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Yom Kippur: Between the Wings of the Cherubim

by Rabbi Benjamin Barnett | Published on September 22, 2007

This summer I read an essay by Barbara Kingsolver called “Small Wonder.” It is a response to the post-9/11 world, through the eyes of a novelist and poet. I want to thank Gordon Grant, who recom­mended that I read it. Or maybe it was more like demanded that I read it. When he handed me the tape from which he had listened to it, since it was following his eye oper­a­tion, he said simply, “You have to check out the story about the bear.”

So, the story about the bear, a true story, in short, goes like this: In a remote Iranian village, a sixteen-month old boy wandered off. After a few days and nights of terror spent by the boys’ parents and other loved ones, the boy was found by the father and his search party, five kilo­me­ters outside of the village, curled in the arms of a she-bear. The boy was safe, warm, and smelling of milk.

Kingsolver poses the ques­tion we each might ask: “How is it possible that a huge, hungry bear would take a piti­fully small, deli­cate human child to her breast rather than rip him into food?” In answering her own ques­tion, she continues,

But she was a mammal, a mother. She was lactating, so she must have had young of her own somewhere—possibly killed, or dead of disease, so that she was driven by the pure chem­istry of mater­nity to take this small, warm neonate to her belly and hold him there, gently. You could read this story and declare “impos­sible,” even though many witnesses have sworn it’s true. Or you could read this story and think of how warm lives are drawn to one another in cold places, think of the uncon­quer­able force of a mother’s love, the fact of the DNA code that we share in its great majority with other mammals—you could think of all that and say, Of course the bear nursed the baby. He was crying from hunger, she had milk. Small wonder.

Kingsolver describes the story as “a parable that I keep turning over in my mind, a message from some gentler universe than this one. I carry it like a trea­sure map while I look for the place where I’ll under­stand its meaning.”

So where might this trea­sure map lead us?

I’d like to begin down that trail with the help of another parable of sorts. This one is about a calf, and two winged, angelic crea­tures called cherubim. It begins with the birth of a people, named the Children of Israel, who were born through the straits of the Sea of Reeds, other­wise known as the Red Sea. They were led by a prophet named Moses, who was guided by a God named Ehyeh, “I Am,” or “I Will Be.” When the Children of Israel reached a moun­tain called Sinai in the midst of the wilder­ness, Moses left them and ascended the moun­tain to meet with Ehyeh and receive the teaching to guide his people. But he was gone for some time, forty days in all. And before he returned, the people grew anxious and felt alone and unstable out there in the wilder­ness. They asked Moses’ brother Aaron to make them another god, anything to give them a sense of secu­rity. Aaron agreed to do so, and gath­ering the gold from all their jewelry, made it into a molten calf. The people rejoiced, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Upon hearing and seeing this spec­tacle, Ehyeh and his prophet Moses grew angry. But after some raging and tablet-smashing, Ehyeh took mercy on the Children of Israel, and agreed to give them some­thing through which they could feel a sense of his presence.

This God told the Children of Israel to build a Mishkan, a portable sanc­tuary that would accom­pany them on their wandering through the wilder­ness. Within it, they could worship God in right fashion. At the center of the Mishkan, on top of the cover of the ark in which sat the tablets of the teaching, would be placed two gold cherubim—these winged, angelic crea­tures. They would face one another. God revealed to Moses, “There I will make Myself known to you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”

Within Jewish tradi­tion, it is the building and worshiping of the golden calf, rather than the eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden, that is the quin­tes­sen­tial biblical sin. “This is your god.” That, in my opinion, is the essence of the trans­gres­sion. It was that the people could point to a solid object, one that they could see and touch, and say this. This is God.

In the Mishkan, God is portrayed not in the object itself, but in the empty space between. God meets the chil­dren of Israel in an unde­fined terri­tory. The pointing, in this case, is merely a pointing toward.

For years I have reflected upon this distinc­tion between the golden calf and the Mishkan, the solid object and the space in between solidity, and derived the message that God is a mystery, unknow­able and distinct from this world in which we dwell. And I would not refute that. It is simply that the realm of the myste­rious has grown in my mind. As we assert that God is a mystery that cannot be made molten, so we affirm that life resists a mold just the same.

Any parable, whether about a bear and a baby, or a calf, two cherubim, and a God named “I Am,” comes to teach us about our own lives. Surely we would not take from the parable of the bear that we should feel free to leave our young chil­dren unat­tended, at the mercy of nature’s wild forces. Only a fool would walk away trusting so blindly as to assume that no harm will ever come if we simply do no harm to another. Rather, the tale asks us to consider that within every she-bear, every fero­cious man-eating she-bear, there is a mother. There is a beating heart that longs to nurture and be nurtured. It’s a parable and so, even though this one is true, it is far-fetched. As a parable, it serves as a metaphor for life, for human life. Seen in this way, it is not so far-fetched. Through it, we are being asked to recog­nize the humanity, not of bears, but of humans.

I have yet to meet a human being that I can sum up in a nutshell, that I can mold into a solid repre­sen­ta­tion, that I can nail down and say “this.” We are all far richer than our last act, infi­nitely more dynamic than the impres­sions others form of us. Our tradi­tion teaches that each person is an entire world. We each, every human being on this earth, contain an abun­dance of dreams and expe­ri­ences that collec­tively form who we are. And yet I find that it takes great effort to resist casting others in a fixed image. The tragedy of making people an inch tall, as I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, is not simply that they become small, it is that they become limited. They become frozen in our impres­sion of them. We see a solid frag­ment where there in facts lives an ocean of being.

Some time ago, a person emailed me a harsh response to an article I had written. He made grand, reac­tionary pronounce­ments about the impli­ca­tions of my state­ments. Upon first reading it, I was shaken. I had the urge to fire off an equally biting email in return. Instead, I took my time and composed a confi­dent yet concil­ia­tory letter. I appre­ci­ated his passion, and iden­ti­fied a number of concerns that we shared about the situ­a­tion at hand. I humbly responded to each of his attacks, and invited him to continue the dialogue or not. I thanked him for writing.

In the next email, he asked me to excuse his “hot-headed” email. He returned to the issues more thought­fully and respect­fully, despite our disagree­ments. He sent another email imme­di­ately following, a post­script. He reflected on the stages of his first reading my article, then writing me, and then receiving my response. This is what he wrote: “You went from someone to whom I reacted only as a catch phrase, to someone who provided an empathic response, which helped tremen­dously in my being able to humanize and tune in with you for more construc­tive dialogue. I guess that’s a general rule of life.”

What a turn­around! I really didn’t do anything profound, except to refrain from biting back. That was all he needed to be able to, as he said, humanize me. Amazing when we put it like this, but sometimes—often—it takes quite an effort simply to humanize a human being. Before that moment, I was little more than, in his words, a “catch phrase.” What a perfect expres­sion. He located a phrase through which he was able to catch me: To bottle me, to cast me in a mold and say, “this.” And then I surprised him; because that mold is not me. Once he recog­nized that I actu­ally wanted to interact with him, human to human, rather than fire simplistic attacks at one another’s dimin­ished cari­ca­tures, we found our way to a warm, if at times heated, dialogue. I love his closing line: “I guess that’s a general rule of life,” he said. Yes, that is it exactly. It is a general rule of life. Not a precise law that can be held up against every chal­lenge. If one were so inclined, he or she could offer count­less exam­ples demon­strating that people cannot be trusted to respond in kind. But in my expe­ri­ence, this is a general prin­ciple that holds true far more often than not: When we extend ourselves in humility, respect, and curiosity we have a tendency to disarm those who might other­wise view us as their adversaries.

Barbara Kingsolver unpacks the parable of the bear on a global scale. The leap to that from the inter­per­sonal is natural. She ques­tions the fixed and certain nature with which we often view the world and its inhab­i­tants. As we do with indi­vid­uals, so we do with entire groups of people. Having grown up in Kentucky, she reflects back on begin­ning first grade in a segre­gated public school. She asserts that the borders by which we define our society—physical, intel­lec­tual, economic and otherwise—demand constant rein­force­ment, or else they crumble. They do not hold up on their own, she argues, but rather aim to create fixity where it is neither neces­sary nor helpful. She asks us to consider the notion that, as in the case of racial segre­ga­tion and count­less other soci­etal assump­tions of law and truth, there are ways in which we see the world today that will simi­larly pass away with time. In regards to her expe­ri­ence with de-segregation, she writes, “Time and again the bear they had sworn would rip us limb from limb was begrudg­ingly allowed a place at the table, and behold, it used a fork and a spoon.”

When we refuse to have our assump­tions ques­tioned or chal­lenged, we arrive at funda­men­talism. We assert that we can know perfectly, that we can cast a mold and say “this:” this bear; this god; this people.

Fundamentalism is, sadly, not absent from Judaism. But when I look at our tradi­tion, I see corri­dors through which to walk in embrace of genuine ques­tioning and ambi­guity. Some of you have heard me share the finale to the famous argu­ment between two main schools of rabbis, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. Regarding their disparate stances, the Talmud ulti­mately declares, “These and these are the words of the living God.” The two schools could have been torn apart by conflict. Instead, they each assumed a wide enough perspec­tive to imagine the possi­bility that their way was not the only way. We, in turn, are asked to hold the complexity of the multi­va­lent world in which we live. The model of Hillel and Shammai, in which we honor different and even opposing beliefs and prac­tices, flies in the face of funda­men­talism. All the way back to the Bible, we are given heroes such as Abraham, who argues with God when he learns of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. And our very name, Israel, is bestowed upon Jacob, for he was Yisrael—one who strug­gled with God. We are not asked to believe that life or God is cast in a mold. Rather, we are urged to expe­ri­ence them as living, breathing real­i­ties demanding open­ness and imagination.

There was a recent memoir published about the Bush White House, by jour­nalist Robert Draper, enti­tled Dead Certain. It’s quite a title. I’ve never given much thought before to the expres­sion, “dead certain.” It seems to say that the clearest picture of certainty we can attain is in death, when all has been laid to rest. Anything living contains too much move­ment to be cast with as much certainty. The golden calf is dead. The space in between the cherubim pulses with life. When the pres­i­dent says, “You’re either with us or against us,” he casts our national iden­tity in stone, draining its life and creativity. According to a review in the New York Times, the memoir, written with the help of unprece­dented insider access, including several personal inter­views with the pres­i­dent, tells of how President Bush “dislikes crit­i­cism and bad news.” The review states that the book is “studded with exam­ples — on matters ranging from the Iraq war to Hurricane Katrina — of aides failing to deliver distressing infor­ma­tion to the pres­i­dent or failing to persuade him to grapple quickly with unfor­tu­nate devel­op­ments.” I have no wish to focus on the pres­i­dent. I must recog­nize that there is much more to him that I know. But as he presents himself, or is presented, to the world, he repre­sents one of the greatest public denials of the essen­tial ambi­guity of our exis­tence in this life. I am not surprised to hear that he avoids distressing infor­ma­tion and unfor­tu­nate devel­op­ments. Such a world­view is like a heavily inflated balloon that allows nothing in, or even near, at risk of the whole thing popping.

Unfortunately for our world, funda­men­talism tends to breed more of its kind. I have been disheart­ened by the number of inter­ac­tions I have had with fellow critics of the pres­i­dent, who cast their argu­ment in simi­larly extreme language. The dehu­man­iza­tion simply shifts parties. I have been partic­u­larly saddened, because it touches our commu­nity and a place I think of as a home, by those who have turned such rhetoric on Israel. I had a recent exchange with an indi­vidual who refused to acknowl­edge any suffering or fear on the part of Israelis. In speaking with him, I was terri­fied by the lack of recog­ni­tion of any ambi­guity in the situ­a­tion. Israel was synony­mous with oppressor. It was clear, as I proposed the most basic of vali­da­tions for Israel in a gentle and reason­able manner, that his views were simply too fixed to enter­tain such complexity. At some point, as we all do in some way or another, he chose his black and his white, his good and his evil. Allowing them to mix feels at times too complex to bear.

At the same time, I have had diffi­cult conver­sa­tions about Israel with fellow Jews, some of whom refuse to see the Palestinians as anything but terror­ists. Another balloon, another golden calf. Where are the cherubim when we need them? In my time in Israel and the Territories, I have seen enough to know that there is much I do not know, more beyond what I can see. The Palestinian people, like the Israeli people, like the American people, like the Iraqi people, are made up of indi­vid­uals. All I need is to behold one human life, one human face, one dinner table, one walk to school, to know that I cannot sum it up in a nutshell.

I see the poten­tial chal­lenge, that what I am saying amounts to moral rela­tivism. But oper­ating from recog­ni­tion of ambi­guity does not mean that we refrain from making choices. We take stances. We exer­cise discern­ment. But what would our lives look like, what would the world look like, if we each began the discern­ment process from an appre­ci­a­tion of uncer­tainty? What if we put that foot forward in initi­ating each inter­ac­tion, however large or small? What if we simply held onto the possi­bility that our assump­tions may be wrong, or at the very least, incom­plete? If we reminded ourselves that within the she-bear there lives a mother?

Jewish tradi­tion teaches me to measure myself not by knowl­edge, but by learning. It guides me in empha­sizing human rela­tion­ship over the need to be right. It affirms that in life there is endless possibility.

In the year to come, let us set aside our golden calves, and instead meet the world from between the wings of the cherubim.

Gamar Hatimah Tovah. May we be sealed for a good and healthy year—all of us, all Israel, and all who dwell on earth.

Rabbi Benjamin Barnett serves as the rabbi of Beit Am in Corvallis, Oregon. A partic­i­pant and facil­i­tator on the first two Encounter trips in 2005, he has chan­neled that expe­ri­ence into leading dialogues within the Jewish commu­nity regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During his time living in Israel and trav­eling in the West Bank, Benjamin strove to encounter the humanity of each person, on all sides of the conflict. This aspi­ra­tion forms the core of his rabbinic work, as well as in leading a diverse Jewish commu­nity. A prac­ti­tioner and teacher of contem­pla­tive prayer and mind­ful­ness medi­ta­tion, he views these prac­tices as vehi­cles for culti­vating a more mature and respon­sive aware­ness through which to meet the Other. A grad­uate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Benjamin has lived and learned in Jewish commu­ni­ties across the reli­gious spec­trum. He and his wife Rachel live in Corvallis with their children—Lev, Arava and Judah.

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