Moses and the Tent of Meeting

One of the more peculiar sections in the Torah comes at the end of this week’s Torah portion, when we close the Book of Exodus. We are told that “Moses could not enter the אהל מועד, the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and G-d’s presence filled the Tabernacle.”[1] Moses, the one who spoke to G-d פנים אל פנים, face to face, had limitations on when he could connect with G-d! Rashi also finds this perplexing, point out that “another verse states ‘when Moses would come to the tent of meeting.’”[2] The answer is brought by a third verse, that great principle of Rabbi Ishmael, which says “for the cloud rested upon it”; while the cloud was on it Moses was unable to enter, and when the cloud was raised up, Moses would enter and was with G-d.

This demonstrates that even Moses’ contact with G-d had limits. He was only able to have a direct encounter with G-d at certain times, when G-d gave him permission. This teaches us that even Moses had limits. In his article “Leading from Within,” Parker Palmer writes about five “shadows” that leaders face. One of the shadows is functional atheism, a belief that “everything rests with me.”[3] Moses had begun to overcome his functional atheism in Parshat Yitro, when he heeded his father-in-law’s advice and established other judges to hear cases. Two weeks ago, in Parshat Ki Tisa, Moses implored G-d to let him see G-d’s face, and G-d only let him see His back.[4] Here Moses finally recognized that as great a leader as he is, his relationship with G-d has limits. He needs to do some personal tzimtzum, contracting his self-grandeur and only entering into face-to-face, פנים אל פנים, relationship with G-d when granted permission.[5]

I will never forget a conversation I had while doing a rabbinic internship with the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs in Chicago.  Two days a week I went into South Chicago to work at the Inner City Muslim Action Network: a Jew working with Muslims to do criminal justice reform to largely benefit African American Christians. I am by nature a person who likes excitement and adventure, wanting to change the world, and I was frustrated that some days were slow at the office. I spoke with my mentor, Kyle Ismail, who said to me, “Ben-you care about doing, but just your being present here means a great deal.”

I was flummoxed by Kyle’s statement: being present? Aren’t we supposed to be doing things to make a difference? After all, we do a lot in Judaism, whether it is preparing for Shabbat, coming together for daily minyan, or participating in programming like Casino Night in March and Sandwich Sunday in early April. Yet I think there is an inherent truth in knowing our personal limits and when we must undertake some tzimtzum, changing our focus from doing to being present with whatever we are encountering. Moses is often thought of as impatient, one who wants to lead through action, yet here he waits until the moment is right for him to enter into relationship with G-d.

As we conclude the Book of Exodus, a book centered on journey from slavery into the first stages of freedom, and we transition into Leviticus, a collection of laws that largely do not apply to us without a centralized Temple in Jerusalem, let us take a step back, doing our own personal tzimtzum, being patient for the right moments to step forward and waiting when the time is not right. May we learn this lesson from Moses’ example and make it our own.

[1] Exodus 40:35

[2] Numbers 7:89

[3] Parker Palmer, “Leading from Within” in Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers, 2000), p. 9.

[4] Exodus 33

[5] See Or HaChaim Exodus 40:35 ד”ב ולא יכול משה לבא אל אהל מועד

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The Cherubim Protecting the Ark

Raise your hand if you have an amulet, a piece of jewelry warding off evil forces. For those of you who do not have your hands up, do you have a hamsa to ward off the evil eye? When I went on the 2015 Jericho Jewish Center Congregational Israel trip, I brought back hamsas for all of the office staff.

The device protecting our ancestors was not a hamsa but rather the Cherubim. In Parshat VaYakhel we read ויהיו הכרבים פרשי כנפים למעלה סוככים בכנפיהם על-הכפרת ופניהם איש אל-אחיו אל-הכפרת היו פני הכרבים, “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 towards the cover.”[1] This was not just an elaborate art piece; the cherubim were supposed to protect the ark and the tablets therein.

The first mention of the cherubim appears in Genesis after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. We read there וישכן מקדם לגן-עדן את-הכרבים, ואת להט החרב המתהפכת לשמר את-דרך עץ החיים.

“G-d placed the cherubim at the east end of the Garden of Eden and gave them a flaming sword which turned each way to guard the Tree of Life.”[2] G-d’s given reason for expelling Adam and Eve was not that they sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, but rather that they would eat from the Tree of Life and become immortal. Therefore, he needed to enlist the cherubim to protect the Tree of Life.

In our Prophets class, we recently began the Book of Ezekiel. In one of Ezekiel’s visions he wrote about the cherubim and their role. He writes: “Then G-d departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim.  While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground…”[3]  The cherubim are thus serving as G-d’s protectors, following G-d’s movement. That is their function in the Tabernacle as well-to protect the Ark, the place in which G-d dwells when G-d is directly encountering Israel.

The idea of the cherubim serving as a source of protection, like our hamsas or “red threads,” is one to which I hold dear. They are, in Samson Raphael Hirsch’s words, the “guardians of the Torah.” Hirsch asserts that the cherubim are not an end unto themselves but rather they “depict Israel and show them how they are to emerge, as a consequence of their accomplishing the keeping of the Torah.” He goes on to say, “If Israel keeps the Torah which is entrusted to it, with gold-like firmness and strength…being one of the bearers of the Glory of God on earth-then Israel will become a pair in cherubim who in mutual respect and consideration are peacefully directed one to the other, each one there for the other, each entrusted to the other-in brotherly co-operation, a whole nation keeping and protecting the Torah, and together in achieving a throne for the glory of G-d on earth.”[4]

Our actions have an impact on the cosmos. Through living a life of Torah, we can become a cherub, a מלאך, an emissary for G-d. Our actions have a greater impact than we can fathom, and through guarding the Torah, we become protectors of the Torah. Hirsch brings home to us the direct role we can have in being the stewards of Torah. It is not to us to look externally for where the angels and messengers of G-d are; rather we need to become those emissaries, the ones who protect Torah.

As we prepare to conclude reading about the Tabernacle, the first House of G-d, let us think about what we can do to bring Torah into the world and to protect its importance. Perhaps a start is to turn towards each other with kindness and love, recognizing that we are all trying to accomplish the same goal even if we go about it in different ways. May we have success in working together as guardians of Torah and yiddishkeit.

[1] Exodus 37:9

[2] Genesis 3:24

[3] Ezekiel 10:18-19

[4] Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exodus 25:20 ד”ה סוככים בכנפיהם על-הכפרת