two faces

According to the story in the Torah, the mishkan, the Divine dwelling-place, was a place where God encountered the world in a tangible way, hovering in a cloud inside the innermost shrine. Above the Ark of the Covenant, where the presence of God, the Shekhinah, rested, two golden cherubim faced one another. Aviva Zornberg, a renowed biblical interpreter, once proposed that “God is in the place where the two gazes intersect.” The cherubim faced each other on the Ark, in spite of the Israelite prohibition against images, to remind us that we meet the Divine through encounter. This is the meaning of covenant. Though Jews understand God as a unity, there is always a “twoness” to the Divine presence, for in order to be felt, the Presence must meet with another.

We meet the Divine Other in dialogue—the One we do not know and cannot name. We experience transcendence—that which is radically separate from us, that which creates the cosmos yet stands outside of it. We also meet the Divine, not as an Other, but as a radical innerness—an indwelling. This is the experience of immanence, where God fills us and mirrors our truth. We encounter God through the faces of everyone we meet, and all the multiple facets of creation. Immanence and transcendence are also a twoness. The mystics say that God fills the world and surrounds the world—two ways of experiencing deity. These two paths reflect our inner sense of knowing and belonging, and also our understanding that sooner or later we must discover mystery.

When we encounter the Divine, we imagine the being that speaks to us as solid or ethereal, old or young, male or female. We draw images from sacred texts, from experiences, dreams, and visions, or from our own hearts. These images of the One are infinite, interacting with our emotions and needs, changing as we change. They may come from our early need to be parented by a father or mother, from our desire to serve a divine ruler, or from our wish to freely meet a beloved and friend. Judaism often associates immanence with the feminine (the Shekhinah) and transcendence with the masculine (the Holy One), but the possible permutations of encounter are endless. We meet the Divine through all that we see and touch and do. Through the encounter we are changed. We do teshuvah—we return to a life of loving and meeting, moving away from fear and isolation. We return to the path of life.

Ecclesiastes 4:9 teaches: “Two are better that one, for they have a good reward for their labor. If one should fall, the other can raise him up.” It is through encounter that we raise ourselves upward. We are the cherubim on the ark, gazing at one another in order to create a throne for the Divine.

Jill Hammer


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