Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Terumah Exodus 25:1-27:19
Efrat, Israel - One of the most curious and fanciful accoutrements of the Sanctuary were the cherubs, carved out of pure gold and indelibly formed as an integral part of the covering (Kapporet) above the Holy Ark. What was the symbolic significance of these angelic statues placed in such a pivotal position protecting the “tablets of testimony”, the Divinely given Torah of Moses?
Moreover, there are two technical textual questions raised by the midrash and many Biblical commentaries concerning the construction of the ark and the cherubs. First of all, throughout the Torah portion, the various parts of the Sanctuary are commanded to be built by Moses: “You (second person singular, ve’asita) shall make..” The one glaring exception is the Holy Ark, “And they shall make an Ark out of Shittin wood...”, third person plural (ve’asu) referring to the entire nation of Israel (Exodus 25:10). Why the grammatical distinction? Secondly, there appears to be a superfluous repetition in the Biblical text. In the first instance (Exodus 25:16) the Bible records, “And you shall place in the Ark the testimony which I shall give you,” and then, after the command of the construction of the cherubs and only five verses after the previous verse just cited” And into the Ark shall you place the testimony which I shall give you ”(Exodus 25:21). Why repeat the instruction to place the tablets of testimony into the Holy Ark?
The Siftei Hakhamim draws our attention to a detailed grammatical difference which may contain the beginning of the answer. The form of the verb used the first time is past tense (natata) , albeit changed to the future in meaning by the prefix vav but nevertheless a past -tense form: literally, “and you have placed the tablets;” (Exodus 25: 16) the form used the second time is pure future tense, (titein) literally, “you shall place the tablets” (Exodus 25:21). Explain the Siftei Hakhamim, the second verse is alluding to the second tablets which will be placed in the Holy Ark after the first tablets will be broken by Moss when he sees the Israelite worship of the golden calf. Rav Mordechai Allon, the great Bible teacher of Jerusalem, takes this idea one step farther, suggesting that this second verse refers to the second Torah, the Oral Torah (Torah She Ba’al Peh), and it is precisely this oral Torah which is magnificently symbolized by the cherubs.
In order to buttress this interpretation, allow me to remind you of another apparent difference of opinion concerning the gender of the cherubs which certainly impacts on the particular symbolism they are meant to convey. The Talmudic Sages cite an ancient tradition that the cherubs were in the form of two winged children, one male and the other female, locked in an embrace. The imagery of this tradition is one of familial purity, innocent love, physical and emotional attachment devoid of erotic lust and defilement (B.T. Yoma 54). But Rashi and Ibn Ezra (Exodus ad loc), seem to have another tradition; while they accept the representation of winged children, they do not include the male-female aspect of the description. For Rashi there are two faces of young children, and for the Ibn Ezra there are two male youths (ne’arim). Here the symbolism is not at all familial or sexual in nature, it is rather the protection and continuity of Torah through the commitment of succeeding generations, human angels taking responsibility for the eternal Torah.
The idea is even more profound. The Talmud tells how Moses, when he was privileged to scale the heavens in order to receive the Torah from G-d, sees the Almighty fashioning crowns adorning the various Hebrew letters. When he asks about the significance of these calligraphic details, G-d reveals that in the future the great sage Rabbi Akiba will deduce “mounds of laws” from these small crowns. Moses asks to see this great Sage in action, and G-d transports him in time to the Academy of the illustrious Rabbi Akiba. However, to Moses’ confused and embarrassed chagrin, he doesn’t understand Rabbi Akiba’s teaching. And then when a disciple asks Rabbi Akiba the origin of the rule he has deduced, he responds, “It is a law from Moses at Sinai.” Moses is then satisfied and comforted. (B.T. Menahot 39a).
I believe that the point of this story is to stress the fact that the seed of all future Torah interpretation lies within the Torah itself - and the Oral Torah is the development of those seeds into the magnificent fruit which will provide the necessary spiritual sustenance and Divine nourishment for every generation. Indeed, “ every spiritual truth and religio- legal decision which a devoted student will ultimately expound in a novel fashion was originally given at Sinai” - if not directly at least in potential. Hence Rabbenu Yaakov Baal HaTurim explains that the individual called to the Torah recites one blessing over the Written Torah and a second blessing over the Oral Torah, the force of the Oral Torah being expressed in the words, “and an eternal Torah has He planted in our midst”. It is the task of the Torah scholars of every generation, symbolized by the two winged youths reminiscent of a dedicated havruta (Torah study partners) to nurture the seeds of the Written Torah into a dynamic and ever-increasing fount of Torah nourishment for every period and its perplexities, every era and its exigencies.
Now our original questions can all be answered. The Holy Ark which houses the sacred Torah must be constructed by the entire nation of Israel, indeed, by the most committed Israelites of every future generation. The Torah is protected by those who study it, interpret it and expound its message for all subsequent times: the cherubs symbolize the human partners in the expansion of Torah who soar heavenwards by virtue of their ability to extract from the Divine seeds the fruit necessary for every place and every time. The Torah was given by G-d, but must be studied, practiced, developed and expanded by the “cherubs,” the committed religious leaders who reach up to the very heavens in order to make the Torah meaningful and accessible to every Jew in every place and every time.