“Moses and Joshua Bowing Before the Ark” by James Tissot, ca. 1900
“Moses and Joshua Bowing Before the Ark” by James Tissot, ca. 1900

The power and the mystery of the cherubim, explained

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Terumah

Exodus 25:1-27:19


In the days right after heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and “be mine” greeting cards, the word “cherub” probably conjures images of winged, well-fed babies aiming arrows at unsuspecting lovers. In Jewish tradition, though, cherubim have an entirely other, and other-worldly, purpose.

What exactly the cherubim were, or even what they looked like, has been the subject of speculation and imagination for centuries. We met them first as guardians stationed at the eastern end of Eden, along with “the flame of the ever-tuning sword” in Genesis 3:24, though no details of their form and likeness is offered there. They appear in the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel as terrifying but enthralling — living, multifaced, human-animal-angelic composites attending the throne of the Almighty. In this week’s parashah, God instructs Moses in the minutiae of the future Tabernacle, including that two cherubim statues are to be fashioned in pure gold, positioned on either side of the Cover of the Ark that will house the Tablets of the Torah in the innermost heart of the desert sanctuary.

“And the Cherubim shall have their wings spread out upward, sheltering the Cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another; toward the Cover shall be the faces of the Cherubim.”(Exodus 25:20)

Members of the heavenly retinue, along with seraphim and ophanim and other “holy living beings,” the cherubim generally present with human visages on bodies of regal animals, with soaring wingspans in the style of other ancient, near-Eastern figures.

Their faces have been described as “young children” (Rashi, based on 2 Chronicles 3:10), a “young boy and young girl” (Yoma 54), as embodying the ideal, loving energy between spouses on their wedding day (Ha’amek Davar), between Israel and the Creator, or between an instructor and a pupil (Bava Batra 99a).

The cherubim’s place and role atop the Holy Ark is compelling, as well, for at the very center of the Mishkan, these two golden statues do far more than stand sentry against potential intruders or act as mere, but exalted, porters of the Heavenly Throne. They become the place from which the Divine Presence will speak to Moses from the beyond, “from atop the Cover, from between the two Cherubim that are on the Ark of the Testimonial-Tablets, everything that I shall command you to the Children of Israel.” (Exodus 25:22)

With such precision and holy intent assigned to them, we might wonder in what way, or at what angle, did the cherubim face “toward one another, toward the Cover”? Did they look across the brilliant gold of the Cover (in some translations, called the “Mercy-Seat”) into each other’s eyes? Was their gaze directed downward, or even to the side? All options have been on the table.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 99a) addresses the seeming contradiction that the cherubim could face toward one another and toward the Cover, suggesting “they were angled sideways, so that they turned both to each other and toward the Sanctuary,” like a respectful student of yore who keeps his eyes on his teacher as he exits.

Da’at Zekenim, a collection of medieval Franco-German commentaries, offers that the cherubim looked downward in a pose of contemplation, with the soaring upward wings indicative of expansive humility in the presence of the Holy One (they see in the “wings” of the Mishkan Cherubim an argument in favor of Jews wearing head coverings at all possible times).

Sforno, the great 16th-century Italian rabbi and physician, teaches that the cherubim “looked downwards, whereas their wings spread upwards, as a reminder that although inspiration originates in heaven, understanding the Creator and how God works can only come by paying close attention and studying the Holy One’s actions in our material, ‘lower’ part of the universe. The ideal means of unraveling the meaning of God’s actions is through the revealed word, the Torah, of which the Ark of the Tabernacle is the repository.”

A far cry from mischievous, airborne babies sporting a quiver of arrows, the cherubim of the Mishkan are suffused with power and mystery.

Their form and stance remind us of a deep and abiding Jewish value — that of being in relationship with one another and with the teachings of our ancestors.

We are to guard and protect this People and its legacy in partnership, even with those with whom we may not agree, since that is the only path to peace.

The cherubim are an invitation to commit and connect, humbly and proudly, as witnesses to the Divine in all things, accepting the responsibility of providing for and looking to the future. When we do that, we embody the teaching of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion, in Ethics of the Fathers 3:3 — “When two sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Divine Presence rests between them.”

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at rabbishanachandlerleon@gmail.com.