Reflections on the Detroit Debate: finding each other’s faces again

Last-Minute Larry. I came by my childhood nickname honestly, preferring the rush that accompanied a tight deadline to the calm sense of accomplishment that came with finishing my assignments early. Not much has changed, I guess. Sharon Halperin, who directs the Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education of North Carolina gave us several weeks’ notice that we’d be welcoming teachers from around the state to our services this evening as part of their attendance at a two-day workshop entitled “Witnessing the Witnesses: Teaching the Holocaust in North Carolina.” Still, my message was crafted in the aftermath of this week’s Super Tuesday primaries. Oh, why deny it? My message was crafted in the aftermath of last night’s Republican debate on Fox.

Being Last-Minute Larry has its advantages, however. My references are nothing if not timely. And for teachers of the Holocaust, and students of the Holocaust…for all of us, really…each day brings new reason to ask the question, “what lessons from the past ought we apply to an increasingly frightening present?” On the one hand, it all seems so ridiculous, a major political party choosing its nominee by means of insult comedy and locker room taunting. On the other hand, this is really happening. The question we’re asking about the front-runner is, “is it proper to compare him to Hitler, or is Mussolini the more apt?” These are our choices?

To our guests tonight, I would suggest that your work as teachers of history has never been more relevant and timely. Each of us is called to learn history, in the hope that we won’t be doomed to repeat it. And while those of us who pray and learn here regularly know this to be the case, I’ll say it loud and clear for the benefit of our guests: for the vast majority of contemporary Jews, the lessons of the Shoah must be applied not only to ensuring our own safety, but the safety of all people, everywhere. “Never Again” means never again, to anyone. That the front-runner has built his base by appealing to prejudice against other religious, ethnic, and racial groups, rather than the Jews, does not give us license to remain indifferent. Quite the opposite. There’s a reason that it’s a Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education, after all.

And so we hold today’s news in one hand, and our timeless Torah in the other, and seek to make some sense of it all. Our lectionary, like that of our Christian neighbors, has us reading our foundational text over the course of a year in serial fashion. From October to October, we read through the five books of Moses, and then we do it again. We’re currently reading from the last chapters of Exodus, the description of the portable sanctuary created by the people on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. At the heart of that sanctuary was the aron, or ark, in which the Ten Commandments were deposited. With the tablets inside, a cover, or kaporet, was placed on top.

Listen to the description of that cover:

6 [Betzalel] made a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. 7 He made two kheruvim of gold; he made them of hammered work, at the two ends of the cover: 8 one kheruv at one end and the other cherub at the other end; he made the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at its two ends. 9 The cherubim had their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They faced each other; the faces of the cherubim were turned toward the cover.

These kheruvim, a word often left untranslated but spoken in English as cherubim, are not described in great detail We know they had wings, and we know they had faces. They’ve been imagined as chunky little babies and as terrifying beings. But let’s focus on what we do know: they had wings, and they had faces.

We know they had wings, and they had faces. And we know a bit about those features, too. We know that their wings were spread out and lifted up. Their faces were turned toward each other. And, at the same time, their faces were turned toward the cover. The picture one gets is one of uplift (those wings reaching toward the sky), concern and caring (the faces turned towards each other), and humility (the faces looking down at the cover, toward the Commandments).

An ancient midrash (BT Baba Batra 99a) imagines their heads actually turning to demonstrate when the people were in right relationship with God, and with each other: “When Israel fulfilled the will of God, the faces of the cherubim were turned towards each other to indicate that God loves Israel. But when they did not fulfill the will of God, the cherubim turned their faces away from each other towards the walls.”

What can all of this fanciful cherubim talk say to us today? I hear in it a challenge, certainly to the people who stood on the stage in Detroit last night, but to everyone who has enabled them as well. In other words, to all of us who haven’t done enough to create a society worthy of blessing. After all, one doesn’t get from healthy debate among well-meaning political opponents to “my hands are YUUUGE” overnight.

The callousness represented by a turning away of face from face, the low expectations of our politics represented by wings let down in defeat, and the overwhelming coarseness embodied in faces snubbing the kaporet, the commandments: this is the stance of the day. One can imagine the ancient midrash rewritten for today’s headlines: “When America fulfilled its destiny, the faces of its people were turned towards each other, a symbol of our better angels. But when America lost its way, the faces turned to smirks, and snarls, and sneers.”

Sharon and Christie, thank you for making a visit to Judea Reform Congregation a part of “Witnessing the Witness.” May the workshop be blessed, and may the teachers go into classrooms prepared to help students lead us back. May their hands be lifted high, like wings. May their faces be turned toward one another. May they embody humility and gentleness in all they do.



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