Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s DayApril 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Posted in Terumah | 4 Comments
(This blog was first posted on February 7, 2010.)
And you will make two keruvim of gold; you will make them hammered out of the two ends of the kaporet. You will make one keruv at one end, and one keruv at the other end; from the atonement-cover you will make the keruvim, on both of its ends. And the keruvim will be spreading their wings upward, sheltering the kaporet with their wings; and their faces will be turned one another; the faces of the keruvim will be turned toward the atonement-cover. (Exodus/Shemot 25:18-20)
keruv (כֱרוּב), plural keruvim = (cherub in English) = a winged hybrid beast, usually with a human head and an animal body.
kaporet (כַּפֹּרֱת) = reconciliation, atonement; atonement-cover; the gold lid on the ark
Two stone lions, or lion-like beasts, crouch on either side of the main entrance to a library, a civic building, a mansion; they face the person who approaches, looking stern and regal. We’ve all seen them; architects used them for centuries, the world over, to make entrances more impressive.
In ancient Assyria, the colossal statues on either side of an entrance were hybrid winged beasts called kuribu in Akkadian. Scholars say the word is related to both the Akkadian word karabu, “to pronounce formulas of blessing”, and the Hebrew word keruv.
Now imagine two winged beasts facing one another, guarding neither a city gate nor a door into a building, but a portal into another world, another reality. Science fiction? No, Torah.
In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations “), God tells Moshe how to construct the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. Inside the inner curtained-off chamber, the Holy of Holies, will be the ark holding the tablets of the covenant. The lid of the ark will be a pure gold atonement-cover. The two ends of this golden lid will be hammered into gold sculptures of keruvim. When the sanctuary is finished, God will speak to Moshe from the empty space above the cover, between the two keruvim.
This is neither the first nor the last place where the Torah mentions winged guardian figures called keruvim. When the first two human beings are banished from the Garden of Eden, God “made the keruvim dwell in front of (or east of) the garden of Eden, and the flame of the sword of the mit-hapechet, to watch over the way to the Tree of Life.” (Genesis 3:24)
mit-hapechet (מִתְהַפֶּכֶת) = revolving, quivering, flashing, continually transforming
When the ark is carried into battle against the Philistines, it is referred to as “the ark of the covenant of the God of Armies Sitting on the Keruvim.” (I Samuel 4:4) When King Solomon builds a permanent temple, he places two colossal gilded keruvim in the innermost chamber. Their anatomy is not described, but their wings touch in the center of the room. (I Kings 6:23-27) Keruvim are also used as a decorative motif in the temple walls, as they are in the woven curtains around the inner chamber of the portable sanctuary.
The four mysterious hybrid creatures in vision of the prophet Ezekiel are also called keruvim. They probably do not look exactly like the keruvim over the ark, but they are also hybrid creatures. Ezekiel’s keruvim have four wings each, human hands, calves’ hoofs, and four faces each (human, lion, ox, and eagle). The throne where God’s glory appears is above them. (Ezekiel 1:4-12 and 10:1-21)
Psalm 18 paints a metaphorical picture of God descending from the heavens to rescue King David from his enemies, and includes the line: “He rode on a keruv and He flew; And He soared on wings of ruach (wind or spirit).” This couplet borrows an image from a Canaanite religion in which the sky god’s steed was a winged beast.
What do all these references to keruvim mean? If we look behind the descriptive details, keruvim seem to define a location for the appearance of God’s glory, or presence, or Shechinah—whether the location is between them, as in this week’s Torah portion, or above them, as in Ezekiel and Psalm 18, or behind them, as in Genesis.
Keruvim combine the traits of many animals, including humans, and thus represent the more sentient part of the world God creates. Yet they are supernatural, existing somewhere between our reality and the transcendence of God. Therefore they mark the dividing line between our world and the divine world we can neither enter nor understand.
Yet in Torah this dividing line is not a wall, but a gateway. As long as we live in this world we cannot pass through the gate. But we can imagine the entrance to the Garden of Eden. And we can imagine God speaking to Moshe through the empty space between the keruvim above the ark, even if we can never enter the Holy of Holies ourselves.
One effect of this invisible portal to another reality, this gap in our universe, is that human beings feel a yearning that can never be satisfied by the things of this world. The yearning keeps us searching—for love, for beauty, for the good, for the divine. That is what it means to be human.
Maybe Adam and his counterpart Eve (Chava), are not really human until they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Only then can they feel yearning.
Today we human beings still yearn for the ineffable. And we are still responsible for using the passion of our yearning to make tikkun olam, to help make the world we live in more like the world we yearn for.