This week’s and next week’s Torah portions, Terumah and Tetzaveh, deal exclusively with one topic; collecting materials and building the Tabernacle, the portable temple that the children of Israel built in the desert, and everything in it. However, these sections do not describe the actual collecting and building. Rather, in these portions of the Torah, G-d dictates the details of this project to Moshe.
On of the central items in the Tabernacle is the Ark of the Covenant. The ark was a box made of cedar wood and gold. Its function was to house the two tablets of the covenant that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The following verses describe the cover of the ark.
“Make a cover of pure gold, two and one-half cubits long, and one and one-half cubits wide. Make two golden Cherubim [plural of cherub]. You must make them by hammering them out of the two ends of the cover. Make one Cherub out of one end, and one Cherub out of the other end. From the [same piece of gold as the] cover itself, you shall make the Cherubim on its two ends. The Cherubim shall spread their wings upward, sheltering the cover with their wings, and the Cherubim shall face one another. Their faces shall be inclined toward the cover [i.e. facing down]. Place the cover on top of the ark and place the testimony [i.e. the tablets] that I will give you into the ark. I will meet with you there and I will speak with you from above the cover – from between the Cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony – all that which I will command you concerning the Children of Israel.” (Exodus 25:17-22)
The two Cherubs were to be hammered out of the same piece of gold as the cover itself. They were not to be made separately and then soldered on to the cover. The cherubs were made to be standing facing each other with their faces pointing down toward the box, with their wings raised upward. God’s word would then come to Moses from between the two Cherubim.
What are Cherubim? What is their purpose? What do they symbolize? What do they have to do with prophecy? Why was it necessary to make them out of the same piece of gold as the rest of the cover of the ark?
What is a Cherub?
The first appearance of Cherubs in the Torah occurs when Adam and Eve were banished by God from the Garden of Eden for having sinned.
“He banished Adam and at the east of the Garden of Eden He stationed the Cherubim and the flame of the rotating sword to guard the way to the Tree of Life.” – Genesis 4:24
From this passage we see that the role of Cherubs is to guard and protect.
Cherubs appear in this role in a number of biblical texts (see Ezekiel 28:14).
Besides serving as guards and protectors, we also see Cherubs in the Bible serving as the “vehicle” or seat of God’s presence. Numerous Biblical texts refer to God as “the One who dwells on [or rides] the Cherubim.” Here are a few examples:
“And He rides the Cherub and flies off” – Psalms 18:11
Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. – Ezek. 9:3
He rode upon a cherub, and flew; And He [d]was seen upon the wings of the wind. – 2 Samuel 22:11
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) asserts that the Cherubim atop the ark filled both of roles we just mentioned. They protected and guarded, and at the same time they served as the vehicle and seat of God’s presence. This dual role, writes Rabbi Hirsch, is apparent from the description of the wings of the Cherubim. He explains this as follows:
The verse states that “The Cherubim shall spread their wings upward,” i.e. they continually reach toward heaven. In this way, they represent the spiritual rise toward God, a continual “reaching upward.” At the same time the Cherubim are described as “sheltering the cover with their wings.” The same wings that serve as the vehicle for Godliness, serve to guard and protect the Tablets of the Testimony – the Torah. The dual purpose of the Cherubim is to carry – to serve as the vehicle for – that which is above and to protect that which is below.
I would like to suggest a slightly different interpretation of the wings of the Cherubim from that of Rabbi Hirsch.
The verse describes the posture and position of the Cherubim as follows:
The Cherubim shall spread their wings upward, sheltering the cover with their wings, and the Cherubim shall face one another. Their faces shall be inclined toward the cover.
Let’s sum this up. The wings were raised in such as manner as to shelter the cover of the ark. The faces of the Cherubs were facing each other but inclined downward. Picture a bird in this position, face pointed at the ground with wings raised in a manner that hovers over the ground below. This is not the posture of a bird taking flight. Rather, what is described is how a bird looks when it is landing.
To understand the significance of this, let’s turn our attention to the cover of the ark.
The verse states that “From the [same piece of gold as the] cover itself, you shall make the Cherubim.” Why not simply make them separately and attach the completed Cherubs to the golden cover? Why add this seemingly useless difficulty to the process?
As mentioned above, one of the purposes of the Cherubim was to protect the contents of the ark – the Torah. This role can be filled perfectly well by the cover without the Cherubs. A simple cover would surely provide protection. It would seem that the Cherubs are not necessary for the protection of the ark. The instruction to fashion the Cherubs out of the same piece of gold as the cover teaches that we must not differentiate. The Cherubs and the cover are one and the same. To speak of the cover without the Cherubs is impossible.
Think about it. The Cherubs had the dual role of protecting the contents of the ark as well as serving as the “seat” of God’s glory, the place where God’s word entered into this world. This is why the Cherubs were fashioned in such a way as to depict them landing, rather than flying off. The Cherubs represented the descent of God’s presence into this world.
And the message of the Cherubs is powerful and relevant to all people of Biblical faith. We must protect the Torah. We must guard it. And the way that we bring God’s presence into this world, the way that we create a throne for God down here on earth is by protecting and guarding the Torah. The two tasks are indistinguishable.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is a regular contributor to Israel365news.com. He serves as Executive Director for Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. He is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.