The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
When the Jewish People were about to build their first synagogue — the sanctuary in the desert — the architects were told by God to design a sculpture to sit above the holy ark. “Two cherubim, two angel-like figures shall be chiseled on each end of the cover. And the cherubim shall have their wings spread upwards — toward heaven — with their faces turned toward one another.” (Exodus 25:18-20)
Here, in just two sentences, we have a blueprint for the purpose of the desert Sanctuary built by Moses, in Parashah Vayakhel, long ago and the shul built by the Jew today.
And the cherubim shall have their wings spread upwards as if flying toward the heavens. The function of a synagogue is primarily to lift us heavenward, to lift us out of the everyday earthliness and to lead us to higher ideals. We enter the synagogue to soar and take flight.
The challenge of our age lies in the fact that it is all too easy to fall into the quicksand of materialism. Like the young man who went on a date and for three hours spoke about himself: his accomplishments and successes. Finally, he turned to the woman and said: “Enough about me, let’s talk about you. Tell me, what do you think of me?” Instead of flying upward like the cherubim, that man was stuck in quicksand of self-interest with his wings buried deep in the earth. Too often, without meaning to, we resemble that guy.
The task of a shul and the prayer that happens there is to help us outgrow our self-centeredness and lead us upward and Godward in life.
But the synagogue must not stop there. It is not enough for us to direct our thoughts upward. The text goes further. The cherubim were represented not only as flying upward but “with their faces turned toward one another.” (See also Talmud Bava Batra 99a and II Chronicles 3:13)
Here again the function of a synagogue is beautifully expressed — to turn the faces of people toward one another and to promote friendship and community.
I love the story about the poor man who tried to get into an exclusive synagogue. They were too polite to tell him that they didn’t want to let him in. So they put him off with one excuse after another until, finally, the poor man gets the idea.
One day he went to the synagogue only to be rebuffed once again, and as he was walking away, depressed, he chanced to meet God, and God asked, “Why do you look sad?”
The man said, “Because I’ve been trying to get into that shul for months and I can’t get in.”
God says, “You are in good company. I’ve been trying to get into that shul for decades, and I can’t get in, either.”
It makes no difference how grand the synagogue. Either kindness and generosity are there, or else God is not there and the shul loses its meaning. A building is just a building. The magic is what happens inside it.
There are two English words that perfectly represent the contrast of the earthly and the heavenly, and the thin but vital line between them: “soil” and “soul.” The word “soil” represents the material side of existence and “soul” the spiritual.
What is the difference in their spelling?
The “I” vs. the “U.” But this distinction makes all the difference! When you are concerned only with “I,” you are leading an earthly life. But when you are focused on “U,” you are concerned about others, you are living a spiritual life. You’ve become like a cherub — you are flying and facing others, taking them along with you into the heavens.
But the task of the synagogue does not stop when we turn our gaze to others. Our text pursues the theme even further. Note that the two cherubim are not to be placed close to each other. On the contrary, they are placed on the opposite ends of the cover. Though the cherubim are far removed from one another, nevertheless, their faces are to be turned toward each other.
What a relevant lesson for our times, when Judaism has fractured into different denominations, like islands with few bridges between them.
We are apt to turn our faces toward those whom we regard as “good Jews.” So our text emphasizes that even though we are removed from our fellow Jews, even though they are on the other side of the Jewish spectrum — at the other end of the ark — we must still look upon them as brothers and sisters. We remain one family, especially to those who seem far away from us.
Rabbi Aryeh Levin was walking in his neighborhood in Jerusalem one day when he noticed a soldier who was home on leave from his military service. The rabbi knew him from the neighborhood, so he crossed the street to greet him. “Shalom,” he said. “Please come to my home. I would like to drink tea with you and hear about your activities.”
“I don’t think it’s right for me to visit you,” the soldier replied. “I’m not religious anymore. I dropped it all. Can’t you see, I don’t wear a kippah anymore? In fact, I threw it out.”
Levin took the soldier’s hand in his own and said, “Don’t you see? I’m short. I see you, but I cannot look up so high as to notice whether you are wearing a kippah. But I can see your heart, and your heart is big and kind. You are a soldier placing your life at risk for all of us in Israel. Please drink tea with me; your kippah is probably bigger than mine.”
That is how we should turn to a Jew on the opposite side of us. Don’t look for what they may be doing wrong. Look for what they are doing right, find their mitzvah, their particular radiance. Tell them how special they are, and how much the Jewish people need them.
“From opposite ends of the ark-cover shall you make the two cherubim.”
That is how we build a loving Jewish community. What animosity and strife could be avoided in the Jewish world if only we were to absorb this Divine truth, which the Torah so vividly communicates to us.