In a beautiful blog post about idolatry, human encounter and the Ark of the Covenant, Evan Wolkenstein writes:
In Parashat Terumah, the Israelites receive the blueprints for a majestic tent—the mishkan—that will eventually house the magnificent Ark of the Covenant. As we read the vivid description, we can picture its grandeur. During the Israelites’ journeys through the desert, the mishkan serves as a portable temple, with the home of God’s indwelling, the Ark, at its center.1 The Israelite tribes camp around it, placing it at the heart of the nation.While the detailed beauty of the Ark sounds stunning, the medieval commentator Abravanel wonders about its design. The first of the Divine Laws prohibits graven images of any kind, replications of any being, heavenly or earthly.2 But upon the cover of the ark perch two cherubim, winged human forms.3 It would seem that by including these forms, God is breaking God’s own Law. There is a possible resolution to this seeming contradiction in the very details of space and shape that make this parashah and its focus on design so fascinating. “From above the cover,” says God, “from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Covenant,”4 God will meet with humanity. The voice of God emerges not from the mouth of any graven image, but from the empty space between two faces.
I love the idea that God emerges from the empty space between two faces. God shows up in human encounter. When I lived in Uruguay, we took an afternoon break to sit together and drink mate, which required a thermos of hot water, loose tea leaves in a gourd and a special metal straw. Mate was the excuse, but the ritual was about human encounter.
In the US, for me it tends to look like inviting people to sit down to drink coffee or eat food together. Just the other day, I sat with three different friends individually throughout the day — one for morning coffee, one for lunch, and one for dinner. I woke the next morning filled with a sense of intimate and abundant love and joy, but I was also tired. The act of sacred listening and vulnerable sharing in honest conversation takes energy from our entire beings. So much so, that at times we forget to truly show up in these encounters. We pace ourselves to get through our days by presenting a veiled version of our truest selves. But that is one place God has promised to show up.
When I am feeling burned out at work, for example, I imagine the two cherubim with God dwelling in the empty space between the two faces. I go through my day more intentionally looking people in the eye, asking how they are and waiting, open to really hear the answer. It takes discipline and a different posturing. I always move more slowly on those days. I generally get much less “work” “accomplished.” But I also get re-energized about that work that I am supposed to be accomplishing.
Wolkenstein goes on to say, “In other words, if idolatry is to hear the voice of God emerging from a block of gold, then the opposite of idolatry is to see God’s face in every human being, to hear God’s voice emerging from the relationship of any two beings, face to face, eye to eye, ish el achiv—from one person to another.” Our society could benefit from less blocks of gold and more face to face encounters of true listening. I think of drone strikes, anonymous internet bullying and screaming politicians. I think of gated communities, texting during dinner and people in prison or the hospital or nursing homes who don’t get visitors. Then I think of the two cherubim on the Ark. Encounters are the true gold. God promises to dwell with us, among us, when our communities prioritize sacred human encounters.