Parashot Vayakhel-Pekudeui: Sacred sex

What was the symbolism behind these cherubs, whose formation is commanded in the first half of this week's double portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei?

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March 15, 2007 08:43
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"The cherubs were with wings spread upwards, sheltering the Ark cover... with their faces toward one another" - (Exodus 37:9). What was the symbolism behind these cherubs, whose formation is commanded in the first half of this week's double portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei? In the Talmud we find a detailed discussion fraught with significance regarding the rabbinic attitude toward marriage and sex - an attitude that's crucial for our Internet Age. "Rabbi Katina said, 'When the Israelites would ascend [to the Holy Temple] on the festival, [the priest/kohen] would roll up the curtain for them, and display for them the cherubs, who were joined together [in an embrace].' The priest/kohen would then tell them, 'Behold the beloved feelings for you on the part of the Omnipresent are like the beloved feelings of a male for a female' " (B.T. Yoma 54a). The Talmud queries which temple is under discussion; after all, the First Temple did not have a curtain between the Holy of Holies and the Sanctuary, only a stone wall, and the golden cherubs never made it to the second. Rabbi Aha Bar Ya'acov explained that Rabbi Katina is indeed discussing the Second Temple, which had a curtain in front of the Holy of Holies, and this curtain was indeed rolled up during the pilgrim festivals; the cherubs on display were painted engravings on the wooden panels which covered the stone walls of the Holy of Holies - engravings which harked back to the First Temple. As the Bible records: "All the walls of the Temple were surrounded by designs, [an engraved network of] cherubs, palm trees and blossoming flowers... and he overlaid [them] with gold; [the cherubs]... were as the joining of a man, accompanied" (I Kings 6:29, 35 and 7:36). How are we to understand this last phrase, "…as the joining of a man, accompanied?" In the discussion of the talmudic segment that deals with our question, Rabba bar Rav Shila explains that "[The cherubs appeared in the engravings] as a man joined in an embrace with his female companion" (B.T. Yoma 54b). The Talmud then records how the Roman conquerors, who destroyed the Second Temple, had no understanding of, or appreciation for, this pictorial representation: "Said Resh Lakish: 'When the gentiles entered the Sanctuary, they saw [the engravings of] the cherubs joined together in an embrace. They took [the engravings] out to the marketplace and said: Should these Israelites - whose blessing is a blessing and whose curse is a curse - be involved in such [erotic] matters? Immediately, [the Romans] debased [the Israelites], as it is said (Lamentations 1:8): 'All who once respected her [Israel] debased her, for they saw her nakedness'" (ibid.). The Romans totally misunderstood the symbolism of the cherubs: God's love for Israel and Israel's love for God can only be compared to the love of lover and beloved, bride and groom. Maimonides puts it clearly: "What is the proper love that we must have for God? It is to love God with an exceedingly great and intensely powerful love, until the individual is constantly enraptured by it; he must be stricken like a lovesick person, whose mind is at no time free from his passion for a particular woman, with the thought of her filling his heart at all times, whether he be sitting down or rising up, whether he be eating or drinking. Even more intense should the love of God be in the hearts of those who love Him, and this love should constantly absorb them, as we are commanded to love the Lord 'with all your heart and with all your soul.' Solomon expressed this in the verse, 'for I am sick with love' (Song of Songs, 2:5). Indeed, the entire Song of Songs is an allegorical description of this love" (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance, 10,3). It was the great Rabbi Akiva who taught that if each of the 24 books of the Bible is holy, the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies. And Rabbi Akiva did not merely mean to say that the lover in the Song of Songs is the Almighty and the beloved is the nation Israel; after all, the sages have already taught us that no verse is to be completely detached from its literal meaning. Therefore what R. Akiva is teaching is a lofty truth: every proper and passionate love relationship between man and woman resembles the cosmic love between God and Israel. Love is a sacred feeling, marriage is a sacred union. So it is tragic when our young receive their sex education from the street or from impure movies and Internet porn. Our educators must be trained to teach about sexual relationships from our Bible, just as these teachings once emerged from the engravings of the cherubs. Parents must explain to their children not only the evils of immorality, and not only the legitimate joys of marital sex, but also the sanctity of the sexual union from the perspective of Judaism. Sex must once again be joined to love and marriage, and be seen as one of the great wonders of a fulfilled family life. And such education has to begin no later than the sixth grade! As a rabbi who has participated in thousands of weddings, the most meaningful blessing I know is the blessing of sanctification: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has exhorted us against sexual immorality... Blessed art Thou, who has sanctified us through the nuptial canopy and the sanctity of betrothal" (B.T. Ketubot 7b). The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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