Torah from Around the World #206

by Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander, Rabbi of

Solel Congregation

, Mississauga, Ontario Canada, and President-Elect of Arzenu

My new understanding of this week’s Parasha began with a visit to the British Museum in London. There, in the Assyrian gallery, I saw the huge bronze Nimrud gates. Moulded onto these gates were two fierce creatures (

click here

to see a photo) with human faces, wings of eagles and bodies of lions. I remembered that these “multiple creatures” were a common means in ancient cultures to depict the gods who stood guard over imperial rulers. Just as the gates were adorned with these beasts, so were thrones of ancient deities from Egypt to Babylonia.

Then I recalled the depiction of the Tabernacle in the Book of Exodus. In the inner sanctum, two cherubim hovered over the Holy Ark, their wings outspread to form the seat of a throne. But unlike other ancient cultures, this throne was left empty. The God of Israel was not to be confined to any single space or shape.

In my earlier visit to the National Gallery, I noticed many Renaissance paintings that depicted cherubim as chubby babies with wings flying around saintly people. I couldn’t fathom Adonai’s throne being supported by these infants. It makes much more sense, I thought, to imagine the biblical cherubim forming the “mercy seat” with outstretched eagle’s wings attached to the bodies of the powerful, fertile animals of the Ancient Near East – namely, bulls.

This brings us (at last!) to our Parasha. When the Israelites asked Aaron to make them a god of molten metal, why did he choose to make a calf? I suggest it was because Aaron – and the biblical authors – had seen the cherubim in the Jerusalem Temple. They simply took this image and applied it to their own conception of God. As the narrative points out, what the Israelites said as they danced around the calf was: “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

The idolatry committed by the people was not a deliberate sin but rather a conceptual mistake: they took the


of God to be the


of God. They thought that the fierce cherubim guarding the divine throne might actually be God “in the flesh.” And this is the lesson the Parasha conveys to us: just as it is a mistake to try and concretize God in an image of gold and jewels, so is there a danger of encapsulating God within the covers of a book or a code of law.

There are many religious people in our own time – Jews among them – who believe that they can do just that. Their reading of Scripture tells them that God has provided all the answers they need in life, and that these answers are eternal. For them, the status of women will remain as it was in ancient times, the definition of marriage and family will be forever the same. And since the “truth” has been revealed to them, anyone who has a different perspective is automatically wrong.

By comparison, “truth” for us Progressive Jews is a more relative term. As our insights develop over time, so does our understanding evolve of God and divine will. And we are ready to acknowledge that people with differing religious perspectives – both Jews and non-Jews – are undergoing the same process. Those who share this outlook need to tolerate more ambiguity in our values and practices, but this also gives us the motivation to keep seeking, to continue asking questions that will lead to new insights. As the Jewish songwriter Leonard Cohen (and a fellow Canadian) has said:

There is a crack, a crack, in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

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