By Rabbi Adam Lavitt
Over the course of the fall semester, several swastikas appeared on the college campus at which I work. When I first saw a picture of one, spray-painted on the inside of a bathroom stall in the library, I was pained by the depiction of a symbol that is inextricably bound up with the systematic murder of many of my family members.
What was particularly disconcerting about these symbols was that nobody knew who had painted them. Lacking any evidence to the contrary, I started to suspect that someone at the college had done it; while on campus, I began to experience a creeping self-consciousness about making myself visible as a Jew by wearing a kippah.
I began to feel like I was on patrol, surveying my surroundings with suspicion. As I succumbed to mistrust, my heart began to close as a kind of self-protection. But I soon realized I did not want to live in a world in which people responded to hate by turning away from one another.
Pushing against my protective instincts, I opened my heart to those around me. As I did, I was able to receive the caring attention that people on campus were directing towards the Jewish community: a powerful statement released by the college president, flowers from the Muslim Student Association and local clergy, and letters of support from various administrators and student groups.
In this week’s Torah portion, God instructs all whose hearts move them to contribute gold, toward the creation of a magnificent sanctuary that will allow the Divine to dwell amongst the people. At the heart of the sanctuary is an Ark with golden cherubs on either end of it, gazing toward one another. It is from between these cherubs that the Divine will speak: “There I will meet with you, and I will [speak] to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubs that are on top of the Ark of the Pact” (Exodus 25:22).
The very center of this sacred space, remarkably, is not the cherubs’ golden forms, but rather the empty space between them. That gap, charged with their mutual gaze, has the potential to be filled with the Divine voice.
This beautiful depiction is countered by a troubling, contrasting image that appears later in scripture. In this later image, the cherubs did not face one another, but instead faced the Ark. The rabbis reconcile these apparently contradictory images this way: “The former was at a time when Israel obeyed the will of the Divine; the latter was at a time when Israel did not obey the will of the Divine.”
In other words, the cherubs looked at each other—and created a space from which the Divine would speak--in accordance with the people’s ability to create space among them for obeying the Divine will, including the many commandments that require them to turn towards each other in responsiveness. Perhaps the rabbis imagined that when the people turned away from each other and their divinely ordained responsibilities to care for one another, the cherubs, too, turned their faces away, instead gazing at the Ark upon which they were stationed.
It is so easy when we listen to the news to get defensive and tighten our sense of certainty around our existing views. When those with whom we disagree characterize us as their opposition, or if we view ourselves that way, it is too easy to solidify that sense of utter division, which then invades our hearts and the heart of our nation. As we become self-righteous, and turn away from each other, the cherubs too become hard-edged, and turn away from the space of possibility between them. As the cherubs look down, they literally lose sight of each other.
If we only act on the basis of what we are against, we risk forgetting what we are fighting for—a purpose that may join us to others with different viewpoints. If we turn toward the space between us, we can more easily recall that we are engaging in this world out of care and love for those close to us and those who are most vulnerable among us, and that there may be things we share even with those from who we feel so different.
While our current political climate has emboldened hateful speech and action, it has also made visible the force of love: The care the Jewish students on my campus received. The signs across my neighborhood that say, “Hate has no home here.” The communities across the nation that have come together to protest the Muslim ban, to protect immigrants, refugees, transgender individuals, and all who are vulnerable right now. Like our ancestors, we can create the potential for a new voice to enter our midst if we reinvest in the loving connections between us.
In his novel, Gates of the Forest, the late Elie Wiesel writes about a boy coming of age during the Nazi Holocaust. While hiding from the Nazis, he falls in love, but closes his heart for fear of losing the person he loves. A friend of his tells him, “If you see love as a compromise, a defeat, you’re mistaken. It’s a victory. Above all, in time of war, when men are filled with death, this is the time to love. This is the time to choose. An act of love may tip the balance.” As exhausting as it is to turn towards others in a world that is fraught with danger, hatred and fear only deepen our sense of a world divided. We must also take the risk to gaze attentively and lovingly across the spaces between us.
Each day, we have the choice whether or not to be motivated by love. When we choose to respond to the forces of hate with the spaciousness of love, we become stronger. A place of potential emerges between us as we turn toward one another. To the extent we can suspend our habitual way of engaging in the world to see the expanse that contains all of us, we are released from our self-centered feeling of separation into a sense of being lovingly held, connected, and whole. As uncomfortable as it is to hold open space for the unknown, what emerges there has the potential to show us a new way, to allow us to hear the Divine voice calling us to responsibility and to love.
Rabbi Adam Lavitt is a spiritual leader, educator, and writer living in Philadelphia, where he serves as the campus rabbi at Swarthmore College. He was ordained at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, where he also received a Master’s in Jewish Education, and a Certificate in Pastoral Care. He has been a Liturgist in Residence at the National Havurah Institute, and a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.