This week’s Torah reading, Teruma, begins a period of five weeks in which four of the Torah readings leave me a bit bewildered. It’s hard to identify with the subject matter: the Mishkan. The edifice constructed for God to be present amongst us, V’SHACHANTI B’TOCHAM (and I will dwell amongst you). We have no such structure available to us nowadays. Therefore, it’s all very alien to me, and, I assume, most of us. And to me, there’s nothing more bizarre in this material than the KERUVIM, the solid gold angelic creatures attached to the cover of the cover of the ARON KODESH, the holy ark which contained the LUCHOT HaBRIT, the tablets of the Covenant.
Even the appearance of these creatures is a topic for heated debate. Rashi gives the most famous position, based on the Talmud (Sukah 5a), that they were stylized children. The Chizkuni, based upon the wings, holds that they were birds. Many historians conjecture that they were sphinxes, a combination of a couple of animals with human faces. Who knows?
But for me that’s not the biggest mystery, conundrum, or enigma. That is how for me to fathom why we’re commanded to make these figures just five chapters after the Torah told us: You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth (Shmot 20:4). BTW those unequivocable instructions actually reside right below those KERUVIM or Cherubim. What’s the take away from all this?
Just for the record, no one should assume that making the figures was in anyway prohibited. We have a well-established principle that positive commandments override negative ones. For example, many of the worship practices in this Mishkan would have been prohibited every Shabbat, except for the fact that the Torah also tells us to light the MENORAH, burn the incense, offer up the KORBANOT on Shabbat. Positive trumps negative.
Now, back to the $64,000 question: Why have Cherubim? There are many answers to this query. Rabbeinu Bechaye offers a number of suggestions, most from other sources: 1. It is necessary to believe in angelic beings, because they are the conduits for Divine communication to this world, including prophecy; 2. We are commanded to fashion two celestial beings to make sure that we are constantly cognizant of the unique Oneness of God; 3. These figures are to be made a male and a female to remind us that God loves us as a woman loves a man; 4. Their presence in the Temple reminds us that SHECHINA dwells in the Holy of Holies, and that we should pray facing its location; 5. The two beings remind us of the fire and thunder which accompanied the epiphany at Sinai; 6. Since they face the Holy Ark, they remind us that we must get our inspiration from the Torah, which is symbolized by the Tablets within (later Moshe Rabbeinu will place a hand written copy of Chumash in the Ark, too).
There’s a lot to digest there. But this year I’d like to focus on two other answers to this important question. First, I’d like to briefly share a profound answer given by Rav Sacks OB”M. The former Chief Rabbi suggests that the key to understanding the message of the Cherubim is the small empty space between these angelic figures. This is where Moshe Rabbeinu heard the communications from God. The information came specifically from a tiny but empty space. We can learn or be reminded of two major lessons from this reality. Lesson one is that God performed TZIMTZUM or shrinking, to communicate with our world. God is everywhere, filling the Cosmos, but can be communicated with in this modest zone between these figures. We can contact God, because God shrinks to our dimension to allow it.
Secondly, Rav Sacks points out that this communication emanates from a tiny empty area. We don’t get communication from these beings, but in between them. This also teaches a profound lesson for us. God isn’t found or communicated with in a grandiose or immense structure which was constructed for that purpose. Oh, no, we communicate with God in this infinitesimal interval between the figures. We communicate with God by letting God into our realm. We must make space and time for God. Rav Sacks concludes: The universe is the space God makes for humanity. The holy is the space humanity makes for God.
One last thought from Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, which is very dear to me. The idea from Sukah quoted from Rashi above, says that these images were of children. The Kedushat Levi informs us in the name of his Rebbe, the Magid of Mezerritch, that this symbolism is crucial to understanding this phenomenon. These child-like images remind us of the Rebbe-Talmud, teacher student relationship. The Rebbe holds back from his immense Torah erudition to communicate on the level of the student. We must always remember: No matter how great anyone of us may become, we will always be school children to our Creator.
When one gives eight answers, it’s mostly because no one of them is truly satisfying. I think that we will struggle to find the best answer to this investigation until we can live the experience of worshipping God in that remarkable space described in the week’s parsha. May it happen speedily in our day.