The Message of the Keruvim

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Shaul Epstein

Hashem commands Moshe to create Keruvim on top of the cover to the Ark of the Covenant. The verses state that these Keruvim “shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings… two beings with faces and wings that will face each other.” (Exodus 25:20)

Having beings with faces and wings in the Mishkan seems to contradict Judaism’s strong theological and halakhic condemnation of the use or creation of graven images. This problem is intensified if one accepts Rashi’s opinion that all the commands related to the Mishkan came after the building of the Golden Calf and its subsequent punishment. Why would G-d command the creation of Keruvim if similar images had led the Jewish people to commit one of their gravest national sins?   

Even if one assumes against Rashi that the Torah is in chronological order, the Jewish people had just heard on Mount Sinai the commandment “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image” (Exodus 20:4)!  And if that was not clear enough, the first set of commandments Moshe receives after the revelation at Mount Sinai include the prohibition  “… you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” (20:20)

The Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael parasha 10) cited by Rashi on this second verse clearly picks up on this tension:

?אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב – למה נאמר

– לפי שהוא אומר ועשית שנים כרובים זהב, (אמר) הריני עושה ארבעה –

…תלמוד לומר אלהי זהב – אם הוספת על שנים, הרי הם כאלהי זהב

לא תעשו לכם – שלא תאמר: הואיל ונתנה תורה רשות לעשות בבית המקדש, הריני עושה בבתי כנסיות ובבתי מדרשות – תלמוד לומר לא תעשו לכם

Gods of silver and gods of gold– why was this said?

Since it is written (Exodus 25:18) And you shall make two golden cherubs, one might say “I shall make four!” –

To this end it is written “gods of gold” – If you make more than two, they are considered “gods of gold”…

you shall not make for yourselves

So that you not say: “Since the Torah permitted the making (of cherubs) in the Temple, I shall do the same in synagogues and in houses of study” – i

It is therefore, written: You shall not make for yourselves.

According to this halachic Midrash, these first commandments after the Revelation at Mount Sinai anticipate our concerns.  But why does the Torah create those concerns, and why are two cherubs okay when four would not be?

Chizkuni, echoing Midrash Lekach Tov (quoted in Torah Sheleimah), considers this an example of a biblical prohibition with explicit exceptions.  Famous examples of this paradigm include the mixing of wool and linen in Tzitzit despite the general injunction against mixing those fabrics (shatnez), as well as the prohibition of a man marrying his brother’s wife being overridden by the mitzvah of yibbum when the brother dies childless.  Rashbam (Exodus 20:20) and Abarbanel (25:10) both explain that no contradiction exists as the keruvim were not intended for worship, while the prohibition only centers on creating foreign gods.  Dr. Alexander Klein of Bar Ilan University suggests that according to Maimonides, the absolute prohibition of creating images was a decree to prevent people from coming to worship them.  It was a סייג לתורה, a decree that serves a protection from violating another prohibition.  Therefore, states Dr. Klein, since there is no innate prohibition of making images, the Torah can allow their creation in carefuly controlled ways in the Mishkan.

All these explanations provide ways to work around the apparent contradiction,  but  they avoid a larger question: Why would G-d create such a tension in the holiest center of Jewish service?  He could have commanded the Mishkan to exist without any Keruvim, thus avoiding the problem all together.

I would like to humbly suggest that facing such a contradiction in the Mishkan provides us a model for confronting the many other theological challenges we face daily. We would have much simpler lives if things were black and white and we had clear lines and paths drawn for us. Due to many circumstances mostly connected to the imperfection of this world, we live with much grey area and thus need to have exceptions and apparent inconsistencies as part of our daily existence. Seeing the Keruvim in the Mishkan, while recognizing the general prohibition of such images, teach us that sometimes appropriate tension exists within our service to the Divine.

This idea is highlighted specifically through the message and apparent purpose of the Keruvim. While there are numerous opinions regarding what these Keruvim beings might represent (children, angels, male/female to name a few), they all center on some aspect of the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem. As stated at the end of the section describing the Keruvim (25:22)

וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ, שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת–אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.

At the location where direct communication emanates from Hashem to Moshe and Bnai Yisrael, we see what the relationship represents through the Keruvim and we recognize that this relationship, based on love, will sometimes create discomfort, but will remain strong so long as we stay committed to maintaining this important connection.
Rabbi Shaul Epstein (SBM 2003) currently serves as a Rabbinic Coordinator for Buckeye Kosher in Columbus OH and as the Midwest Representative for KVH Kosher.

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