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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.
Last year’s column for this week’s Parshah – Teruma – was based upon a beautiful anecdote from the Talmud regarding G-d’s commandment to build the desert Tabernacle – the precursor to the Holy Temple. The gist of it was that the Temple was always intended as a form of intimacy between G-d and the Jewish people. It was Him establishing a presence with us, amongst us, in us. It was a form of Divine penetration, as it were. And although G-d had initially planned to wait until we entered the Holy Land for us to construct that temple, he found during the early days of our trek through the desert that He could not resist, He could no longer wait, and He commanded us to build a temporary temple right there in the desert so that He could consummate our relationship immediately.
G-d’s desire was not merely evident in the cosmic theme of the Temple, however; nor in the hastening of its construction. An examination of the Temple in the Talmudic, Midrashic and Kabbalistic texts reveal a feng shui temple design that was intended to showcase – in a fairly erotic manner – G-d’s love for his people.
Just for starters, imagine a house, or even just a room, built from polished acacia wood, inlaid and decorated with warm gold, copper, and just a touch of silver, and draped with tapestries made of fine wools, linens and animal skins, abundant in shares of red and crimson, and set off by deep purples and sparkling blues. Add some scented oils and incense wafting through the rooms, and it would be a veritable temple of love, designed to stimulate the erotic senses – and exactly the materials from which the Temple was constructed. Exodus, 25:3-6.
Having set the erotic mood, the Torah now moves on to some of the key pieces of furniture that graced the Temple.
The first on the list was the Ark, constructed from acacia wood and covered in gold. Hammered from the Ark’s golden cover were to be the two golden cherubim, one on each end of the cover. The cherubim were human shapes, facing one another, but with golden wings, which spread upwards and outwards, shielding the Ark cover. Exodus, 25:10-20.
Now, in one place, the Talmud states that each cherub had the face of a child. See Babylonian Talmud, Succah 5b. Baby-faced they may have been, but these cherubim were distinctly adult-oriented. For these cherubim were not mere inanimate golden statues; they were dynamic symbols of G-d’s relationship with His people – G-d being represented by one cherub, and Israel being represented by the other. When the Ark was first placed in the Holy of Holies, the cherubim stood, straight, immobile, facing each other. However the Talmud relates that on two different occasions, we were able to witness what happened to the cherubim behind the curtain. During the three major holidays, when the Israelites would make their pilgrimage to the Temple, the priests would roll up the curtain concealing the Ark, and the people would see the cherubim in a passionate and sensuous embrace.
As if erotic cherubim weren’t intriguing enough, the Talmud makes an additional fascinating point. In Numbers (4:20), the Torah makes clear that even for the Levites responsible for transporting the Ark, it was forbidden to even look at the ark. How, then, could the priests have dared to expose the Ark to the Israelites on the holidays? The Talmud’s answer likens the Ark to a blushing bride, Israel to the groom, and the Holy Temple to the groom’s house. So long as a bride is only betrothed, and still resides in her father’s house, she is shy and modest before her husband. However, once she is married, and has moved into her father-in law’s (her husband’s) house, she is no longer shy or modest, and willingly exposes her charms to her husband. Similarly, once the the Holy Temple was built in the Holy Land, the beauty and eroticism of the Ark and its cherubim could now be exposed the Jewish people.
Yet, as it turns out, it was not only the Jewish people who witnessed the cherubim’s passionate entanglement. The Talmud further relates that when the Babylonians entered the sanctuary to destroy the Holy Temple and to plunder its artifacts, they too saw the cherubim erotically intertwined. Failing to appreciate that sexuality and Eros is – not only not a contradiction to holiness, but – the ultimate form of sacred union, the Babylonians mocked the Jews for their depictions of sexuality in their most holy place. This is the meaning of the verse in Lamentations (1:8), “All who once respected her, debased her, for they saw her nakedness.”
Several contemporary commentaries have marveled at the fact that, at the time of the Temple’s destruction – justifiably perceived as the nadir of the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d – not only did the cherubim not have their backs to each other, but they were involved in a lusty embrace. What this tells us is that even in our darkest hour, the strain on our relationship with Him is only superficial. At its core, however, in the Holy of Holies, G-d’s love for us is as fresh and amorous as ever – and he wanted our oppressors to know it.
Then there was the Table for the Showbread, the twelve loaves of bread that were baked each Friday, and which remained fresh and warm throughout the week. The Arizal reminds us that “eating” and “food” are consistently euphemisms for sex. This is the true meaning of the verse, “Eat, my beloved ones,” in King Solomon’s Song of Songs (5:1); it is what was meant when the Torah states that Potiphar withheld nothing from Joseph other than “the bread that he ate,” which Joseph later acknowledges was a reference to Potiphar’s wife (Genesis, 39:6); and it was Jethro’s intention when, after Moses chased away the shepherds that were harassing Jethro’s daughters, he told them: “Call him, and let him eat bread” – resulting in Moses’s marriage to Tziporah (Exodus, 2:20).
Similarly, the reference to warm bread, is a reference to sexual arousal, as heat often is. See, e.g., Genesis, 30:41 (“whenever the flock are in heat“).
Indeed, this is why the Showbread was eaten by the priests – the Kohanim – as opposed to the Levites, and why all of the services performed in the Temple were performed by the Kohanim. Kabbalistically, the Kohanimare associated with the attribute of Chessed, of Kindness, whereas the Levites are associated with the attribute of Gevurah, Severity. The attribute of Kindness is the source for the emotion of love, which is essentially an outpouring of oneself to another. Conversely, the attribute of Severity is the source of fear, awe, and the drive for self-improvement, as it emphasizes the distance between oneself and the other. Similarly, warm gold is associated with Kindness, whereas austere silver is associated with Severity.
Because the Temple, the Ark, and the Showbread are all about G-d’s love and passion, the service was performed exclusively by the Kohanim. They were supported by the Levites, much like silver was also used in the Temple to touch off the gold, and much like distance is sometimes necessary to create closeness. However, the overarching theme of the Temple was a celebration of the passionate and erotic bond between G-d and His people.