Posts Tagged 'Cherubim'

Christina’s Yearning

One of my favorite paintings is Andrew Newell Wyeth‘s Christina’s World (1948). Perhaps his most famous image, it depicts his neighbor, Christina Olson, sprawled on a dry field facing her house in the distance. It seems that Wyeth was inspired by Christina, who, crippled with polio and unable to walk, spent most of her time at home.

Christinasworld.jpg

Besides his attentions to the details of the field, the Olson farm,  the colors, and the shading, the greatness of this piece is how his painting depicts movement. We the viewer join her in her  desire to crawl home. It is hard to look at this and not to experience the emotion of yearning.

I was thinking about Wyeth’s painting when reading Terumah, this week’s Torah portion, in which  we read about the construction of the Aron, Holy Ark. There we read:

 17 And you shall make an ark-cover of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. 18 And you shall make two Cherubim of gold; of beaten work shall you make them, at the two ends of the ark-cover. 19 And make one Cherub at the one end, and one Cherub at the other end; of one piece with the ark-cover you shall make the Cherubim of the two ends thereof. 20 And the Cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover shall the faces of the Cherubim be. ( Exodus 25:17-20)

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? Rabbi Kattina’s Cherubim spent much of the year frozen and reaching out for each other. Like Wyeth’s Christina caught struggling to get home, the Cherubim are perpetually caught in a state of yearning for each other.

I have been thinking about this on the occasion of having recently turned 40. I am sure that I am not alone in still thinking of myself as an 18-year-old. It has been hard to come to grips with the fact that my children are much closer to my imagined age then I am. My father-in-law said it well in a very touching birthday note. He wrote, “today you are 18 years old with 22 years of experience. In other words, it is all about attitude in life. You are living your life to the fullest, always searching to maximize your opportunities and experiences.” We are always reaching and yearning for things that are out of reach, being the Olson Farm ,the other Cherub, or being 18 again. On the occasion of reaching  this milestone it is important to take stock of how many things I have been able to reach in my life. I have been blessed with an amazing wife, a beautiful family, and meaningful work that I enjoy doing. What am I really yearning for? What do I want to accomplish with the rest of my time on this earth? Reaching this milestone has helped me focus in on the things I still want to do with my life.  I am confident that best is still ahead of me.

-for more on Wyeth  check out Artsy’s Andrew Wyeth page

Cherubim in the Knesset

In Terumah, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the construction of the Aron, Holy Ark. There we read:

 17 And you shall make an ark-cover of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. 18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shall you make them, at the two ends of the ark-cover. 19 And make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the ark-cover you shall make the cherubim of the two ends thereof. 20 And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover shall the faces of the cherubim be. ( Exodus 25:17-20)

This is at once our most holy image and one which is just too hard to understand. 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.)

I love this image. Not because of its hetero-normative assumption around coupling, but rather because of the public modelling of affection. There we were the whole nation coming together in Jerusalem to see this powerful image. Where as all year these angelic figures are locked in a the moment before an embrace, in the company of the people joining together they do the same.

This gendered image took on a whole new valence when I had the pleasure of watching Dr. Ruth Calderone’s recent speech as a new member of the Knesset. I encourage you to watch it.

Simply put, Dr. Calderone a secular Talmud scholar gave a great shiur, class, to a room full of Kippot. There she quotes the Talmudic story.

Rabbi Rechumei was constantly before Rava in Mechoza. He would habitually come home every Yom Kippur eve. One day the topic drew him in. His wife anticipated him: “Here he comes. Here he comes.” He didn’t come. She became upset. She shed a tear from her eye. He was sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him, and he died. ( Ketuvot 62:)

At the end of her talk she artfully applied her interpretation of this story to the current state of affairs in Israel. She said:

I learn that often, in a dispute, both sides are right, and until I understand that both my disputant and I, both the woman and Rabbi Rechumei, feel that they are doing the right thing and are responsible for the home. Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work while others sit on the roof and study Torah; sometimes those others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition, Torah, and our culture while we go to the beach and have a blast. Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding. I aspire to bring about a situation in which Torah study is the heritage of all Israel, in which the Torah is accessible to all who wish to study it, in which all young citizens of Israel take part in Torah study as well as military and civil service. Together we will build this home and avoid disappointment. (Translated by Elli Fischer)

The Rabbi Rechumei and woman in Israeli society seem to represent the male and female faces of the Cherubim. For so long the male and female seemed to pitted against each other. After her talk I cannot say that they are locked in an embrace. There was clearly a lot of tension in the room. But there was this amazing moment when the Chairman of the Knesset Yitzhak Vaknin of the religious Shas party interrupted her and joined in the discussion of the Talmud she was teaching. Some where offended that he interrupted her. Dr. Calderone responded, ” I am happy about this participation in words of Torah.” It seemed like a very holy moment. At this moment the Cherubim were  looking at each other. It would seem that we need to make the rest happen. We the people need to reconnect and come together. We need to fall in love again and get lost in the eyes of the other. When we all grow toward appreciating the diversity of our Jewish culture the fractured elements of our society will become  inter-twisted with one another. That would be a festive day.


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