This week's parsha represents somewhat of a departure from the previous sections of the Torah. While the other sections where mainly concerned with narrative, Parshat T'rumah virtually ignores narrative in favor of instructions for building the Mishkan, the "Tabernacle."
On the face of it, building the Tabernacle is a strange thing to do.
On the face of it, building the Mishkan is a strange thing to do. God, who is transcendent, certainly has no need of a "home" and it would be mistake to understand the Divine decree in this way.
"They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in them." [Exodus 25:8]
The verse describes the result of the building: God will live "in them," meaning among the Jews, or within the Jewish nation, not "in it" meaning the Tabernacle.
Clearly, the objective of the building was not to provide God with shelter, but to provide an avenue for man to take God into his life.
There is a difference of opinion among various commentaries as to whether the golden calf episode preceded or followed the instructions for building theMishkan. However there is an earlier verse which apparently connects the giving of the Torah and the building of the Mishkan, and it is not related to the golden calf. When Moses speaks to God at the Burning Bush, Moses questions his own role in the redemption of the Jews, and God responds:
"This will be for you a sign, that I sent you; when you take the people out from Egypt, you shall worship the Lord on this mountain." [Exodus 3:12]
Rabbi Soloveitchik Zatza"l once explained that two things had to transpire in order for this Divine promise to be realized:
- first, the Jews needed to receive the Torah, and
- second, the Jews needed to build the Mishkan.
And that both are included in the phrase "worship the Lord on this mountain."
Therefore, according to this understanding, once the Torah was given, the only thing left to do was to build the Mishkan.
There are numerous components to the Mishkan, but the central part of theMishkan was clearly the Aron, the cabinet which contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
On top of the Aron two gold cherubs were placed. The pair was made of one block of gold. They had an angelic appearance with their wings touching, and they faced one another. It was from the space between the two cherubs that God communicated with the Jewish people.
'I will make Myself known to you there, and I will speak to you from above the cover from between the two cherubs that are upon the Ark of Testimony. All that which I will command you regarding the Children of Israel.' [Exodus 25:22]
It is somewhat strange that Judaism should prescribe a pair of cherubs - rendered in human form - in the holiest of places. After all, what is the difference between the cherubs and the golden calf? Why should one represent Divine communication, and the other desecration?
Rashi alludes to an answer to this question in discussing the prohibition of constructing "gods of gold or silver." He explains that even the slightest deviation from the Divine decree is tantamount to idolatry. Construction of cherubs of silver instead of Gold, or the wrong number of cherubs, or their incorrect placement, would constitute a violation of the command.
Rashi teaches us that the reason that the cherubs were not idols was that God commanded us to construct them.
This teaches us that the reason that the cherubs were allowed was that God commanded us to construct them. Conversely, the reason that the golden calf was considered idolatry was that God did not command us to construct it.
The word mitzvah means "command"; the phrase avodah zarah means "strange worship," that which was not commanded. Therefore on at least a procedural level we are able to distinguish between the golden calf, and the cherubs. But on a substantive level there must be a difference as well.
Simply put - what was the significance of the cherubs?
There is some difference of opinion regarding the actual appearance of the cherubs. The composite form was that of two young children with wings, without clothing. [See Rashi 25:18] According to the Talmud the two cherubs were embracing like two lovers. [See Yoma 54a-b] The Zohar clearly says one was male and the other female. [See Zohar 3:59a] This image of naked children obviously could have been misunderstood. The Talmud [Yoma 54b] relates that, when the Babylonians captured the Temple and entered the Holy of Holies, they were shocked:
Resh Lakish taught: "When the heathens entered the sanctuary, they saw the cherubs embracing one another, they took them out to the market place and said: 'This [Nation of] Israel whose blessings are blessings and curses are curses, are involved in such things!?' They immediately cheapened them, as the verse says, 'All their valuables were cheapened for they saw her nakedness.'" [Lamentataions 1:8] [Yoma 54b]
The invading forces were evidently quite surprised to see the representation of the human form in the midst of the Holy Temple.
The Jews were not thought of as idolaters, and the uninitiated assumed that what they saw was not only prohibited in Jewish law, but objectively erotic, or pornographic.
One can certainly appreciate how they arrived at that conclusion. In order to find a deeper understanding of the meaning of the cherubs, we must investigate the other places that cherubs appear.
The first mention of cherubs in the Torah is in the verse describing the eviction of man from the Garden of Eden:
Man was evicted and cherubs were placed East of the Garden of Eden, and a revolving burning sword was placed in order to guard the path to the Tree of Life. [Genesis 3:24]
As a result of man's sin, the cherubs enter the world, in order to protect the Tree of Life. We have noted the identification between the Tree of Life and the Torah. [See notes for Parshiot Shmot and B'shalach] It is therefore interesting to note that in the Mishkan the cherubs protect the Ark which contains the Torah, and in Eden the cherubs protected the path leading to the Tree of Life/Torah.
Interesting as this similarity is, it does not enlighten us regarding the essence of the cherubs.
Before the sin of Adam and Eve, the cherubs were unnecessary; they appear only as a result of the sin.
Before the sin of Adam and Eve, the cherubs were unnecessary; they appear only as a result of the sin. Perhaps we may draw the following conclusion - the cherubs represent none other than Adam and Eve themselves, young and innocent and naked in the Garden of Eden.
Only as a result of their sin did they become aware of, and embarrassed by, their nakedness. The new, "sophisticated" perspective of Adam and Eve, born of partaking of the forbidden fruit, gave them a different, perhaps distorted view of the world.
After the sin, they knew that they were naked; they needed to clothe themselves, to hide from God.
It is fascinating that the Hebrew word for clothing is beged, which shares the same room as the word "rebellion." The clothing which man wears is a memorial to rebellion and the resultant distancing from God.
At the top of the ark, in place of this jaded couple, pathetically attempting to hide from God, now stood an innocent looking couple, representing Adam and Eve before the sin in a state of total innocence before God. Specifically from this place would the word of God emerge and reverberate.
How appropriate that in anticipation of the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians, the cherubs embrace - an act of innocence in the face of the marauding, corrupt legion of conquering warriors. Sin has again permeated the world, and the cherubs are taken out and misunderstood, their "nakedness" uncovered.
Man's sense of abandonment in the wake of our sins is a universal feeling. It was part of the reassurance that God had to give Moses, while Moses was asking for forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf:
Rabbi Yochanan said: "If it were not (in the) verse then it would be impossible to say ... He said whenever Israel sins, perform in front of Me this service, and I will forgive them ... I am God prior to man's sin, and I am God after man sins and repents." [Talmud Rosh Hashanah 17b]
While man feels the alienation caused by sin, God remains unchanged. The alienation leads to man's loss of innocence, and to hiding from God. God insists that there is always a path of return. This path is guarded by the cherubs, the image of man's innocence. They are armed with a revolving sword, to symbolize the shift which man must make in order to approach Torah.
The two cherubs were made of one piece of gold, just as Adam and Eve were initially joined together as one.
The cherubs therefore symbolize the ultimate return to one's self.
The cherubs symbolize the ultimate return to one's self.
Throughout the generations the High Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, on Yom Kippur, the day on which the Jews were finally forgiven for the sin of the golden calf.
Yom Kippur - more than any other day - symbolizes rebirth, regained innocence, as the High Priest saw before him this perpetual message of innocence - a hope for the future through the image of the past.