Shabbat from the Monkeys
I plan to teach about monkeys. It is unbelievable, but one can learn Torah from
monkeys, just as we speak about humans behaving like monkeys, monkeying around,
or , the famous phrase, perhaps attributed to Darwin, " Well, I’ll be a
will get to my monkeys later, and first look at our
opening verses, we read of six days work, and of the seventh day of rest. This
statements precedes the description of the making of the sanctuary, and it was
out there to remind us of the sanctity of Shabbat. This warning to keep the
Shabbat is placed several times through the Torah, always in the context of
instructions to build the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. Just last week, we had this
similar warning, written to cap of the instructions for appointing the master
architects, Bezalel and Oholiab, and had in it the lines we sing today, when we
make the Kiddush over wine—Veshamru benay Yisrael.
Shabbat is unique and special, and not to be misused or abused, or violated,
except if human life itself is at stake.
At least, Shabbat was, before we became so modern, and
so drawn up in the hustle and bustle of contemporary life. The Torah made a
specific point, in this opening statement, to remind us to all make the pause
in life that is Shabbat, before we lose track of our lives.
does Shabbat convey--what does it mean for a committed Jew?
answer with the words to a folk song, in Yiddish. Not all Jews spoke Yiddish,
for sure, but the sentiments were true in Ladino, Arabic, and Persian as well.
opening is very international--ay de day di day di day ay di day day day. This
is easy for everyone.
But, then it goes
on, in Yiddish:
Shabbes, Shabbes, Shabbes, zoll sein immer shabbes;
shabbes zoll sein, shabbes zol sein, shabbes oif di ganze welt: To put it into simple English--for the rest of
us--Shabbat, Shabbat, Shabbat, may it always be Shabbat; may it always be Shabbat
for the entire world.
means an extra spirit, an extra soul, neshamah yeteirah; it means, in
the words of human potential pyschologists--self-actualization, or, in the
words of the army recruiting song, "Be all that you can be, on Shabbes."
A physician, and philosopher,, of Renaiscence Italy, Rabbi
Ovadiah Sforno explained the words Shavat vayinafash, “God rested and restored
his soul”. Sforno taught that this sense of yinafash ,regaining one's
soul, is the very goal of our existence, as intended us when God said,"'
Let us make Adam in our image".
teacher, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught us something very
precious about the time we have.
usually speak of "killing time" or "passing time". Heschel
taught us that time is not something to be killed, nor to be passed; rather, it
is most precious to us. After all, he said,” the years of our lives are of
absolute importance to us."
" Judaism is a religion of time, aimed at the
sanctification of time, because no two hours are alike... and only one given to
the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious."
entitled his major work on Shabbat An Island In Time. This is our
island. An island in time can be taken anywhere with us, no matter where we
are. Even in the concentration camps, under the bleakest of situations, there
were Jews who managed to save a little island of Shabbat, by scraping a few
pieces of wax or fat together to light a Shabbat candle.
sacred to us, as it become sanctified, as we say, in the kiddush and the
amidah , God is mekadesh hashabbat-God has sanctified the
for us, contemporary Jews, Shabbat has fallen victim, to two dangerous trends,
which I will call-- too much and too little.
much strictness, which well-meaning and devout Jews planted into the observance
of Shabbat, which changed its mood and atmosphere, and too little love of
Shabbat, which easily falls victim to the normal destruction of life which our
modern civilization carries on.
making of mitzvot there is no end, and it seems, no end to the intricacies of Shabbat.
Our Torah and our sages intended to keep us away
from any constructive activity-- they discerned basic categories of
work--activities that were part of the basic economic necessities of the day--agriculture, construction, commerce,
with its possible implications, as well.
ancestors, it was in just this meticulous observance of the finest detail, that
they found the way to heaven. But sometimes, they also blocked the way to
complaint was made over two centuries ago, when all Jews were observant Jews.
I want to share with you this tale, told by
the Rabbi of Sadigur, :
Baal Shem Tov once had a dream: he was taken to see heaven, gan eden,
and hell, gehenna. If he would use his intelligence, he would go to
heaven, but if he failed, he would, unfortunately, be condemned to go down
place, he was told, he would have a partner.
Who was to be his partner in heaven? A very simple Jew,
uneducated, living in the midst of non-Jews, assimilated, and he had only one
vestige left of his Judaism--on Shabbat, he would host a banquet for his
Baal Shem Tov was intrigued. Why do you host this banquet, he asked the man in
" I don't know,” he replied, “but I recall that as
a youth, my parents would prepare beautiful meals on Saturday and sing many
songs, and so I do the same."
Baal Shem Tov was about to tell him how much of his Shabbat was wrong, and
violated so many rules--but the power of speech failed him, when he realized he
would only ruin the beauty of his observance.
inquired about his partner to be in hell.
Lo and behold, a strictly devout Jew, meticulous, always
in anxiety lest his behavior be wrong, lest he commit a mistake. He passed the
entire Shabbat as if he were sitting on burning coals.
Baal Shem Tov wished to teach him how mistaken he was, but again, the power of
speech failed him when he realized that the man would never understand what was wrong.
this dream, it is said, the Baal Shem Tov understood that true service of God
is in joy which comes from the heart. Do you realize, by the way, how drastic
and radical this story, told by the pious Rebbe of Sadigur was? It meant that
our very pious and frum Jews had simply created a hell out of Judaism, instead
of making it a paradise.
The other problem facing Shabbat,
is, of course, the modern one--too little--too little love of Shabbat, too
little awareness, too little attention, too little, indeed, for the most case,
no Shabbat, none at all.
modern lives, we have lost the meaning and function of Shabbat, till it is none
existent, irrelevant to most of our lives.
the question, then, why should we, today, now want to make it once again part
of our lives.
Our reading strikes us today as very draconian,
Kol haoseh bo melachah yumat, whoever
does work on this day shall be put to death!
course, Judaism was never intended to destroy life but to preserve it. And as
such, we always asked the question, what does it really mean.
Hebrew said yumat--This
translates" He will die". It
doesn't say" You have to execute him." It merely says "He
mind, that in truth, the average American has been working more and more hours,
earning less, and surely, in this economy, enjoying life less.
me, if anyone is constantly at work, constantly struggling, constantly pushing,
without a break, without a moment to enjoy what he or she is creating-do you
think that is living? Is that being alive. How long, indeed, can anyone live
without a rest, without a spiritual rest as well as a physical rest- Otherwise,
life is one prolonged anxiety-attack, ulcer, and coronary.
That, I want to claim, is what the Torah
warned us of. Shabbat was here to be the goal of our lives, to make our lives
worth living, to enable us to savor the blessings of our life. It was always
done by removing the distractions, the labors and burdens of the six days of
drudgery, and replacing it with food, friends, family, enjoyment both emotional
and physical, and with the sense of the sacred and the holy.
that keeping Shabbat in all its particulars is difficult in modern life. There
are realities, such as parnasah- making a living—and sometimes, we just
don’t have the choice. Our great Jewish Yeshivas and Schools, frankly, were
founded and kept afloat by Jews who worked on Shabbat to pay the bills.
Shabbat does not require a prison! It is not all or nothing. We can do small
steps, small steps that combine to make a great Shabbat. A candle, a prayer, a
Kiddush, a meal, a quiet moment. Little pieces that can add up eventually to a
at the beginning, that I would speak about monkeys. No, I don't want to make
monkeys of us, but there is something to be learned from them.
is a classic experiment, in which two monkeys are put in the electric chair.
The first monkey was the executive monkey. He had the button to push, and if he
pushed it the right combination or the right way, nothing would happen, but if
he goofed, he and the other monkey would get a jolt. The other monkey had no
say in the matter, and had no button to push. He was totally at the mercy of
his companion, and received the same shock his companion did--but, again, he
had no say in the matter.
monkeys, surely were very unhappy. Both suffered. But which monkey died ?
with the button to push.
monkey developed ulcers, tuberculosis, heart conditions, all the diseases that
executive humans develop under stress.
He probably kept on saying to
himself," I'm going to master and control this button if it’s the last
thing I do"--and it invariably was.
other--disenfranchised, powerless, struck by jolts with no say over them--he
managed to live well and healthy in each case.
He was probably very philosophical and said, "There are things in
life bigger than me. Let me take it one day at a time, for the best that I can, and at least enjoy my
bananas and peanuts in between.”
we believe we are better than monkeys, that we are but a little lower than
angels--but we also always hold the buttons to the hot seat. We can't always be
like the executive monkey--we just won't make it. From time to time, every
Shabbat, we have to put our buttons away, forget taking command of our universe
and the people around us, save our souls, take time out, stop, look, listen,
and live. This Shabbat and every Shabbat. Amen.
Ki Tissa Amcha Yisrael and Justice and Mercy
Have you ever wondered
how Jews manage to find other Jews?
I served as
Rabbi in Whittier, to the east of Los Angeles. Fifty years ago, before
my time, Jews first came to that area on Veteran's mortgages, and began to
build up a community. These were young couples with very little Jewish
background or commitment. They just knew that they needed to have some place
and community of their own in the midst of a heavily protestant, Anglo
community that had been hitherto closed to Jews.
One day, into this new
community, there appeared a very fine gentleman who introduced himself as an ordained
Rabbi who was now in business, but was eager to help volunteer his services for
this new Jewish community.
What a bargain-- since no one of these young
Jews knew Hebrew or had any real Jewish background, this was a Godsend.
He would help them out
with services, tell a few good stories, and all was well, until one day, on a
Shabbes afternoon, one of the members was walking by the local movie house,
when who should walk out of the matinee showing but the Rabbi!
Now, educated or not,
he knew that Rabbis don't go to the movies on Shabbat. They began to inquire,
and soon discovered that their Rabbi was none other than a Christian missionary
to the Jews. That, you can be assured , was the end of his tenure.
Well, how do you find
Jews in such a Jewish wilderness? One of the first members was the local bus
driver. Whenever someone would get up on the bus, he would begin whistling not
Dixie, but Hatikvah. If the passenger would look up at him, he would
immediately tell him about the Jewish community being founded in that hitherto
entirely Quaker and Anglo-Saxon community.
That was one way, in
tolerant and open America to identify Jews. But what was done in Europe, after
the Holocaust, to enable Jews to find each other?
My father told me that
there was a password for Jews to identify each other after the Holocaust, when
a Jew still took his life in his own hands to tell a stranger he was a Jew. He
would see someone who looked Jewish, and he would whisper "Amcha?".
If the other one would respond "Amcha!", then they knew they could trust each other.
Amcha-- How many know
It is a word for the
common man in Hebrew and Yiddish. To a great extent, to describe someone as “
Amcha” was a put-down—he was a commoner, maybe
a step above a “proste yid” ( simple Jew) or a “grube ying”( a coarse
But Amcha is not
originally an insult. Amcha means, quite simply, ”Your people”.
Where is this word
from? It stems from the Torah reading of
Ki Tisa, the account of the Golden Calf, the smashing of the Ten
commandments, and the declaration by God, forgiving the sinners, Adonay,
Adonay. The Lord, The Lord.
This declaration forms
the kernel of the prayers of Selichot, of forgiveness, and of the Yom
Kippur liturgy. It is also the prayer before the Ark on festivals.
First, as to the word.
When the children of
Israel make the Golden Calf, God is incensed. He calls to Moses,: “ Your
people whom you took out of Egypt.” Amcha-Your
It’s just a like a
father who is angry at his son and shouts at the mother: Look what your
Moses responds, in short, with reasons why God
should not get angry. It is , in short a very hutzpadik answer, especially
towards God, and our Rabbis long ago declared, Hutzpah mehane afilu klapey
shamaya--Hutzpah is effective, even towards Heaven. We Jews have had more
than our share ever since.
First, Moses turns the
tables on God--he repeats Gods words,” Your”
" Why are you angry at your people whom you took out
Now, whose people are
we? Amcha-? Are we Moses people? Are we God's people? Isn’t this just
like two parents bickering over the brats behavior!
suggested our Rabbi's, is in a tale of a king of who had a vineyard run by his
tenant. When ever it would be a good vintage year, the king would boast," My
wine is great." When it was a bad vintage year, he complained to the tenant--Your wine is
bad!. To this the tenant retorted," Listen, King--good or bad-- it's still
The Rabbis concluded
the example,”When God spoke to Pharaoh, he said," Let My people go." But now he tells
Moses--" Your people are corrupt"!
Moses is implying, so
to say," When they're good, they're your people; when they're bad, they're
my people ? Good or bad, they're your people!"
That is the essence of
this idea of Amcha: we Jews may be good, and very often, we are not good.Good
or bad, we remain God's people, won by freedom from slavery in Egypt, and
again, by commitment, at Sinai. Good or bad--we are part of that covenant.
That is amcha, amcha yisrael. Your people, your people Israel.
There is another
aspect to Moses’ questioning, typical of Jewish hutzpah. This again from the
midrash, which imagines a further conversation with God:
" God, perhaps
you can make the calf your assistant? Put it in charge of the moon and
" Moses, God
replies, "You are as foolish as the rest of them. That calf has no
“Well, then,” Moses
replies,” if that calf has no reality, then why are you angry at your
There is Midrashic
twist on the conversation:
Moses asks, "Why
are you angry at your people whom you led out of Egypt."
His argument goes
on." It's like the story of the wise man who sets his son up in business, in
of all things, the perfume business. And in of all places, the red light
district.! Well, you can imagine what business dealings he had and with whom,
and soon the father caught the son together with the prostitute. The father was
ready to hang his son, until his friends got the better of him.," After
all, they said, You caused this! You set him up with a perfume business in of
all areas-- a red light district."
Just so, Moses
complains, “ Of all places to put the Hebrews! You had to put them in Egypt, and
in what status?As slaves! In a country that worships calves! That's all they
could learn in Egypt. You took them out, against their will, and you expect
them to give up old habits.!"
What an charge by the
Defense Attorney against the Porsecution:It was a case of entrapment!
There is now the shift
in the account. Moses succeeds in making his case . He now presses his
case yet further for himself.
The childrenof Israel
wanted a god they could see. Now Moses wants to see God or at least God’s
Hareini na et
kvodecha,” Please show me your true glory." The children of Israel
needed a God they could see--Moses wants to see God as well.
God answers," No
human can see mean and live". Instead, God allows a vision of his back,
which itself is not visual, but verbal image:
“The Lord, The Lord, a
God of mercy and compassion, long forbearing,
full of mercy and truth, keeping kindness unto the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity, transgression, and forgiving sin.” Hata-ah venakeh.
That’s what we have in
our prayerbooks, but it’s not what we have in our Torah text , at least not on
the face of it: Our Torah text continues venakeh loyenakeh. “Does not acquit but
visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth
The text is telling us
that good is repaid to the thousandth generation but the penalty of evil
lingers only to the third or fourth. In
other words, mercy is greater than punishment and the effect of good outlast the
effect of evil. If you turn to good, it erases the evil down through the
generations and the punishment of evil is limited.
But in our prayer books, the Rabbis have made
a major edit. They have removed the entire last phrase and cut the nakeh loyenakh, which means “ won’t acquit”
to only nakeh. “He will surely acquit!”
How could the Sages
upend God's own declaration?
Our Rabbis understood
that the Torah came to teach hope to humanity. Theology and philosophy speak about
metaphysics, the underlying truth of all reality, all of these are delightful
speculation on a warm sunny day, when our bellies are full. But for the other
days of the year, the stormy days, we need the teaching of hope , that the
doors are always open to Teshuvah
,Return. True, reality occurs in which the children do indeed suffer the fate
destined for their parents:the crack baby is born with the mother's addiction
and the children in a war torn land suffer for their father’s blood feud.
But if we close the
door of hope, we close the door of Teshuva , then we are all condemned
forever. The sages dared to tamper with God's words to get to his divine
intentions. They reworded the text of the Torah and then defined these as the
Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. This was the only vision of God that Moses was
allowed to comprehend.
Perhaps. It was God’s
intention to forgive all along, but He needed to see that Moses would
understand that and it would be possible only by standing up for hisown people
Finally, a message we
can take away from this.
In physics, we ask if
the building blocks of the universe are “God Particles”. Higgs Boson. For the
Rabbis, the true building blocks of the universe are ethical and spiritual
values. They told this story:
A man once had a
glass. He wished to pour some water in it. If he poured boiling water, it would
burst; if he poured cold water, it would crack. What could he do? He mixed hot
and cold water together, and the glass stayed whole.
Just so, they said,
God deliberated,” If I create the world with absolute justice, no one would
escape the weight of the law. It would be like “one strike-you’re out” for taking a child's pizza. If I create the
world with absolute mercy, it would be a nightmare! Crime and violence,
uncontrolled and unstoppable! What did he do? He balanced both justice and
mercy, and He prayed it would work! He prayed it would work! Yes, even God
needed a prayer when it came to creating his world.
Let us, in our
actions, try always to balance out the need for justice, need for righting
wrongs, with the need for mercy and compassion. and let us pray that the world
can survive so we can all live as “ Amcha”- the People of the Divine.
.Terumah Jews have symbols--Does Judaism?
You remember the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark? It
made Harrison Ford famous and it set of a flurry of explorers looking up and
down the Nile claiming it may be in the Sudan or Ethiopia. So this Shabbat, we
will talk about that famous Ark, but we won’t try to raid it, let alone find
The Book of Exodus progresses in theme from physical bondage
to liberation to dedication of people at Mt.Sinai . At this point, preparations
are made for establishing a sense of permanence of that dedication with a
This portion deals with first set of instructions
Several terms are used for the sanctuary: Ohel
Moed( The Tent of Meting), Mishkan ( The Place of the Presence), Mikdash
It is collapsible, to be carried easily during the
wandering. Even later, when the children of Israel move into the Land of
Israel, it remains moveable for many centuries.
Only during time
of Temple in Jerusalem was the sanctuary in a fixed location, yet, for most of
Jewish history, the Mikdash Me’at, the small sanctuary of the synagogue,
moved with the people wherever they were. The presence of ten and an ark with
the Torah scrolls made a synagogue anywhere on earth.
Even now, with Jerusalem in Jewish
hands, even with the Kotel ( The Western Wall, no longer the Wailing
Wall!) as a gathering place for worship for Jews around the world, the Kotel is
not by a long shot the Temple par excellence but a memorial of what once was
and a reminder of what could be.
How is it that we could have managed for so long without
a permanent Temple?
As soon as Solomon
constructed his Temple, he realized and said so himself that no physical place can
be the dwelling place of God. The Prophet Isaiah, looking at the rebuilding of
the Temple in the return from Exile also reminded the People: The Heavens are
my throne and the Earth is my footstool. What house can you build for me; where
is the place for my resting?
This was a unique concept in its day, because in
antiquity, certain physical locations had a magic or mystical attribute to the
location itself. The place produced the power for the ancient pagan gods rather
than the gods bringing power to a place. In ancient paganism, the gods were
always dependent upon time, fate, and location. Not so the revolutionary Hebew
concept of God.
Later, the Rabbis would say,”The world is not the location
of God, but God is the location of the world”. In the Biblical and Rabbinic conception,
then no place could be the permanent symbol of an imageless God.
Therefore, there is no Holy place in the Hebrew language!
Do we speak of a Holy Land or Holy City in Hebrew?
Grammatically, in Hebrew, the Land of Israel is “Eretz Hakodesh” —the Land
belonging to, or associated with-the Holy, and Jerusalem is “ Ir Hakodesh”, the
City belonging to or associated with, the Holy. The structure in grammer
indicates association or ownership, not an adjective.
The Land of Israel and the City of Jerusalem derive their
sanctity, not from their geographic location, but from their dedication, as a
land and city destined for holy activity.
In that sense, they could have been on the South Pole, if
the climate were better!( It is true that there are Midrashic references
elevating Jerusalem and the land of Israel physically above and at the center
of the world, but that is Rabbinic poetry- after all, God would not have given
us less than a land of milk and honey!)
Just as Mishkan,
the wandering temple, had no permanent
place to rest on, something else distinguished it from all other sacred places,
even when it became permanent.
Inside, there is missing the most vital element of a holy
sanctuary in antiquity.
In the year 80 BCE, the Roman General Pompey conquered
Israel, captured Jersualem, and walked into Temple to see what Jews kept
inside. After all, in the Acropolis in Athens, there was a magnificent statue
of Athena and the Roman conqueror assumed he would find something of equally
great magnitude in the Sanctuary that he knew was financed by contributions
from Jews the world over. There would be, he was sure, an equally magnificent
treasury to be robbed.
He walked in to the Holy of Holies and walked right out,
shocked and stunned, so stunned that he reportedly forgot to rob the treasury.
Inside the Holy of Holies, there was- nothing! To the
pagan mind, this was atheism. Judaism
was atheism. Without an image, without a
graspable symbol there could be
Now , we know what was in the Holy of Holies in the First
Temple- the Stone Tablets from Mount Sinai. Keep in mind, however, that these
were not an image, not an idol, representing something, rather a text of ideas!
When these Tablets vanished at the destruction of the First Temple, there was
no urgent need to replace or reproduce the ark, even as a token reminder!
Inside the Holy of Holies was only—emptiness! Only in the empty room could the
High Priest be in the presence of God!
It is clear that in the Bible, God is imageless.
No priest or prophet would have dared to approve of
Michelangelo's painting of God in the Sistine chapel. That magnificent white bearded figure ! It would
have been inconceivable!
Judaism is till today, an imageless religion, in many ways.
We often speak of symbols. Symbols of Judaism.
there is no official symbol of Judaism as such
and Judaism can’t really be encapsulated into a symbol whether it be
visual or verbal.
What is a symbol? It is something that is used to represent
something else, something graspable to replace something ungraspable. A flag is
a symbol for an entire nation, a
Numeral is a symbol of a
quantity that may be beyond our reach. a photograph is a symbol of a person not
What is wrong with a symbol?
We may mistake the symbol for that which it is supposed
If God can have no
image, because the concept is beyond reach, so there can be no symbol. So it
goes for Judaism;there is no official symbol of Judaism in history..
What of the Magen David? It is unknown in the Bible ,unknown
in the Talmud . At some time in the middle ages it became popular as the seal
of local Jewish communities in Europe and gradually became identified as a sign
of the Jewish people.
When Herzl looked for an emblem for the new Jewish State
he was envisioning , he chose the Magen David as symbol of a people, not a
religion. When the Germans needed to identify Jews in their round-up, they used
the Magen David with the word” Jude” as identifier of a “race”, even if the
wearer was a Catholic or an atheist.
The Star of David then, correctly represents the Jewish
people, and hence, its proper place on the flag of Israel as the State of the
A case might be made for the Two Tablets symbolizing the
Ten Commandments—but here, we have an abridgement of a text, to remind us of
the rest of the text, not to replace it. The Seven-Branched Menorah might be
the best contender—but while there is speculation that it looks like a tree (
especially because of the use of the words “knob and flower”) to represent the Tree
of Life, but form the Torah-text, it is not clear what is to represent but its
is functional-a source of light that is to be kept lit constantly.
artists use symbols, and modern synagogues use art and art symbols in their décor,
not one is in and of itself a true symbol of Judaism. It is so because Judaism
predates the concept of religion and it predates the other great religions that
it came in contact with ( or that it gave birth to).
Just as the tabernacle had no permanent place, and as God
had no visible image, so Judaism has no official image. Similarly, in Judaism ,
God has no definition, and similarly, Judaism has no definition.
There are symbols in art—there are symbols in words. A
dogma, a catechism, serves to represent, in a brief word, the entirety of a
religious faith; it serves as a limit on the range of belief of the community of
the faithful. The danger is that the dogma, the brief statement, becomes
mistaken for the entirety of faith. Just as the symbol , the image, becomes
mistaken for the authentic, so the dogma is
mistaken for the truth. It becomes a new idol worship.
From the beginning, therefore Judaism had no definition of
God, other than "I am that which I shall be".
Just so Judaism had no name for itself in the beginning nor
even a word for religion. In the entire
Torah, there exists no word for religion. Judaism never developed a definition of itself,
a handle, an easily graspable cliché. There were numerous attempts were made, from Hillel to Akiba to Maimonides,
yet no statement became official ( The Rambam’s famous “ Thirteen Attributes”,
just as his other philosophical writings, never received official sanction in
Judaism can not be boiled down to an image, a
slogan or a phrase, for to do so is like making an image, mistaking a slogan
for the real thing.
Now, someone will ask, “But Rabbi, on the other hand!”
In the very chapters we have here in Parshat Terumah ,
there are instructions to make two cherubs
and place them inside the Holy of Holies, facing the Ark.
But what do the two cherubs represent?
In the ancient Middle East, the gods were always depicted
seated on a thrown, flanked by cherubs. The ark in the sanctuary served as the
thrown of the one God, resting upon the covenant with the people-but what is unique?
In ancient Canaan there would have stood the image of the
Baal; in ancient Israel, above the throne there was an empty space, no image at
all. Only emptiness.
If hard pressed for one image, one metaphor for God that is
legitimate, then consider this statement by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi . It is
intended to contrast the procession of soldiers and heralds that precedes the passing
of the pagan idols in parade.
“Whenever a human being walks, there is a procession of angels
ahead of him saying,” Make way for the image of the Holy One.”
What a radical statement! If there is a legitimate image
of God, it is the human being, a
creature of flesh and blood. All images are forbidden but one is endowed
with sanctity, the human being, of whom the Torah teaches us, Adam betselem
nivra, Adam, zachar u nekeva, male and female, is created in the
The pagans looked at their gods and saw enhanced human
beings, full of vengeance, jealousy, lust and bloodshed. The ancient Hebrew was
taught to look at the human being and see a glimmer of the Divine!
An afterthought, for the
But, you might press harder, look at the Cherubs on the
Ark—surely the Cherubs there for some
The medieval scholar Abarbanel suggested that the cherub
is always described as having a child's face. Guarding the ark, he suggested,
were our children, who, in each generation were to dedicate themselves to the
study and practice of Judaism. It is to remind us that every Jew must let his
thoughts soar heavenwards as if on angels wings and face each other in
brotherly love and service of mankind.
Now that is an apt dogma or symbol of Judaism if there
ever was one!