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.
Rabbi Nussbaum sees confirmation of the gendered language describing the orientation of the cherubim and the planks constituting the Mishkan expressed in the ways her congregants enact their service to the community. Reflecting further on this theme, I see two cherubim figures retaining their separate autonomous existence. Their positioning describes an energetic task of holding the in-between space. In fact, many artists’ renditions of the cherubim show their wings touching but their faces turned downward toward the cover of the Tabernacle as they hold the space for God, who, from that space, will speak to the Israelites. They must temper their individuality in order to perform their quite exalted task. Being face-to-face can generate many distractions from a task at hand.
The planks, however, are to be literally joined via tenon, a type of joint in which the woodworker fashions the end of the plank to fit seamlessly into a prepared space. The plank does not retain its full shape but allows itself to be fitted to another. A tenon requires a mortise. Each plank must lose some of its material in order to accomplish the creation of a physical space. Women are perhaps more familiar with submerging — even sacrificing —parts of themselves in order to accomplish what needs to be done in families and communities. We can imagine the sacrifice of the planks because it echoes ways in which we have tempered our identities in service to others. The individuality of the planks, first in being milled into boards and then into interlocking joints, has been sacrificed for the strength and endurance of the Mishkan.
As an artist, I understand the interplay between structure and energy in a work of art. Design and embellishment house the energy of what is being expressed; energy without form cannot be conveyed. Yet we have a long way to go to balance the gendered contributions in our communities and society. Whose identity and labor are submerged and who retains a sense of self as we work for our common good? Both the physical space of the Mishkan, so carefully designed of wood and many other material elements, and the energetic space, created by the positioning of heavenly beings, are required for us as individuals and in our communities for the full presence of the Divine to dwell within and guide us. But all of the work can be shared.
The instructions for the building of the Mishkan, the spiritual center of the newly liberated community of Israelites, is rich with detail and symbolic significance. As Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum points out in her insightful commentary on the two selected texts, the juxtaposition of the masculine and the feminine helps remind us of the ways symbolic distinction can shape connection and community.
That gendered binary representation of the cherubim and the planks/tenons (representing the duality of masculinity and femininity), however, belies the fact that we live in a non-binary world, where individuals span and expand the gender spectrum. As we continue to learn and experience how contemporary reflections of gender can be empowering for the ways we understand ourselves and one another, we should also seek ways to reconcile this learning with the texts that inspire us in our spiritual lives.
So, perhaps it is not the two cherubim that we should notice but the spectrum of space between them. Perhaps it is not the pairs of planks/tenons we should be mindful of but the multiplicity of those pairs and how they interact with one other. In that sense, the text might teach us that the face-to-face or panim el panim encounters and the beautiful notion of community building that Rabbi Nussbaum notes are not just about male and female but also about reflecting the full spectrum of human identity as we strive to fulfill our collective purpose in this world.