The message of the keruvim: Thoughts on Parshat Vayakhel

“The child is endowed with a capacity of an all-absorbing faith and trustfulness; youth bursts with zealousness, idealism and optimism; the adult, mellowed with years, has the benefit of accumulated knowledge and dispassionate judgment.” (Reflections of the Rav, II pp. 88-89)

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses gathers the nation and under the supervision of the master architect Betzalel, they begin the construction of the Mishkan. After the Torah describes the materials used in the building process and the construction of the outer structure of the Mishkan, the verses detail the construction of the numerous vessels that were placed inside, most notably the Holy Ark. The verses relate, “Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood…and he made two golden keruvim. He made them of hammered work, from the two ends of the ark cover, one keruv from the one end and the other keruv from the other end…the keruvim had their wings spread upwards, shielding the ark cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another; [turned] toward the ark cover were the faces of the keruvim.” (Exodus 37: 7-9) To this day, the Ark and the two keruvim atop it, are among the most recognizable symbols of the Jewish tradition.

However, there are numerous questions that arise while discussing the verses relating to the keruvim. Firstly, how can we reconcile the command to build two golden keruvim when it is a clear commandment in the Torah, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below…You shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.’ (Exodus 20:4, 20) Secondly, what exactly did the keruvim look like? The verses relate the commandment to make the keruvim, however there is no mention as to their exact design. And finally, what is the deeper message behind the keruvim—are they simply decorative sculptures, purely for aesthetic purposes, or is there more to it than meets the eye?

In answer to our first question regarding the prohibition of making graven images and gods of gold, Rabbinic literature and commentaries have provided numerous explanations as to why the keruvim were permissible and did not fall under this category. The Sages clarify the matter by pointing out an emphasis in the verse which state that the prohibition is to make gods of gold “for yourselves,” i.e. on one’s own initiative and to serve his own purposes. Therefore in the context of a Divine command such as the commandment to construct the keruvim, the normal prohibition did not apply. Additionally, Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach in his work the Chizkuni, explains that it is clear from the construction and placement of the keruvim themselves that they were not intended for idolatress purposes. He writes, “‘Their [the keruvims’] faces shall look one to another’ (25:20) – These words prove that [the keruvim] were not intended as images to be worshipped. Were there only one [keruv], or if one faced the people… there would be room to claim that it was made to be worshipped. However, since they faced each other, and both looked down at the covering behind which lies God’s presence and the Torah, and they could only be seen by the high priest … once a year [on the day of atonement], it is clear that they were there only for decoration…” With this in mind, we can safely assert that the keruvim themselves did not pose any issue in terms of idol worship.

As with our first question, there are a multiplicity of opinions offered as to what exactly the keruvim looked like. However, the explanation most cited and universally accepted today is that which was posited by Don Isaac Abrabanel, based on the Talmud Tractate Sukka 5b. He writes, “The keruvim in the mishkan resembled two little unblemished children who never tasted sin. One had the appearance of a male and the other of a female.”

We have established that the keruvim which resided on top of the Ark were not idolatrous graven images, and with the explanation of the Abrananel, we now understand that the images themselves resembled a male and female child. But what is the deeper message to this unexpected and seemingly unnecessary addition to the Holy Ark? According to many commentators, the purpose of the keruvim were to act as an “honor-guard.” The first mention of the keruvim in the Torah is in the context of Adam’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, where the verses relate, “And the Lord God sent him out of the Garden of Eden…and He stationed from the east of the Garden of Eden the keruvim and the blade of the revolving sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.” (Genesis 3:23-24) In that instance, the keruvim served as guards to the Tree of Life; similarly here, the keruvim acted as guards for the Torah which resided within the Ark.

This above description of the keruvim, which were located on top of the Ark in the Holies of Holies, is really quite fascinating. We must ask ourselves why it is specifically the likeness of two children which adorn the top of the Ark and act as the guardians for the Torah within? Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik provides a fascinating insight regarding the aspect of youth as it relates to the service of God that is so fitting to our discussion. It would be an impossible task to paraphrase or improve upon the Rav’s words, so though it is an extensive piece, it has been quoted here in its entirety:

“A strange polarity characterizes the world of authentic Judaism. It swings like a pendulum between the two ideals of maturity and childishness. The great man, whose intellect has been raised to a superior level through the study of Torah , is gifted with well developed, overflowing powers of depth, scope, and sharpness but should not be viewed as entirely as an adult. The soul of a child still nestles within him. On the one hand, he is knowledge-sated, strong of intellect, rich in experience…On the other hand, he remains the young and playful child; naïve curiosity, natural enthusiasm…and spiritual restlessness have not abandoned him.

If a man has aged and become completely adult, if the morning of his life has passed him by and he stands in spirit and soul at his high noon, bleached of the life dew of childhood, if he has grown up completely, in thinking, in feeling…he cannot approach God. The adult is too clever. Utility is his guiding light. The experience of God is not a business-like affair. Only a child can breach the boundaries that segregate the finite from the infinite. Only the child with his simple faith and fiery enthusiasm can make the miraculous leap into the bosom of God.”(Insights of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Saul Weiss pg. 20)

May we take this message to heart and find a way to access the child-like enthusiasm within that is so necessary to lead a life of Torah observance and meaningful Divine service.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator, and is the author of the Two Volume book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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