It is for this reason, that I was pleasantly surprised to read a very main stream rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, writing on a very mainstream website, Jerusalem Post, about what some may consider a taboo area in terms of topics for divrei torah.
For those of you who are fans of the weekly parasha like me, you will have found the past months quite difficult. You see, the torah starts with some great narratives and heroes, Abraham and Sarah, Tamar and Yehuda, Joseph and the decent to Egypt, Moses, the great Exodus… and after this gripping formative narrative, …. well on the face of it… a whole lot of boring details about an ancient temple which was essentially a massive slaughterhouse of animals with literally a river of blood flowing through it.
From Parashat Terumah onwards great detail is given about the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was the centre of the Israelites' religious life during the years they wandered in the wilderness. The Book of Leviticus (named thematically so due to it’s laws concerning the Levites and the sacrificial cult) deals almost exclusively with this topic. For a non temple fan like myself, what can I learn from the parshiot at this time?
Rabbi Riskin piqued my interested again in parsha with his commentary on the parsaha last month entitled Parshot Vayakhel-Pekudei: Sacred Sex.
Referencing the pasuk "The cherubs were with wings spread upwards, sheltering the Ark cover... with their faces toward one another" - (Exodus 37:9) he explained the symbolism of these two lovely headpieces of the Ark by quoting the following from the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54a.
"Rabbi Katina said, 'When the Israelites would ascend [to the Holy Temple] on the festival, [the priest/kohen] would roll up the curtain for them, and display for them the cherubs, who were joined together [in an embrace].' The priest/kohen would then tell them, 'Behold the beloved feelings for you on the part of the Omnipresent are like the beloved feelings of a male for a female' "
Rabba bar Rav Shila explains that "[The cherubs appeared in the engravings] as a man joined in an embrace with his female companion"
Hold on! Hold on! So the cherubs were embraced in a sexual manner on top of the ark. Many would think that this would be the last place for such an image to appear. But no! In fact Rabbi Akiva who taught that if each of the 24 books of the Bible is holy, the Song of Songs(which deals exclusively with an erotic relationship between young lovers) is the Holy of Holies.
And Rabbi Akiva did not merely mean to say that the lover in the Song of Songs is the Almighty and the beloved is the nation Israel; after all, the sages have already taught us that no verse is to be completely detached from its literal meaning. Therefore what R. Akiva is teaching is a lofty truth: every proper and passionate love relationship between man and woman resembles the cosmic love between God and Israel. Love is a sacred feeling, marriage is a sacred union.
So what’s the message young Ittay learns from this? Well, young kids are always going to be interested in learning about sex, and frankly, I think the Torah is generally going to be the last place they look for such information. But no, perhaps the torah, if more divrei torah were explored in such a manner, should be the first place to learn about sex. Rabbi Riskin concludes:
So it is tragic when our young receive their sex education from the street or from impure movies and Internet porn. Our educators must be trained to teach about sexual relationships from our Bible, just as these teachings once emerged from the engravings of the cherubs. Parents must explain to their children not only the evils of immorality, and not only the legitimate joys of marital sex, but also the sanctity of the sexual union from the perspective of Judaism. Sex must once again be joined to love and marriage, and be seen as one of the great wonders of a fulfilled family life. And such education has to begin no later than the sixth grade!