Cherubs and Schwartzie

Some things that happened long ago – feel just like yesterday.  I left home in Sacramento for UCLA in 1979 – 38 years ago.  Once […]

Some things that happened long ago – feel just like yesterday.  I left home in Sacramento for UCLA in 1979 – 38 years ago.  Once I got to campus, one of the first people I met was Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, of blessed memory – the Chabad Rabbi, who introduced himself as Schwartie – the name everyone lovingly called him. He made quite a vivid impression on me! Away from home for the first time – meeting someone with such a kind heart, a love of Judaism, and sincere joy was a blessing. Since college, every time he would see me, he would light up.  He was like that with everyone.

When the Reisman family joined CBJ, and Ron heard I went to UCLA, he and I connected over Schwartzie.  Schwartzie is Ron’s uncle, and because there was only a 7 year gap – Ron’s mom was significantly older than her brother Schwartie – in many ways you were raised as brothers.

Talking with Ron about Schwartie, especially in light of his recent death rekindled memories that are precious to me.  Ron reminded me of how Schwartzie would talk to people about God – a topic many liberal Jews don’t explore deeply.  He would ask people what they believed about God and when he heard the response that so many said – “I’m atheist,” or “I’m agnostic,” Schwartie would listen carefully and probe deeply. “Why are you an atheist? What is it that makes you not believe?”  Often the person would share their reason and Schwartzie would respond, “I reject that God as well.” He was thoughtful and articulate.  His empathy and openness opened the door to a different conversation about spirituality and faith.  And regardless of the discussion and its outcome, he accepted you.  He listened to you.  He valued you without judgment.

Schwartzie embraced the Hasidic philosophy that there was a pintele yid – a little bit of Judaism in every Jew. He took it upon himself to connect to that piece of Jewish soul in each of us. I mourn the loss of a man who was special to you and your family. This morning I want to honor his memory by weaving some of Schwartzie’s philosophy throughout the sermon.

Schwartzie’s deep, unconditional love of people is part of this morning’s portion. In describing the building of the Tabernacle – each item and its use is carefully explained.  There is one mysterious item on the list – seemingly has no purpose – and frankly, seems odd.  And that is the Keruvim – cherubs – half human, half winged creatures. Take a look at the picture on page 1521as I summarize the description of the keruvim and their purpose (25:18-22 – p. 488)  “And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the Ark cover with their wings, with their faces one to another toward the Ark cover shall the faces of the cherubim be … and there I will meet you and I will speak with you from above the Ark cover from between the two cherubim which are upon the Ark of testimony.”

This seems to be the holiest spot in the Tabernacle.  This is where God communicates with us – the blank space between these two objects.  But what were these cherubim?  We are told that each one had faces, but we’re not sure if it was of a human or an angel.  We are told they face each other and that their wings touched but are not told why.

What does this all mean?  I honestly don’t know. What I do have is symbolic interpretations that are beautiful.  For Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the cherubs facing each other is us – in all of our differences staying connected to each other.  Listen to pieces of his interpretation: “The whole nation of Israel is represented not by one cherub but by two….We have to become like the two cherubim – who in mutual respect and consideration direct ourselves one toward the other, are there for each other, entrusted to the other in cooperation.” The cherubim facing each other come to teach that different individuals with varying opinions are meant to keep, hold and protect each other.

Schwartie was a man who faced you, respected you and kept you in precious presence even if you disagreed. He engaged with Jews and humans of every stripe: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, secular, settlers, peace activists, agnostic, atheist, Russian, Persian, Ethiopian, big, little – he just loved people. Wherever he was, he would greet you with a smile and pull you in with his wit and kindness – be it at a music festival, a sports venue or at the huge dinners he would host. He faced you with every ounce of presence – and ignited something in your spirit. He pulled people together.  When humans face each other – that is where the Divine dwells.

We need the lesson of the keruvim and Schwartzie right now.  At this moment in history – we are not facing each other; especially those with whom we may disagree.  We are retreating into our own bubbles – talking to those with whom we agree and vilifying those with whom we disagree.  It is getting ugly.  Hate is rising.  Facing each other, caring for each other, cooperating with one another won’t do away with differences and disagreements – but it puts them in a different context.

This week on Tuesday marks an obscure observance that has fallen out of our consciousness, that it is time to remember. It is the 9th of Adar. The 9th of Adar is a fast day because it is the day when disagreements between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel turned from respectful and uplifting to violent.  These two schools had always disagreed with each other – but with respect.  For generations they would argue and argue – but would always listen and mingle, marry each other’s children. In fact in Pirkei Avot, they are held out as the paradigm for an “argument for the sake of heaven” – disagreeing about what the truth is, but always respecting a different point of view.

But there was a moment in history where they stopped discussing ideas and disagreeing about what is the truth– and Beit Shammai insisted that there was only one correct answer that had to be followed. According to one source they even killed people from Beit Hillel who disagreed. When disagreements move from the realm of passionate embrace of different viewpoints to anger that plays out violently – we have disaster.  So some Sages enacted a fast on the day of the killing – the 9th of Adar.  While it is a fast that few practice, I believe it is more relevant than ever and should be adapted.

We have moved so far from the ideal of the cherubs facing each other.  The love that Schwartzie lived gets forgotten. It is precisely those times when people are turning away from one another that we need to lift up the danger of that behavior.  We need to tell stories of people like Schwartzie who embody connectedness to all people. Let’s drive that lesson home this Tuesday on the 9th of Adar. What if we commemorated the 9th of Adar by figuring out a way to turn toward each other? Let’s make it a day to teach, to reach out to someone with whom we disagree, to fast.

As I prepared for today’s drash, I reached out to several Chabad rabbis in the area asking if they had a teaching connecting Schwartzie and the Torah portion.  They all knew, or were related to him and sent me beautiful teachings!  Several of them focused on the commentary of Rashi which taught that the keruvim had the face of children. And while that may see like an insignificant detail, it in fact helps us understand how to create a reality of presence towards fellow human.

One explanation of why the keruvim had the face of children is that those who ensure the future of the Torah being kept are children.  The wings of the children – their learning and connection would be the energy to carry the Torah into the future.  Schwartzie believed that we needed to connect Jews to their sacred legacy so that it would soar into the future – and that means teaching our children at home and religious school.  When our children are the guardians of Torah and grounded in the teachings of Torah, the discussion about being present for one another becomes a much different discussion.

I had a heart to heart with the 7th grade class this week about two different, but related topics: the social dynamics of how they treat each other, and the situation of facing rising anti-Semitism in the community.  Because they were rooted in Torah, it was a much different conversation than I could have with people who didn’t know Torah.  We talked about gossip and the lessons we learned about how it hurt.  We talked about not standing idly by and what it meant to stand up in the face of pain or hurt.   We talked about love of neighbor and the specifics of caring and kindness.  Torah gives you wings as you learn what it means to face each other. We need to create the background and foundation so that our children can be guardians of Torah – and then they will fly!

One last interpretation of the Rebbe: Maybe the keruvim’s face is a child to remind us that God loves us as a parent loves a baby or small child – unconditionally.  Love is not conditioned upon qualities or accomplishments – we simply adore our children.  The Rebbe wrote: “Because the soul of every Jew is ‘a veritable part of G-d above’ (Tanya, Chapter 2), G-d holds us dear with an intrinsic, essential and unbreakable love, like the love parents have for their children.”  Schwartzie believed deeply in God’s love. To hold onto belief of a loving God, we feel that love and pass it on to others.

Let’s create a world where like the keruvim, we truly face each other.  Holding onto example like Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of blessed memory, let’s be fully present to each other, embracing those with whom we differ and aware of the danger of turning away from one another. Let’s ground that presence in teaching Torah and feel the love that emanates from God as a parent’s love goes out to a child. And then, just as God spoke from the empty space between the keruvim which faced we other, we might come to hear that voice as well.