This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, contains exquisitely detailed instructions for the building of the mishkan, the portable dwelling-place for God that our ancestors created in the wilderness. But there’s one element in the design that is intriguingly vague: the instruction to place two kruvim atop the ark.
It’s possible that our Biblical forebears knew what kruvim looked like, so Torah didn’t feel the need to offer blueprints. And it’s possible that the kruvim were ineffable even then.
All we know is that they are made of gold, and they have wings, and they face each other. Well, in this week’s Torah portion they face each other. In the book of Chronicles we read that when the Temple was built, the kruvim faced the Temple, not each other.
Given these two disparate descriptions, our sages decided that the kruvim had a mystical ability to move in imitation of us. When we in the community follow the mitzvot and treat each other lovingly, then the kruvim face each other in I/Thou relationship, as do we. When we reject the mitzvot and treat each other dishonorably, then the kruvim turn away from each other, as we have turned away from each other and from God. The keruvim become our mirror.
I had the opportunity recently to study a short text from the Aish Kodesh, a collection of teachings by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira who was the rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto. He writes that when we stand before God in prayer, when we speak to God as a “you” (in Martin Buber’s language, a “thou”), we draw forth that aspect of God with Whom we can be in relationship. When we do that, we find God’s presence in the act of prayer — or maybe we find our own presence, our own deepest selves revealed to us.
We read in Proverbs that כַּמַּיִם, הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם לָאָדָם: just as water reflects our faces back to us, so our hearts can reflect us to each other. When I connect to you as a “thou,” I see myself reflected in your heart. When I connect to God a a “thou,” my yearning calls forth divine presence, and I see myself reflected in the Divine. Because I seek, God becomes revealed — and so do I. God becomes the mirror in which I see my deepest self most fully.
And that brings me back to the kruvim in this week’s Torah portion, which are also a kind of mirror. When we yearn for connection, and act out of that yearning, they face each other in mirror image. When we lose sight of our yearning for God, our yearning for connection and holiness, our yearning for sanctified relationship, the mirroring goes away. They no longer face each other, as we and God no longer face each other, and we lose the mirror in which we might have seen ourselves and God more deeply.
Spiritual life is a journey of constant rising and falling, waking and falling asleep, trying and failing and trying again. We strive to be the best people we can be. Then we notice that we’ve lost track of our best intentions. Then we turn ourselves around to try again. That existential act of turning ourselves around to try again is what our tradition calls teshuvah, repentance or return.
Making teshuvah is our perennial task — not only during Elul and the Days of Awe (though we talk a lot about teshuvah at that season) but always. We can make teshuvah each week before Shabbat, and each night before sleep. It’s our task to notice where we’ve fallen away and to turn back: to re-enter into relationship with the tradition and with our fellow human beings and with God.
When we turn to face each other, there’s the potential for experiencing God’s presence in the space between us, the relational space, the I/Thou space, like the relational space between the kruvim of old from which God’s voice was said to issue forth. When we turn to face God, we prime the pump for revelation — and whether it’s revelation of God’s self, or revelation of our own deepest self, doesn’t really matter. Either way, we open the door to our own transformation.
This is the d’var Torah that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi).
- Gaze, a poem that draws on these teachings from the Aish Kodesh, 2017
- The Space Between, about the kruvim and God’s voice issuing forth from between them, 2016