This week we read in our parsha about the building of the tabernacle. God says to Moshe, “let them (the Israelites) make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Only a little bit of time has passed since the giving of the Ten Commandments, and already Moshe begins the first capital campaign in the history of the Jewish people. The sanctuary – referred to as the Mishkan – serves as the center for Israelite worship during the forty years of wandering in the Sinai desert. More importantly, it becomes the blueprint for the construction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll read (in excruciating detail) about the construction of this sanctuary. There are instructions for everything from the color of the fabric and the menorah, to the curtains and every vessel used in the tabernacle. This week though, one thing stands out: in the course of the instructions, we read that God has commanded the Israelites to build an ark to house the Ten Commandments. On the cover of this ark, God says to
make two golden cherubim … Make one cherub at one end [of the ark cover] and the other cherub at the other end … The cherubim shall have their wings spread upwards … with their faces toward one another.
This immediately begs the question: what is a cherub?
When we hear the word “cherub” now, we immediately think of a baby and having a “cherubic face,” but in the time of the rabbis, there was great confusion as to what exactly a cherub was (they came to the same conclusion we did). So the Israelites are commanded to have to angelic figures with baby faces on top of the ark that housed the Ten Commandments. The only problem is that this seemingly contradicts one of the very commandments in the ark! We were told on Sinai, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image.” It is clearly forbidden to have graven images, and here we are being commanded to make exactly that.
The reason for why the cherubim are an exception to that commandment is a source of great speculation of the rabbis. Some say that we’re not supposed to have graven images “for ourselves,” but these are graven images made for God. Others say that God doesn’t object to the images themselves, but rather to the use of images as a way of distancing ourselves from God. It’s interesting to notice that when God is described as speaking to us from this sanctuary, we’re told that God’s voice came out from “on top of the Ark, between the two cherubim.”
What’s more interesting to me than why we’re allowed to make the Cherubim is what they represent. It’s said that these child-like faces represent God and the Jewish people, and that they would move depending on the relationship between us at the moment. The Talmud says that when the two of us would be in harmony, the temple priests would open the curtains and show us the two figurines entwined in embrace. And they would say, “See how cherished you are by your God.” But when things weren’t going well, when we were feeling distant from God, the Cherubim would face away from each other, back-to-back.
Another opinion says that these two angels are reminders of the holy male and holy female. While we have a more fluid notion of gender, I think that perhaps the two cherubim do represent two sides of us. Not necessarily male and female, but the light and the dark/shadow sides. When things are good for us, our two sides are in an embrace, we’re integrated. When things aren’t going well for us, our two sides are out of contact with one another, they’re separate and unrelated. Also, the idea then that God’s voice can be heard in between the two cherubim show us that our divinity is not found wholly in one side or the other, but in the space in between, when we’re able to be both.
We’re told to build a sanctuary for God so that God can “dwell amongst us.” By bringing the different, disparate sides of ourselves into a loving embrace, we can make ourselves that sanctuary. Then we can speak to ourselves, our higher power, and each other with the voice of the divine.