This week’s Torah portion is parshat Terumah. It includes the details of building holy objects for the Tabernacle…the details that make many people’s eyes glaze over. It lists colour selections and table dimensions and what gets coated in gold and what doesn’t. Because we don’t have a Tabernacle anymore, or a Temple, we don’t build these objects today and so we don’t often listen with a keen ear while this portion is read in synagogue.
But, amongst all these details is the description of the cherubim that will sit on the Ark of the Covenant. A cherub is a type of angel. It is not a pudgy baby angel with a diaper and a bow and quiver waiting to shower us with ‘love arrows’. It does not have rosy cheeks and a ‘cherubic smile’. By Jewish mystical accounts, a cherub is a fierce, frightening looking and not-happy-to- be-among-us type of angel. There are two of them sculpted onto the lid of the Ark. They look down, toward the Ark and their wings are spread over them, almost touching wingtips. Almost touching, because the Divine Voice will speak from the space between – the tiny void framed by their wingtips.
Everything about it begs the question of why are there angels in my holy spaces? Why do I keep inviting them into my world?
On Friday nights, with family gathered around our tables, we sing Shalom Aleichem. It’s a beautiful, soulful song that frames our Shabbat meal. The phrase ‘shalom aleichem’ means ‘peace on you (plural)’ and we are welcoming the ministering angels and the angels of peace into our homes. Verse 1 welcomes them, verse 2 beckons them to come in peace, verse 3 asks them to bless us with peace, verse 4 asks them to leave. We don’t want angels hanging around us for longer than needed.
Many ancient Jewish texts tell us that angels and demons are around us all the time and interact with us constantly. As long as we think of angels as sweet, benevolent miracle workers, we like that they’re here. On a personal and very mundane note, I have struggled with my hair all of my life. It is very fine. I always remember my mother putting bobby pins in my hair to keep it out of my eyes, only to have the pins float out the bottom of my hair an hour later. It’s a struggle that continues to this day. Hair stylists have always told me I have baby fine hair. It sounds lovely but imagine being told you’re still carrying your baby weight with you all your life. A year ago, I walked into a salon and the stylist looked at my hair and told me how wonderful it must be to have angel fine hair. He is now my regular stylist.
But, unfortunately, there really aren’t sources that tell us angels are saints. They don’t sit on our shoulders whispering good things into our ears. Angels are messengers who do what God bids them to do – they have no free will and they are not always on our side of things.
According to the Kabbalah, angels were created before humanity was created. That makes them our older sibling species, since God is the Divine Parent. We are the younger sibling that bothers them. God will command some of them to protect us (Guardian Angels), just as an older sibling is responsible for its younger ones, not a cherished moment for an older sibling. God will give us special things (the Torah) that the angels will argue they had first and don’t want to share. We overhear them say something that pleases the Parent and then we usurp it (“Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”). We bother them.
There are positive and negative angels. A midrash tells us that angels follow us into our homes on Friday evenings. If they see a home of peace and readiness for holiness, the positive angels say this should continue and the negative angels must answer ‘amen’. If they see a home of conflict and chaos, the negative angels say this should continue and the positive angels must answer ‘amen’. I’m not sure I want them in my home.
But, just as we live with our siblings from cradle to grave, we live with our angelic siblings every moment of every day. The Talmud says there isn’t a blade of grass that doesn’t have its angel tapping the earth above it and coaxing it to grow. When two friends who have been apart for over a year reunite, they are to recite the blessing that thanks God for resurrecting the dead. This is because love and fellowship create positive angels. The angel of our friendship will guard the relationship and will be nourished by it. It takes a year apart to starve that angel, but when friends meet again, the angel is immediately resurrected, triggering the blessing.
This week’s parshah teaches us how to create holy objects, and ultimately, to create holy space. But we are always warned that holiness is powerful and extreme holiness is dangerous. The Cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Covenant are keeping Israel at a distance from the power of such holiness. The fierceness of their appearance is protecting us and they stare at the Ark, directing our focus. By spreading their wings to almost touch, they create the void in which to hear God’s Voice. Like an older sibling, they teach us about the world and how sometimes it is the spaces of silence that carry the greatest of revelations.