is noteworthy that it is Miriam, Moshe’s sister, and not Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, who is waiting in the bulrushes. Miriam has an idea as to what might happen. She put that idea into the world. When she saw Batya come forward she jumped in and improvised and got her mother in to care for her brother.

People often talk about necessity being the mother of invention, but I believe it is the ability to take a risk and be creative that is actually the sister of invention. Miriam had an idea and then she shifted on the fly to meet the changing needs. If she were too committed to her plan it would have broken like a cedar. Indeed Miriam is not just standing among the reeds, but as a reed.

To be creative we do not need to split the Red Sea, we just need to put ideas out there with confidence without knowing how our offering will be received. We need to let go of our rigidity. If we are too close to ideas we will not be agile enough to allow the idea to morph and flex. To be creative we need to be flexible like a reed. As we learn in the Talmud, “A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar.” (Ta’anit 20a-b)

Merry π Day

Amidst the continued downward spiral and ongoing severity of world events, I needed a break to connect to something stable, constant, even if irrational. On the occasion of March 14th, we celebrate π Day on 3.14. Here is a very informative TED talk on the topic:

While we need to claim that we had it first, I was fascinated to find out recently how long ago our people engaged with this idea of Pi. Way back when in the book of Kings we learn about the Molten Sea or Brazen Sea. This was a large basin in the Temple in Jerusalem made by Solomon (990- 931 BCE)  for ablution of the priests. It stood in the south-eastern corner of the inner court. We read:

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:

An artist’s rendition of the Molten Sea

The biblical description that the bowl has a diameter of 10 cubits and a circumference of 30 cubits suggest that in the construction of the basin, π was approximated with the integer value 3. This is consistent with the practice in Babylonian mathematics at the time (6th century BC), but it has given rise to debate within rabbinical Judaism from an early period due to the concern that the biblical text might here be inaccurate. Rabbi Nehemiah in the 2nd century argued that the text is not claiming that π equals 3, but that instead the Israelites measured the diameter from the outside edge of the rim of the bowl. After accounting for the width of the brim—”about an hand breadth”—this results in a ratio closer to the true value of π.

The Vilna Gaon pointed to the fact that the word for measuring line in the respective verses (1 Kings 7:23, 2 Chronicles 4:2) is written in two different ways, as קוה and קו. That hints to two different measures. If the Hebrew letters are read as numbers, the first form of the word for measuring line adds to 111 and the second form to 106. The relation i.e. the quotient of these two measuring tapes is 1.0472. And if this number, the relation of these two measuring tapes, is multiplied with Solomon’s simple π of 3, the result reads: 3.1416, much closer to the exact value of π.

It is easy to dispute all of these apologies for π, but sometimes amidst the chaos it is comforting to find meaning in things that are predictably irrational.

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.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 242 other subscribers

Archive By Topic

%d bloggers like this: