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February 13, 2013 By:
What Valentine’s Day Shares With Parshah
The month of Adar began this past week. It is traditional to usher it in with more merriment than usual, as a warm-up to Purim, and in that spirit I offer the following reflections on this week’s portion, Terumah.
I am well aware that Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish holiday. Every year at my children’s Jewish preschool, I receive an email reminding me not to dress them up for Halloween and not to let them exchange Valentine cards at school. However, Reconstructionist Jews believe that we live in two civilizations: our Jewish one and the one of the majority society around us.
The Reconstructionist in me could not help but notice that a main symbol of Valentine’s Day is also contained in the instructions that God gives to Moses about how to build the Tabernacle.
What do these instructions share with Valentine’s Day? Cherubs. Yes, those chubby angel babies that adorn Victorian style Valentine’s Day cards are an explicit part of the Tabernacle.
The first instruction regarding cherubim is to fashion them on the cover of the ark. “You shall make a cover of pure gold …make two cherubim of gold — make them of hammered work — at the two ends of the cover.
Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end … the cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.”
From above this cover, between the two cherubim, is where God will speak to the Israelites. The people are also instructed to work the design of the cherubim into the linen cloth that makes up the tabernacle, and into the curtain that serves as the partition between the outer holy sanctuary and the inner holy of holies.
Did these cherubs really look like fat babies with wings? No one knows precisely. Rashi comments that they had “faces of children.” Rashbam, another medieval commentator, refers to them as birds, but notes that the sages explain them as having the face of infants. Ibn Ezra believed they were in human form, possibly with the face of an ox, which he draws from a description in Ezekiel.
But there is one more thing that may link them to Valentine’s Day. The Talmud speaks of them as a representation of love. The cherubim were made to face each other, and according to Rashbam this indicates the relationship we long to be in with God — face to face. Some midrashim relate the turning toward each other as a sexual embrace, symbolically representing the love of God for the people Israel.
In the Talmudic tractate of Baba Batra, we learn that when the Jewish people fulfilled the will of God, the cherubim would face each other, and when they did not fulfill that will, the cherubim would turn away from each other.
Paradoxically, at the time of the destruction of the Temple, a time when God was said to be displeased with the behavior of the Jewish people, the cherubim were said to be in an embrace. Some interpreted this as a way to show the Jews the love of God that they had lost — while others saw it as a reminder that that love was still present and possible.
Perhaps Valentine’s Day is a Jewish holiday after all?
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected].