Parshat Terumah: Ode on a Grecian Kaporet

“You shall make a cover of pure gold . . . Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover. Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end . . . They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover . . . There I will meet with you, and I will speak to you, from above the cover, from between the two cherubim.” (Exodus 25: 17-22)

God speaks to Bnei Yisrael from the space between the two kruvim [cherubim], which Avivah Zornberg characterizes as the locus of desire. These cherubim, which according to one midrash are male and female, are destined (condemned?) to forever gaze at one another but never to embrace. God speaks from the kaporet, the space between them. And so we learn that it is from places of concentrated potency and desire that the divine voice emanates; not from places of satisfaction and fulfillment.

John Keats recognized the power of unfulfilled desire in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a poem about the lovers painted on the sides of an ancient urn. These figures are static on the painted surface and thus fated never to embrace. And yet there is a satisfaction to be had in the very lack of satisfaction, as Keats assures one of the lovers:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve,
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Although the Lover will never catch up with his “bride of quietness” on the other side of the urn, he can find comfort in the knowledge that her beauty will never fade. Since she is frozen in time, she is “For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, for ever panting, and for ever young.” The moment of ravishing will never come, and so the lovers may look forward to it forever.

We might say that it is in from the curve of the urn between the lovers that God speaks to Bnei Yisrael. And indeed, according to Keats, it is an altar that lies in this space:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

The priest brings the heifer to the altar between the fleeing lovers on the Grecian urn. In this finite space of infinite longing, the infinite God connects with the finite worshipper.

The Zohar teaches that when the Israelites behave righteously, the two kruvim face one another; when they stray, the kruvim are unable to gaze into each other’s eyes. As proof, the Zohar draws on a pasuk from Shir Hashirim (1:4): “The straight-forward love You.” The Zohar then goes on to relate that “When the keruvim turn their faces one to the other and look each one into the other’s face . . . all the colors are repaired, the violet changes into a different color, and the green turns to gold, and thus in the changing of colors, judgement is turned into compassion, and so too compassion can be turned into judgment . . . in those colors that are included in one another, they are the beauty of them all.”

The connection between straight-forwardness and beauty is of course not lost on Keats, who closes “Ode to a Grecian Urn” with the timeless affirmation that “beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

2 thoughts on “Parshat Terumah: Ode on a Grecian Kaporet

  1. Philipos says:

    Great post! What is the “divine voice” and does God really speak? In the same way that the divine voice disappears when the desire of the lovers is fulfilled, so do the intimations of the infinite disappear when you attempt to seize the infinite. “The divine voice” is a merely a metaphor for those intimations of the infinite. Attempts to give theological substance to the “divine voice” destroy the voice. The intimation of the infinite is all we know on earth, and all we need to know-the rest is comfort food that eviscerates the beauty.


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