The different faces of cherubs
So important and beloved was the sacred desert tabernacle that the Bible records both its construction and completion.
That Moses and Aaron and his sons might wash their hands and their feet thereat’ Photo: Israel Weiss
‘[Bezalel] made two golden cherubs, hammering them out from the two ends of the
cover ... The cherubs had their wings outstretched upward so as to shield the
ark cover with their wings; they faced one another... ’ (Exodus 37:8,9)
So important and beloved was the sacred desert tabernacle that the Bible records
both its construction and completion. For the Ramban (Nahmanides), the most
important of the tabernacle furnishings was the Holy Ark, the repository of the
two Stone Tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The Ramban maintains that the
prescription to build the tabernacle came immediately following the Revelation
at Sinai; God’s voice continued to be transmitted between the two cherubs at the
two ends of the ark cover.
From this perspective, the symbolism of the
“cherubs” is exquisite in its simple sensitivity. The Midrash (cited by Rashi on
Exodus 25:18) explains that each cherub had the face of a child with a body
reminiscent of a soaring angel.
If we are to accept the premise that God
spoke through them, these figures who caringly directed their gaze towards each
other are now represented by the greatest Torah scholars of each generation,
whose wings transport God’s words from heaven to earth and whose whole-hearted
purity is expressed in the purity of their faces. They transmit, interpret and
“relevantize” the Divine words for every situation and generation. Responsa
literature in each generation continues our opportunity to hear the voice of the
But there remains one problem. The first time that the Bible
mentions the word “cherubs” is soon after the creation of the world, when Adam
and Eve were barred from the Garden of Eden: “[God] drove out the human being,
and stationed the cherubs at the east of the Garden Eden, along with the fire of
the ever-turning sword, to guard the path to the tree of life” (Genesis
Here the cherubs appear to be negative creatures, holding the fire
of the revolving swords in their hands, preventing the possibility of eternal
life. Indeed Rashi refers to them as angels of destruction. Why does the Bible
use such destructive imagery for “cherubs” of the ark cover guarding the holy
Tablets? Many years ago, when I was still a rabbi in Manhattan, I gave a sermon
about the cherubic face of a young child; I suggested that children can either
rise to exalted heights or descend to destructive depths, depending upon where
they are stationed. Place them outside the Garden of Eden with the fire of a
revolving sword in their hands and you have messengers of destruction; place
them next to the sacred ark and you have the cherubs among whom is heard the
living words of the Divine.
Nevertheless, the problem of the use of the
word “cherubs” must be explained. How can the same word be so spiritually
charged in the Book of Exodus when its initial use in the Book of Genesis
expressed destructiveness? When I came on aliya, I saw Israeli soldiers
stationed at every checkpoint and army base, and as the years went by my
children and grandchildren were called up to serve.
These young people
often have the pure facial features of children (indeed, they seem to look
younger and younger as I am getting older), and with guns in their hands, they
too are protecting the Torah “tree of life” of our Jewish future.
generation, the Torah must be protected in two ways: by scholars who guarantee
its continuity by teaching and interpreting it and by those who protect it in
war from our enemies who seek to destroy it (and us). Both of these “cherubs”
are sacred, deserving of our deepest gratitude.
This is the most blessed
period for the Jewish people in 2,000 years: We have returned to our homeland
after being “scattered to the ends of the heavens,” the Jewish exiles from
across the world have miraculously returned home to Israel and the dry bones of
Ezekiel have been granted skin and flesh.
Our “start-up nation” is
succeeding on all fronts despite the constant strains and ravages of
However, as George Santayana taught, the only thing we learn from
history is that we don’t learn from history.
The propaganda spewed forth
from the sick mind of Goebbels and his henchmen has morphed into the apartheid
charges of the Arab and European nations; as the dysfunctional and disunited
nations ceaselessly condemn Israel and shamelessly invite Ahmadinejad to spew
his hatred in their unhallowed halls of hate.
There is, however, one
major difference between the 1930s and 2013: by grace of the Almighty, we now
have a nation-state with military power. Lord Acton taught that power corrupts,
and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but nothing corrupts more than
Powerlessness gives the victory to the forces of evil and
darkness, to Amalek who targets civilians, who aims at the weak and the infirm,
the women and the children.
And we Jews came into the world to see to it
that compassionate righteousness and moral justice will trump brute force and
jihadist strength. In our generation, we require the sacred cherubs with the
fire of the revolving swords in their hands to pave the way for the cherubs of
the sacred ark in the Sanctuary of the Divine.
■ Shabbat shalom
The writer is
the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and
chief rabbi of Efrat.