On the Wings of Our Children
“And these cherubs had their wings extended upward with the wings hovering over the kaporet [coverlet], with each baby-faced cherub facing his brother” (Exodus 25:20).
Among the most well-known and fascinating accoutrements of the sanctuary in the desert were the pure gold cherubs on the cover of the Ark of Testimony. The most sacred objects in the sanctuary were the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, which were deposited in the Ark. What lies behind the symbol of the cherubs? Why did the Almighty want winged babies – for such is the description of the cherubs – to serve as protection for our eternal Torah? In previous years I have cited the Midrash which describes how the Almighty was reluctant to give the Torah to the Israelites. “How do I know that you will keep My Torah? Who will serve as my guarantors?”
First the Israelites suggest the patriarchs and matriarchs, but they are rejected by the Almighty, since they have already lived their lives and made their everlasting contribution. When the Israelites then suggest the prophets, sages, and religious leaders of every generation, the Almighty is still not satisfied. From the divine vantage point, they are too few in number; after all, God has entered into a covenant with the entire nation. “Our children will then be the guarantors!” cry out the Israelites standing around Mount Sinai. “We guarantee that we will teach our children in every generation the Torah of God, and this will ensure its continuity as well as ours.” Since God does accept the children of all future generations as proper guarantors, it can be said that our children are the main protectors of our eternal Torah – and this may well be the significance of the cherubs. But what is the significance of the wings?
Two years ago during the Sabbath of the portion of Truma I had an experience which gave me new insight into the symbolism of the winged cherubs. I spent that Shabbat, as well as the week previous to it, in Manipur, northeast India. I was on a mission together with my distinguished colleague Rabbi Eliyahu Bierenboim (a seeker of lost tribes), Rabbi Eliyahu Avichait and my good friend and respected journalist Michael Freund to connect with some 5,000-6,000 people who claimed descent from the tribe of Menashe and who lived in the provinces of Mizoram and Manipur. It would be virtually impossible to describe the magnificent greenery and majestic mountains on which the most primitive bamboo dwellings housed many communities that looked part Indian and part Chinese, but who were living deeply religious and committed Jewish lifestyles.
As I joined in their many celebrations in our honor, replete with special ethnic dances and rhythms mixed with psalms and modern Israeli songs, as I prayed with them and watched in awe the manner in which they were teaching the Hebrew language and the sacred Torah to their children, I could not believe that I was walking the paths of northeast India. In each community there were elders who regaled us with ancient songs in the Miso dialect which began with tales of the Garden of Eden and our patriarchs and concluded with the kings of Israel and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. After every stanza came the refrain tena tena tziona, “go, go to Zion.” Their sincerity was awe-inspiring, and their love of Zion was a glory to behold.
I had made the journey to India as a skeptic, but by the third day I was convinced that these very sincere people were indeed descendants of the children of Menashe who had been expelled from Israel by the Assyrians and had somehow made their way to India via China. On the Sabbath of the portion of Truma we were excitedly told that there was to be a circumcision in the thatched-roof synagogue. The synagogue was filled to capacity; the circumcision ceremony lasted exactly 22 minutes. I received a glimpse into the kind of commitment that these Jews had carried with them for thousands of years, isolated from all other Jews but keeping the rituals which they knew and loved and were willing to die for.
And then I remembered a passage in the Talmud: “Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says, ‘Every commandment for which the Israelites were willing to sacrifice their lives, like the commandment of circumcision [and tefillin], is still being maintained with strength and commitment … [For example], once the wicked kingdom [of Rome] decreed that anyone who placed tefillin on his head would have his brains pierced. Elisha put on his tefillin and went out to the market place. A Roman captain saw him and ran after him. Elisha took the tefillin from his head, placing them in his closed fist. “What is in your hand?” demanded the Roman captain. “The wings of a dove,” replied Elisha, who opened his fist and – 10 and behold – in his fist were the wings of a dove. Why are they called the wings of a dove? Because just as the wings protect the dove, so do the commandments protect the Israelites. And from then on Elisha was called,
‘Elisha, the man of wings.”’
The Bnei Menashe have performed circumcision – a painful and life-threatening act of commitment – for thousands of years. Indeed, every Jewish father who has his son circumcised is enacting, albeit to a lesser degree, the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac. Such ultimate commitment, which has characterized Jewish parents and children in every generation and in virtually every country, provides the wings which enable the Jewish people to soar heavenward despite persecution and isolation. These are the baby-faced cherubs who are committed by their parents to Torah, and who protect us with the wings which link our people to our Parent-in-Heaven for all eternity.
The writer is the chief rabbi of Efrat and dean of the Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs.