The Riddle Of The Cherubs


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 5:17 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 25:1­27:19
Haftorah: I Kings 5:26-6:13
Havdalah: 6:19 p.m.

What is the most crucial vehicle for the transmission of our Jewish faith and traditions? Is it the synagogue, the study hall, the community center, the charitable organizations, or none of the above? Let us study the details of two of the major accouterments of the desert Sanctuary and perhaps we will discover the answer.

The Sanctuary menorah, described in this week’s Torah reading, had the shape of a golden tree, whose trunk extended into six branches, three on each side, replete with stems and flowers [Ex. 25:31­40]; a tree that shed light.

The Ark was the repository for the Ten Commandments. A golden cover (kaporet or parochet) was placed over and above the Ark, from which two cherubs were hammered out, one on either side. Rashi cites the Midrash: “They had the form of the face of a young child” [B.T. Sukkah 5b]. The cherubs were looking at each other, and God communicated with Moses from between the two cherubs [Ex. 25:10­30].

The Sages described the special qualities of these cherubs, and the way in which our Gentile captors viewed these images: Rav Katina said, “When the Israelites would ascend to Jerusalem during the three Pilgrimage Festivals, the (Temple custodians) would show them the cherubs … embracing each other. They would say to the pilgrims, ‘See how your love before the Almighty should be as the love of a man for a woman.’” Said Resh Lakish, “When the destruction (of the Temple) came about, the Gentiles entered (the sacred shrine) and said: ‘These Jews… are involved in such a sculpture?’ They derided the Israelites, citing the verse, ‘All who (formerly) respected her, came to mock her, because they saw her nakedness.’ And what was her nakedness? The cherubs, embracing each other!” [B.T. Yoma 54a].

Why did our Holy Temple feature sculptures like the embracing cherubs, allowing the Romans to revile Israel as worshipping their God through so-called pornography?

We have seen that the menorah is a golden tree, reminiscent of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. The first couple was banished from the Garden, and humanity prevented from eating of the Tree of Eternal Life, because Adam and Eve sinned by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Rashi suggests that the forbidden fruit injected within the human personality what Sigmund Freud would call the libido, substituting lust for love, illicit passion for sexual purity. That is original sin. The ultimate goal of Torah — also referred to as a “Tree of Life” in the Book of Proverbs as well as in our liturgy — is to re-fashion our imperfect world into the Garden of Eden, to enable a perfected humanity to finally eat the fruit of the Tree of Eternal Life.

According to Rashi’s interpretation, this ultimate feat can only be achieved when sexual purity will be restored, when familial love rather than extramarital lust will be normative human behavior. Then we will have righted the wrong, done penance for the sin, which caused our existential exile in the first place.

The Roman conquerors missed the point of the cherub symbolism. Our Sages insist, “They had the form of the face of a young child,” symbolizing purity, innocence, and whole­heartedness. The physical embrace of such male­/female winged beings, with the pure faces of children, express love without lust, sexual unity that enhances family rather than the sexual depravity that destroys family.

Undoubtedly, the family — with such powerful potential for creative supportiveness and spiritual continuity — can tragically degenerate into crippling destructiveness and pathological dysfunction. I heard it said in the name of the great chasidic sage Rav Aharon Karliner that it is difficult to see the compassion with which God created the world, unless you take into account the fact that Adam and Eve were born without parents.

Nevertheless, our religious tradition holds great store in the importance and ultimate potential of family as the matrix from which a perfected society will one day emerge. Therefore our Sabbath, festivals, life­cycle and family purity laws and customs, all aim to protect, strengthen and deepen the most positive family ties and relationships.

A dysfunctional family (Adam and Eve blaming each other for their own weaknesses) produces the first murder (Cain killing Abel). A unified family, say the Prophets, when the hearts of the parents turn to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents, will herald national and world redemption. The family depraved led to exile from Eden and murder; the family redeemed will return us to Eden and the Tree of Life.

The sacred objects of the desert Sanctuary teach us that the most important vehicle for the transmission of our tradition is the family. Only by nurturing family purity and unity will we succeed in protecting Torah and properly utilizing it to perfect all of society.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin  is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.