Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism
“You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the Kapporet (cover of the covenant). Make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim of one piece with the Kapporet at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread upward, covering the Kapporet with their wings and facing one another; the faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the Kapporet. You shall put the Kapporet on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. There I will meet with you; and from above the Kapporet, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.” (Shemot 25, 18-22)
Imagine you had a temple. A temple which was supposed to be God’s dwelling place on earth, a place to connect to God, a spiritual center for your people. Imagine further that in this temple there was a section called Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holiest, in which the High Priest would only enter once a year, and even then only under certain conditions. Imagine now that in this section of the temple there was a picture of a male and a female hugging each other! Wouldn’t this sound strange to you? Well, please let me share the following section of the Talmud with you:
“Rav Katina said: When the children of Israel used to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Parochet [i.e. the curtain separating the inner temple from the Holy of Holies] was unrolled and they were shown the Cherubs which were intertwined one with another. And it was said: See how you are loved by God the same way a male loves a female” (Bavli, Yoma 54a).
This passage of the Gemarah requires understanding. The medieval commentator HaMeiri explains that the wings of the two Cherubs where touching each other, representing the unique connection of love between God and the Jewish people. However, isn’t it peculiar that in the holiest place in the universe there had to be a holy article calling for that metaphor?
It seems to me that there is a very strong lesson to be learnt from this powerful Midrash. Our holiest place is, as the Torah itself, not disconnected from life. Our ideal is not of ascetic, life-denying nature as other religions endorse. We believe that man is created to be part of nature, live it and elevate it. The Cherubim were constructed as an integral part of the Kapporet, the cover of the covenant, since the Cherubim must be made “OF ONE PIECE WITH THE KAPPORET”. And it is specifically “from above the Kapporet, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony,” that God will meet with us and speak to us! The source of the Divine voice is from within this symbol of life-approving love.
However, the Cherubs are not only here to uproot abstinence and asceticism from our mindset, but also for dealing with the other extreme. Let us go back to the beginning of history and examine the only other place in the Torah in which “Cherubim” are mentioned in a different context:
“Then God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’ – therefore God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the CHERUBIM and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life. (Bereshit 3, 22-24)
Here the Cherubs are guardians. They prevent man from getting whatever he wants. They stand for the idea that there are red lines in life which must not be passed. Not every fruit is available! There are limits which must not be disregarded. Adam and Eve failed. They did not understand the significance of borders and the importance of not crossing them.
Likewise the prevalent notion of modern Western culture is of a similar nature. There don’t seem to be any limits for man. Everything seems to become possible and legitimate. Especially regarding sexual conduct the hedonist slogan of total freedom is gaining more and more ground and acceptance within modern Western society. But here again the Cherubs stand up and say: “No!” Freedom without boundaries is not the system which was predestined for man.
In light of what we said the Cherubs may symbolize the “Jewish way”. In the temple they stood against abstinence, which is designed as the highest religious level in other religions such as Christianity, but on the other hand the Cherubs also stood at the entrance to the Garden of Eden warning against limitless hedonism. Judaism is situated right in between these two extremes of asceticism and hedonism, standing for the approving of life, and anything which is part of life, as long as it is lived in a sanctified framework.
Are we able to internalize the message of the Cherubim?