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‘Cherubim’ Parashat Pekudei 5782

The building of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) is complete. All of its systems and subsystems have been manufactured and qualified and the operators have undergone training. The Mishkan stands ready for Initial Operational Capability (IOC). The declaration of IOC is quick to follow [Shemot 40:17]: “In the first month of the second year, on the first of the month, the Mishkan was set up.” On the first day of Nissan, almost one year after the exodus from Egypt, the Mishkan was inaugurated and opened for business.

What the Torah does not mention is the date that the building was completed – the date the Mishkan was ready for IOC. Our Sages in the Midrash [Yalkut Shimoni Kings I 247:184] fill in the blanks. According to the Midrash, the building of the Mishkan was completed on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, more than three months before the inauguration ceremony. Between the time the Mishkan was finished and the time it was opened, continues the Midrash, the Jewish People became concerned that something they had done caused the delay. G-d comforted them, telling them that the reason He wanted to wait until Nissan because Nissan was the month in which our forefather, Isaac, was born. When the month of Kislev became “embarrassed” at its being snubbed, G-d “paid it back” by placing the holiday of Chanukah, in which the altar was reconsecrated, in the month of Kislev.

The Midrash’s attributing human characteristics to a month in order to convey a message is not uncommon. What we must understand is the message that the Midrash is trying to convey. There is a well-known disagreement between the medieval sages as to the reason why the Jewish People were commanded to build a Mishkan. Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, notes that the sin of the golden calf (egel) is sandwiched between the instructions for the Mishkan and its construction and asserts that the Mishkan is a reparation (tikkun) for the sin of the golden calf. The Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel one century after Rashi, wholeheartedly disagrees. His argument is compelling: According to Rashi’s logic, had the Jews not worshipped the golden calf, there would have been no need for a Mishkan and G-d would have never commanded or even allowed the Jewish People to build a finite corporeal home for His infinite spiritual being. The Ramban posits that this is an impossibility: G-d needs to connect with man the same way that man needs to connect with G-d and the Mishkan was the vehicle for that connection. It was a perpetuation of the revelation that occurred at Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Menachem Liebtag, who teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion, bridges the gap between Rashi and the Ramban by suggesting that the Mishkan was a reparation for a different sin – for the original sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden[1]. Rabbi Liebtag writes, “The Garden of Eden reflects the ideal spiritual environment in which man cultivates his relationship with G-d”. The Mishkan is a recreation of that environment. Rabbi Liebtag’s proof comes from the Cherubim (winged angels) that guarded the Garden of Eden after man was evicted [Bereishit 3:24]: “East of the Garden of Eden were stationed the Cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.” Rabbi Liebtag notes that the only other location in the Torah in which Cherubim appear is in the Mishkan:

  1. Two golden Cherubim were located on the kaporet, a golden plate placed over the Ark of the Covenant. Their wings covered and shielded the Ark.
  2. Cherubim were woven into the parochet, the curtain that served as a barrier at the entrance of the Holy of Holies, in which the Ark of the Covenant resided.

Rabbi Liebtag suggests that by equating the Tree of Life to the Torah[2] that resided in the Ark of the Covenant, “the symbolic function of the Cherubim as guardians of the Holy of Holies may correspond to the Mishkan’s function as an environment similar to the Garden of Eden, where man can strive to come closer to G-d”.

An idea from Rabbi Asher Weiss, one of the world’s greatest halachic arbiters, can help us flesh this out. Rabbi Weiss asks how the Jewish People, only weeks after experiencing an unparalleled Divine revelation at Sinai and only weeks after saying [Shemot 24:7] “We will do and we will listen”, could turn around and worship a golden calf. He answers that the Jews did not actually worship the golden calf, rather, they built the golden calf to serve as a medium between themselves and G-d. The Cherubim in the Mishkan served as a precedent: they existed to assist the Jewish People connect with G-d. The calf would be no different.

Rabbi Weiss continues by quoting Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik, known as the “Beit HaLevi”, who lived in Belarus in the nineteenth century. The Beit HaLevi asks why the Cherubim were permitted while the golden calf was not. He answers that the Cherubim were kosher simply because G-d had commanded the Jewish People to build them. There was no such commandment to build a golden calf and so not only was it forbidden, it was idolatrous. Similarly, G-d had commanded Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Adam ate from the tree so to [Bereishit 3:5] “be like divine beings” and was banished from G-d’s Presence. The Cherubim sent to guard the gates of the Garden of Eden were representative of the critical importance of directly following G-d’s rules and regulations as far as Divine worship is concerned. Even the smallest error can lead to disaster.

According to the Midrash, the reason that the Mishkan with its Cherubim was opened in the month of Nissan was because our forefather, Isaac, was born in the month of Nissan. I suggest that the Midrash is alluding to the binding (Akeida) of Isaac, in which Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son merely because G-d had commanded him to do so. Rav Uriel Eitam, who teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion, suggests that the Akeida and the Adam’s sin share similar motifs: “Flame and sword appear in the aftermath of Adam’s sin to protect the garden: these very elements serve as instruments to fulfill G-d’s command in the hands of Abraham. The fire parallels the flame [carried by Abraham], and the knife parallels the sword [to be sued to slaughter Isaac]; with their help, Abraham carries out G-d’s will in the story of the Akeida. The ‘fiery ever-turning sword’ turns into an instrument of [ritual] and devotion in the hands of Abraham.” It was only natural that the Mishkan, a tikkun of the original sin, would be opened in the month that Isaac was born.

The holiday of Chanukah is an example of worship gone wrong. Judaism considers the human body holy, viewing the physical body as a partner with the soul, and forbidding a Jew from defacing the body in any way. The Torah explicitly forbids tattooing. Even after a person dies, the body retains its holiness. It must be buried as soon as possible in order to prevent its desecration. Hellenism, the neo-pagan religion of the ancient Greeks, took glorification of the human body to an extreme. The Greeks adulated the human body. They would play sports naked, anointing their bodies with oil. They considered the concept of circumcision as nothing less than mutilation, an impingement upon perfection, and they forbade it. Many Jews adopted Hellenism. The Maccabees who rebelled against the Greeks were a small minority. When the Maccabees defeated the Greeks, the Jewish People, in no small measure, defeated ourselves. When the altar was consecrated anew on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, when a statue of the Greek god Zeus was removed from the Holy Temple, the Jewish People renewed their covenant with G-d. More than a thousand years after the completion of the building of the Mishkan, the Cherubim would once again guard the way to the Tree of Life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] It is very much in vogue today to use the original sin as the source of a large amount of Jewish ritual. See, for instance, Rav Uriel Eitam’s “Nahar Yotzeh m’Eden”.

[2] The Torah is commonly referred to as “Etz Chaim” – a tree of life.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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