NiSh’ma: Panim el Panim

This configuration rings true to me today. I picture volunteers in my community working shoulder-to-shoulder in the kitchen preparing meals for homeless “tent city” residents or a multigenerational group marching for justice and equality arm-in-arm, like a wall of planks.

Two strikingly similar phrases appear in back-to-back chapters of the book of Exodus regarding the construction of the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle, the portable spiritual home of the Israelites. First, a pair of cherubim (winged angelic beings) are commissioned to sit atop the Ark, facing each other, which the text describes as “ish el achiv,” “a man to his brother.” Then in the following chapter, we learn about how the Mishkan structure itself is to be assembled, with planks of wood whose tenons and sockets fit together “isha el achotah,” “a woman to her sister.”

These two phrases are identical, save for the one (notable) difference of gender. The reasons for the difference is straightforward: k’ruvim (cherubim) is a masculine noun in Hebrew and yadot (tenons) a feminine noun. However, the visual pictures the two verses paint are quite different: the cherubim’s orientation dictates that they face in toward each other, whereas the planks must be laid in parallel, side-by-side.

In a place of privilege, the cherubim reside in the center of the Tabernacle, inside the Holy of Holies, on top of the Ark that contains the tablets of the commandments. And yet their face-to-face orientation exists only within the confines of the side-by-side planks, which form the very structure of the Tabernacle.

This configuration rings true to me today. I picture volunteers in my community working shoulder-to-shoulder in the kitchen preparing meals for homeless “tent city” residents or a multigenerational group marching for justice and equality arm-in-arm, like a wall of planks. This shoulder-to-shoulder framework — with directional alignment toward a common goal, and through inter-group partnerships and alliances — allows us to build the Tabernacles of today: communities and societies capable of housing the most intimate face-to-face encounters.

Read more: https://forward.com/shma-now/panim-el-panim/414927/nishma-panim-el-panim/