Interpretations of kaporet through and for the ages
TorahParshat T’rumah

Interpretations of kaporet through and for the ages

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

In Parshat T’rumah, we explore the relationship between art and faith through the construction of the mishkan, the tent which will house the new law given to the Israelites. God emphasizes in Exodus 25:8, “Make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”

Although the parsha may seem at first focused around measurements and directions, perhaps reading more like an Ikea manual for the mishkan, I wish to highlight one particular verse, which has come to embody the powerful link between biblical imagery and the artistic imagination.

The parsha explains that there should be a covering for the Ark of the Covenant, which will contain the stone tablets of law revealed at Mt. Sinai, and that this covering will be a sacred place. God declaims in verse 22: “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you, from above the kaporet … all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” The word for this meeting place, kaporet, in Hebrew takes the root chaf, fay, reish, which has two very different connotations. This root is used to imply a covering of some kind, as is the case with the covering for the Aron or ark; however it also implies the covering of sins, or atonement, as in the holiday Yom Kippur.

In the Greek Septuagint, the Hebrew was interpreted as “hilastērion,” or “thing which atones.” This then made its way through Latin translation to “propitiatorium,” which has a similar meaning. In many later English Christian translations, the kaporet is then rendered as “mercy seat,” implying a new theology around this simple covering. Thus we see that our Hebrew root has become more than just a practical description, but rather a basis for new theology for other religions.

Yet, the journey of our kaporet went even further! In 1988, Australian goth-rocker Nick Cave, who is no stranger to biblical imagery (Cave’s only novel is entitled “And the Ass Saw the Angel,” a clear reference to Balaam’s donkey in Parshat Balak) penned the song “The Mercy Seat” on the album “Tender Prey.” In this context, the kaporet took on a more sinister meaning, with Cave using the expression to represent the electric chair for an inmate on death row. Cave’s narrator references biblical law while expressing no remorse for his actions. He sings, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and anyway I told the truth, and I’m not afraid to die.”

In this setting, the mercy seat comes to represent the poet’s own relationship with death, and coming to terms with his own mortality and sins. It would be a sad journey for our kaporet if this was the final layer of midrash to unveil; however the kaporet continued its journey through modernity, taking on new meaning from another great musician. In 2001, Johnny Cash recorded the song, adding his own unique voice and interpretation of the tragic text, as a way to speak out against what he saw as unjust implementations of the death penalty in Texas. Cash related, “If a man’s been there 25 years, maybe we should consider whether or not he has become a good human being and do we still want to kill him.”

Thus, Cash, using the language of the mercy seat, the kaporet, takes this imagery to speak out against this perceived injustice, and with his rendition, our unique and ambiguous word for covering has come full circle. Although the kaporet may never have had any implication of judgment or atonement for sin in its original context, we see that through linguistic and artistic development, this word has become loaded with poetic, theological and philosophical midrash.

Our Torah is so powerful that through Greek, Latin, Australian and finally American channels of reinterpretation, we see a great American country artist again finding new ways to interpret the Torah in a contemporary context for his own life and times.

In Parshat T’rumah, we are taught about using gold, silver and precious stones to glorify God’s sanctuary and how to construct a dwelling place worthy of God’s presence; however we also see that the reverse can be true. The words of the parsha can also be used to ornament and enlighten our contemporary imaginations, inspiring us in prophetic words of artistry, poetry and righteousness for our contemporary world. PJC

Cantor Toby Glaser is cantor at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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