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Parshiyot Vayakhel-Pekudei 5783

March 13, 2023

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Where do we face in our holy space?
A D’var Torah for Parshiyot Vayakhel-Pekudei
By Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

“Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Alice might have approved of the Talmud, which has conversations among the sages on every page. But she might have been disappointed that there are not very many pictures. There is, however, an evocative picture inspired by a verse from this week’s Torah portion, found in printed editions of the Babylonian Talmud in Rashbam’s commentary to Tractate Bava Batra 99a, that carries some relevance for us as we seek spiritual connection in holy spaces.


This week’s Torah portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei describes the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was used during the 40 years of wandering in the desert and that became the template for the Temple in Jerusalem. Three and two weeks ago, in the portions of Terumah and Teztaveh, we read the instructions for each of the items in the Tabernacle, as well as the garments of the Kohanim who served there. This week, we read about the actual making of all these items. Much of the language echoes that of those earlier Torah portions, but the verbs are now in past tense (“and he made…”) instead of in an imperative form (“and you shall make…”).

The centerpiece of the Tabernacle – and later, of the Temple in Jerusalem – was the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. Over the Ark was a covering, called the Kapporet, which is described as a slab of gold topped with two statues of winged celestial beings called Keruvim.

In the Talmud (Bava Batra 99a), the question is posed: How did the Keruvim stand? The contradictory opinions of two sages, Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Elazar, are cited: one of them said that the Keruvim were p’neihem ish el ahiv, facing each other, and the other said they were p’neihem la-bayit, facing the building (and presumably facing away from each other).

These contradictory opinions are each based in Biblical texts. Our Torah reading this week says clearly that the Keruvim are facing each other (Exodus 37:9; also see Exodus 25:20). In a discussion of King Solomon’s Temple, however, the Second Book of Chronicles says that they were facing “the building.” (2 Chronicles 3:13). These two phrases might mean exactly the same thing – la-bayit can also mean ‘“within” or “towards the interior” – but of course it’s more fun to assume that there is a direct contradiction here, which is what the rabbis in the Talmud assume.)

The Talmud then suggests how each of these sages might resolve the contradiction. How does Rabbi Yohanan, who says that the Keruvim faced each other, deal with the Chronicles passage that suggests the opposite? His answer: The positioning of the Keruvim depended on the behavior of the Jewish people. When the people did God’s will, the Keruvim were facing each other; when the people were neglecting God’s will, the Keruvim miraculously swiveled to face away from each other.

And Rabbi Elazar, who said that the Keruvim faced the building: how did he deal with the Exodus passage from this week’s Torah portion that says that the Keruvim faced each other? – The Talmud suggests that his answer is that the Keruvim were turned de-mitztadei atztudei – slightly sideways. In other words, whether they are facing each other or facing away from each other is a matter of one’s perspective. A supporting opinion is cited from Onkelos the proselyte: The Keruvim were facing sideways, like a student departing from a teacher. As a sign of respect, the student would turn sideways for some distance before turning their back on their teacher. This image is depicted in that rare diagram in Rashbam’s commentary, suggesting that the wings of the Kruvim are oriented diagonally and that their faces are tilted towards each other, though their bodies are not. They are facing each other, and facing the building, at the same time.

This debate strikes me as startlingly contemporary. Which of these opinions about the Keruvim is the best reflection of what we strive for when we go to a holy place? Is our sanctuary a place where we come primarily to connect with other people, as suggested by the Exodus text? Is it a place where we come primarily to face an exquisite building and to marvel at its transcendent beauty, as suggested by the Chronicles text? Or is it a place where – like the Keruvim in the drawing in Rashbam’s commentary – we are oriented both towards and away from others? Could the holiest place be somewhere where we feel deeply connected to others in our community, while at the same time we are encouraged to look inward — immersed in our own individual prayers, while always making sure to keep others in our line of sight and consciousness?
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.