David Walk

Why Cherubs?

Remember those carefree days of our youth when we sent Valentine cards adorned with chubby, dimpled Cherubs (forget the whole Cupid thing; they’re just a Roman reworking of Cherubs)? Well I do, because I went to public school and wasn’t yet observant. I hadn’t yet begun to obsess about my behavior. Unfortunately, those days often carried more pain than pleasure. Why didn’t the red haired girl send me a card? Nowadays, I’m still obsessing over Cherubs, but I call them KERUVIM now.

This week’s Torah reading demands that we place these mysterious creatures on top of the ARON containing the Tablets of the Law. Which raises a bit of a spiritual crisis, because don’t those very same Tablets declare: You are not to make for yourselves a carved image or any kind of representation of anything in heaven above, on the earth beneath or in the water below the shoreline (Shmot 20:4)? Okay, I know there’s no legal problem here, because positive commands tend to trump negative ones, but doesn’t it bother you? At least a little bit. Why should God be sending contradicting messages within the very same messenger?

Also, the KERUVIM aren’t so cute and cuddly. In Breishit (3:24), they are the very intimidating armed guards barring the way back to GAN EDEN. With a flaming no less, the automatic weapon of the ancient world. Nobody assigns cute little Cherubs to guard anything. Reb Ya’akov Mecklenberg explains that these beings reflect and mirror our relationship to God. He expounds: The KERUV with wings stretched heavenward represents the ability and the will within humanity to approach our Maker just like the Heavenly Hosts. However, for the soul under the spell of mundane or profane desires the Cherub represents a warrior in our internal battle for righteousness and spirituality.

So, the KERUVIM assume the identity of our spiritual reality, and help us adjust our spiritual compass. This view helps us to understand the verse: So the wings of the two cherubims were spread forth, and were extended twenty cubits: and they stood upright on their feet, and their faces were turned toward the house without (Divrei Hayamim II 3:13). The concept is clear. In good times the KERUVIM face each other in fellowship and love; at other less delightful times their glance is elsewhere, their visage stern.

However, how could Shlomo fashion KERUVIM so different from those of Moshe? Well the Talmud (Baba Batra 99a) suggests that these were the same KERUVIM, but they change the direction of their gaze to reflect the behavior of the Jewish community. They look each other in the eye when we Jews are focused on Torah and Mitzvot and ethical behavior, but turn away from each other when we lose interest in Torah because we have become preoccupied with worldly matters. 

That is a truly moving idea, but the Aznayim L’Torah totally rejects it. He avers that Shlomo was not trying to undermine the Torah’s hold on us. Quite the opposite. Rav Sorotzkin explains:

When the Keruvim are on the Aron then the Torah awakens the internal holiness which allows us to cling to the Divine Spirit and to each other (God, Torah and Yisrael are one unity). This idea comes from the Keruvim of Moshe, when love and unity surrounded our people…However, in the days of Shlomo people got involved with other sources of wisdom. They doubted that Jewish education was sufficient to keep us knowledgeable in Torah. They began studying other material in other sources. Therefore he added a second set of Keruvim on the ground, in order to warn them that if you rely on other forms of wisdom then we will look away from each other. We have to keep our children atop the Aron to keep them constantly concerned for each other. 

 I love his ingenuity, but disagree with his conclusion. I think that secular studies do help us in our Torah endeavors in a myriad of ways, but that’s a discussion for another time.

On the other hand, this dual approach to the stance of the KERUVIM confirms an idea in the Magen Avraham (Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 46, in the name of the Ari): When one enters synagogue, and before TEFILA, one should accept upon himself the Mitzva of V’AHAVTA L’RAYACHA KAMOCHA (Vayikra 19:18).

The posture and direction of the KERUVIM teaches us that one cannot raise one’s hands in prayer (a normal stance in ancient Israel) to God unless one can look their fellow human in the face. God pays attention to and heeds the prayers of those who love other humans.

The KERUVIM are full of mystery, but we can clearly learn profound messages from these remarkable exceptions to the Ten Commandments’ rules of crafting images. Most surprisingly we learn about the requirement of mutual respect among humans. But there’s more. Rav SR Hersch explains:

If Israel keeps the Torah, it is a holy nation, which fulfills a threefold function: Furthering the well-being of its neighbor, protecting the nation, and bearing the glory of God – then Israel will become a pair of KERUVIM who in respect direct one to the other, each one there for the other, each entrusted to the other in brotherly co-operation, a whole nation keeping, protecting the Torah, and establishing a throne for God on earth. They will become two KERUVIM, on the ends of the KOPORET (gold cover to the Aron), and their faces shall look one to another, overspreading the KOPORET with their wings, spreading their wings upward, and facing the KOPORET. Then He who sits on the KERUVIM becomes identical with He who sits on the praises of Israel (Tehillim 23:4).

From these KERUVIM, a most important component of the Mishkan and later the Beit Hamikdash we learn many crucial lessons. It’s important that when we arrive at this parsha in the annual cycle that we study their message and incorporate those lessons into our lives. We should also use this opportunity to remind ourselves of the profound ideas we’re missing because we are bereft of the Holy Temple, our national shrine. Let’s pray that God renews our spiritual lives to the way things once were. 


About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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