T'rumah: Do Cherubs Carry Arrows or Fiery Swords?

This week, billions of people around the world – including many Jews – celebrated “Valentine’s Day” with greeting cards, candy, flowers, candlelight dinners, expensive gifts, etc.  They were perhaps inspired by the iconic symbol of the “romantic” holiday: a chubby, bow-and-arrow equipped cherub (Cupid) either hovering over a heart or shooting an arrow into it.  

St. Valentine’s Day is obviously not a Jewish holiday.  Yet, perhaps surprisingly, cherubs do occupy a very special and even prominent place in Judaism!  As with many ideas, holidays, and symbols, though, the version with which many (most?) Jews are today familiar is an adaptation of Jewish text that results in a very different meaning.

This week, we read and study parashat T’rumah, in the book of Exodus.  T’rumah contains the design specifications for the Tabernacle.  G-d instructs Moses to tell the Israelites:

Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover (of the ark).  Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends.  The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings with their faces toward each other; the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.  Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Pact that I will give you.  There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you – from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact – all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”  Exodus 18-22. 

In this remarkable passage, G-d states that it is precisely between two cherubim that G-d will speak to us!  Lest this essential point be missed, it is repeated at Numbers 7:89 and 1 Samuel 4:4.  Moreover, the cherubim appear in many other places in the Jewish Bible:  Genesis, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and Psalms.  

However, in none of these many references are they ever depicted as cute love-facilitators; quite the contrary!  In Genesis Chapter 3, G-d drives mankind from the Garden of Eden and stations cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword to guard the way back to the Tree of Life.  Ezekiel, who “saw” them in a vision, portrays them as surrounded by something that looked like burning coals of fire, suggestive of torches, with lightning issuing from the fire.  (Ex. 1:13-14).  He also describes their appearance in startling detail as rather fierce creatures with four faces (man, lion, ox, and eagle) and four wings.  David says that G-d “mounted a cherub and flew, gliding on the wings of the wind.”  (Psalm 18:11).    

For me, cherubim symbolize two points:

1.      Metaphorically, we are all trying to return to the delights of the Garden of Eden and eat from the Tree of (Eternal) Life.  But as Genesis states, the Cherubim guard the entrance.  They thus represent the obstacles we must overcome to attain the reality we seek.  But we also refer to Torah itself and to the wooden rollers that the scrolls as the “Tree of Life.”  Hence, the way to get past the fiery cherubim guards, into the Garden of Eden, and to the Tree of Life is by grasping the rollers of the Torah scroll, studying Torah, and living by its teachings.  (I wish to acknowledge Rabbi Dr. Mordecai Finley for suggesting this insight).

2.      Our scripture states that G-d speaks to us from between the cherubim.  What are they doing?  The text states that their faces are simultaneously toward each other and toward the cover of the Ark in which the Torah has been placed.  That is, they are looking both at each other and to Torah.  I take this to mean that if we wish to hear G-d speak to us, we, too, must engage with each other even as we attend to Torah.  Martin Buber taught that G-d exists and is experienced in “I-Thou” relationships, that is, in relationships between people.  I find his analysis compelling in light of the Torah’s explicit description of how the cherubim guard Torah, and of where the Divine speaks to us. 

As we seek meaning in our lives, may we do so by increasingly engaging with each other and with Torah!   

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.     

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  • T'rumah: Do Cherubs Carry Arrows or Fiery Swords?

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