I love optical illusions. As a child, I would beg my parents to buy me the latest book filled with visible oddities and conundrums.
This is one of my favorites: If looking at the black space, the form of the image, it looks like two human faces, turned toward each other, looking like they are staring at each other with a fiery intensity. But gaze at the white space, the area between the ink ... and one sees a wine chalice formed from the boundaries of these two faces that are gazing so intently into the other.
This is exactly why I love illusions so much; they highlight the fact that at one moment in time we see one thing, and at another, we see something totally different. But you never see both at once. You can know that both exist, but you can only SEE one. Fascinating stuff.
In Exodus, when God commands the building of the tabernacle, God commands that two cherubim shall face each other, gazing at each other panim el mul panim – face to face. And between them, lies the ark of the covenant; the Torah, along with the ten commandments. A cherub is a kind of spiritual being. They are only mentioned a few times in the Torah, and they always signify the presence of God.
So what's the point, and what does this have to do with our Torah portion, Toldot? I'm glad you asked.
When we gaze at the face of another human being ... when we listen to someone, learn from someone, even argue and disagree, we bring God into the conversation. We bring holiness in. When we have a meaningful encounter with another, we are akin to those cherubim, staring at each other. The result of that encounter is found in the spaces of the conversation, the argument, the love, the learning. Whereas the cherbuim stared at the Torah, I argue that by metaphorically staring at each other, we create Torah. Symbolized by a chalice of wine ... what could be a better Jewish symbol for acknowlding the sweetness of our interactions with each other.
Our Torah portion this week, Toldot, begins with a narrative introduction: And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begat Isaac. Simple enough. It’s our ancestors version of once upon a time; it is a textual clue reminding us to pay attention. This portion concentrates on the generations (Toldot) that continue after Abraham and Isaac.
One book I have has no less than four different interpretations of this verse. I’d like to share one, takin from the writings of Rav Yehiel of Alexander:
And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begat Isaac. Isaac always thought that he himself was nothing, except for the fact that he was Abraham’s son. He attributed whatever he was and had to his father. Abraham, on his part, felt that he had never accomplished anything in serving God properly, and that his only merit was in having raised a son such as Isaac. This was the way they thought: each believed that his merit derived from the other.
Rav Yehiel constructed this midrash because the verse from Torah is strange, if not downright repetitive. Of course Abraham begat Isaac! It's a strange verse, one that almost begs for interpretation. Which helps explain why just one book has four different meanings of this one verse.
Now, we could look at this midrash soley as an intellectual curiousity; nodding our heads thinking, “that’s interesting.” But I think there’s something deeper to this teaching, something that reminds me of our optical illusion bringing our vision back and forth between cherubim and wine, between humanity and holiness.
The theologian Martin Buber talked about I-Thou relationships; relationships in which we recognize that each person’s sense of identity, sense of I, is as strong as our own. Our challenge is to nurture that realization. Every relationship can’t be like this; if it was, we would never leave the counter at Kroger. But, some can be; our closest friends, our family, our loved ones, our religion and our God.
Pirke Avot tells us that when three people sit to study Torah, God’s presence is with them. Because when we look into another’s eye, when we acknowledge the divine presence within each other, there is holiness – whether symbolized by a cup of wine in an optical illusion or the presence of our Torah ensconced between two angelic cherubim, relationships create holiness.
Our midrash suggests that Abraham and Isaac were like the two cherubim. The space between them is filled with holiness ... it is filled with their toldot ... us.
Abraham and Isaac relied on each other for strength, support and faith; even for their own notion of self-identity. Shouldn’t we do the same?