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Cherubs Atop the Ark

“They shall make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” This verse from Parshat Terumah presents a thinker with many questions. What does it mean to create a sanctuary for God? God is not in need of any structure made by man. There is nothing we can do to benefit or harm God. Similarly, what is the meaning of the second half of the verse “and I will dwell among them.” God is not physical. He cannot be located in a place. The angels ask, “Where is the place of His glory?” They answer, “Blessed is the glory of Hashem from His place.” In other words, there is no place of God. Place connotes is a physical location to which God cannot be assigned.  What then is the meaning and directive of this command?

Rashi explains the verse to mean, “and make for My name a holy house.” The term holy, “kodesh,” is used in the sense of “designated”, or “set aside” for special use. The term for the first stage of a Jewish marriage is “kiddushin.” In this step of the marriage ceremony, the couple are legally designated exclusively to each other. My Kiddush cup is set aside for special use on Shabbat and Yom Tov. If I use it every day, there is nothing special or designated about it.

 The nation of Israel was commanded to construct a building exclusively designated “for the name of God.” Everything about this edifice was uniquely designed to inspire us and direct our attention to the concepts that create a relationship with God. For example, man can comprehend the existence of one, non-physical Creator of the universe. Hence, the Torah prohibits creating an image of God at any time and in any place or structure. To do so would be the most corrupting activity. It would leave a false and damaging impression about the nature of the ultimate reality, the essence of God.

One intriguing piece of furniture in this “house for Hashem’s name” was the ארן הקדש, Ark of the Covenant. This chest contained the broken pieces of the first “לוחות,” Stone Tablets smashed by Moshe at the foot of Mt. Sinai as well as the second set of Stone Tablets hand-carved by Moshe. On these pieces of stone were written the “עשרת הדברות,” the Ten Statements uttered by God to the whole nation at the Revelation. At the end of his life, Moshe writes 13 scrolls of the Torah, one for each of the 12 tribes. He commands the Levites to place the 13th  scroll at the side of the Ark as well.

It was from one solid ingot of gold that a covering of the Ark was fashioned. This single gold ingot was worked into the form of two Cherubs resting on top of the Ark. This special covering was designed by the command of God.

These Cherubs represent the concept of “angels” or “intelligences” as they are referred to by the philosophers. Man’s mind is unique in the animal world. It can perceive reality the way things really are. This perception, capable only of man, goes well beyond the evolutionist notion of the successive development of man’s mind, deemed necessary only for survival. For humans to survive they don’t need to understand the underlying concepts of how the physics of the universe works. Cockroaches have done quite well without this knowledge.

Properly trained though, perception of the physical world will bring a person into the world of ideas. This world of ideas itself stems from the ultimate reality, God. How?  There is a link between the source of reality, Hashem, and the human mind. “Angels” or “intelligences” are the link. In his “Guide for the Perplexed,” the Rambam explains that we approach the ultimate reality, Hashem, by removing negative knowledge. That is, we get closer to God as we rule out or eliminate possibilities. For example, Newtonian physics relaced the understanding of physics up to his time. He was closer than his predecessors to the true ideas underlying the physical processes of the universe. Today Einsteinian concepts are closer. In the future, someone will come along and be closer than Einstein. So, we approach God, but we can never reach the ultimate source.

Although our way of knowing is qualitatively different and inferior to God’s, God created a system whereby man can approach Him, even closer. This system couples human intellectual development with human perfection. At a certain stage of human development, a man or woman can tap into the system of “angels.” Through this system, an individual gains deeper insight into the ultimate reality and comes closer to Hashem. Judaism refers to this stage as נבואה, prophecy. This level was achieved by our matriarchs and patriarchs, Moshe and his sister Miriam among others.

Images of כרובים, “cherubs,” representing the idea of angels, adorned the embroidery of the curtains that surrounded the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary accompanying the Jewish people until the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. Cherubs were also positioned directly on top of the Ark. The Ark, as we said contains the Stone Tablets and a handwritten scroll of the Torah. The Tablets and Torah inform us of fundamental ideas of God. They guide every person in the way of perfection that it leads to a closer relationship with God.  No person could independently arrive at these principles. It must be that God communicated them. He did to a prophet on the highest level, Moshe. This transmission occurred via the linkage system of “angels.” They led Moshe to the clearest perception possible of Hashem by man. To demonstrate the necessity of this linkage of נבואה, the golden Cherubs covered the Holy Ark containing God’s system of life for mankind.

 No wonder the Rambam writes in his “Guide for the Perplexed” that the idea of “angels” is second in importance to the knowledge of the existence of one, non-physical God of the universe. Without the proper concept of “angels,” possession of both the Written and Oral Torahs would be impossible.

The dwelling place that we are commanded to build in this week’s Parsha is exactly as Rashi says. It is the one place on earth dedicated solely to the true ideas of God and His relationship to mankind.   May Hashem continue His protecting care over the country of Israel, the Jewish people, and all those seeking God the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan