What does it mean to be a Jew? A curious verse in this week's Torah portion Terumah provides insight.
We read that the Israelites were to place cherubim before the sanctuary, a moveable tabernacle built by a wandering people in the wilderness. "The cherubim will stretch forth their wings on high...and their faces will look to one another" (Ex. 25:20).
What are the cherubim? No one is exactly sure. In a Midrashic source, the folk etymology is given according to which the singular form keruv means ke-ravya, "like a young child," hence the depiction in art and literature of the cherubim as baby angels (quoting My Jewish Learning).
These winged angels appear throughout the Torah. In Genesis, God sets the cherubim at the entrance of the Garden of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, to guard the way to the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24). Two cherubim overlaid with gold with outstretched wings were placed facing one another on the cover of the Ark in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:18-20) and figures of cherubim were embroidered on the veil and the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 31). Later in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), the two gilded cherubim in King Solomon's Temple were not attached to the Ark, as in the Tabernacle, but were placed as figures each 10 cubits high in front of the Ark (I Kings 6:27-8).
The Secret to Being Jewish is...
These child-like angelic figures, guarding the holiest spaces in ancient Judaism, position themselves in ways that speak volumes about the posture and perspective of being a Jew.
The secret to being Jewish, it may be, resides in the answer to the question: why are the cherubim facing each other, stretching their wings upward?
Rabbi Nina Mizrahi, in a drash called Birthing Holiness, points us in the right direction. She quotes Sadeh Margalit on this verse:
"A Jew must have two qualities- 'Stretching forth their wings on high' - S/he should always strive to move upward, to higher and higher levels, while at the same time 'their faces will look to one another' -S/he must notice her/his fellow's distress and always be willing to help him/her. These two qualities are linked to one another" (cited in Torah Gems by Aharon Greenberg).
To be a Jew one must reach out and reach up.
Reach out to those in need, looking at their faces, seeing their pain, lifting them up.
And reach up, raising ourselves up to more spirituality, to higher forms of enlightened thinking, and to advancing the ideas that make our lives and our world holier.
This Shabbat, be a Jew: seek spiritual uplift, create communal healing.