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Last week’s Torah reading ended with Moshe ascending Mount Sinai to receive the entirety of the Torah from G-d. Chronologically, the next thing that should occur in the Torah is the building of the Golden Calf. This takes place forty days later, and forces Moshe to make a hasty descent with the two tablets of stone, and smash them. But the Torah makes us wait another two weeks, until Ki Tissa, before continuing with the plot. In between we have what seems like a digression, detailing the plans for the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and all of its ornaments and utensils. Obviously the Torah was not compiled in a haphazard, random fashion, so why did G-d feel that it was most appropriate to place these two portions here?
Three of the pieces of furniture in the Mishkan - the Ark containing the stone tablets, the altar, and the table - share a common feature. They each have rings at their sides, into which the poles used for carrying them are placed. But the poles of the Ark are unique, in that there is an explicit prohibition in ever removing them from their rings. Even after the Temple was built in Jerusalem, these poles remained in place. Why should our holiest object require portability as part of its design? Clearly it was not simply for the sake of portability. Furthermore, the total weight of the Ark must have been several tons, far more than four people could carry on their shoulders. In fact, the Levites who were carrying the Ark gave the appearance of bearing the weight of the poles on their shoulders, but were actually holding on as the Ark miraculously transported them. Although it appeared that the Ark was being carried, actually it was doing the carrying!
We have a principle that G-d always presents us, as a nation, with the cure, before afflicting us with the disease. One example of this is the story of Esther. The Megilla first relates how Esther came to be queen and how Mordechai saved the life of Ahasuerus, and only then begins with Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews. Thus the mechanism for our salvation was in place before its need actually arose.
So too in our parsha. Had the Jews not built the Golden Calf, they would have remained on the tremendously high spiritual level that they attained at Mount Sinai. There would have been no need for all of the trials and tribulations which we have had to face since then, the purpose of which is to bring us back to G-d. When Moshe goes back up Mount Sinai to plead with G-d not to destroy the nation, he is actually creating Jewish history. He beseeches G-d to be merciful and to spread out our punishment over time, instead of wiping us out on the spot. To this day we are still paying back part of that debt.
The need for a history of anti-Semitism, hatred and pogroms, was caused by the building of the Golden Calf. Our exile from the Holy Land was decreed then. But in order to be able to survive this harsh decree, we could not be tied to a Temple, or to a city. G-d, and the Torah, must be accessible anywhere that we may find ourselves; otherwise we could never continue to exist as a nation in exile.
Therefore G-d decreed that we should build ourselves a Mishkan, a portable Sanctuary, which will follow us wherever we go. And the Ark containing the two tablets, the embodiment of Torah, must be ready to go at any moment. The need for portability and mobility is not because G-d has no other means of transportation available to Him, but rather to teach us that at all times and places the Torah is available to us. If we are prepared to carry its burden, which may appear cumbersome and heavy, it will in fact carry and sustain us throughout our journeys.
There were two Temples in Jerusalem. The first was destroyed by the Babylonians, the second by the Romans. We cannot depend upon them for long lasting security. But the Mishkan was never destroyed. It was buried, and remains hidden to this day, somewhere on the Temple Mount. It is indestructible, and is a metaphor for our continued existence, and connection to G-d. The Ark is portable, and accompanies us through our long and difficult exile.
The holiest part of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was the Aron (Ark), which contained the two sets of stone tablets. On top of the ark was the Kapores, the cover upon which two golden k’ruvim (cherubs) stood with their wings stretched upwards. G-d’s voice spoke to Moshe from between these two k’ruvim, as the verse says, “When Moshe came to the Ohel Mo’ed (Tabernacle) to speak to Him [G-d], he heard the voice speaking to him from above the Kapores that was on the Aron, from between the k’ruvim” (Bamidbar 7; 89).
Idolatry is abhorred by Judaism, and making any image is forbidden, yet in the holiest place we find G-d instructing Moshe to place a graven image of two k’ruvim.
After the sin of Adam and Eve, when they have been banished from the Garden of Eden, we also find k’ruvim: “And He [G-d] banished mankind and He placed to the East of Eden the k’ruvim, and the spinning, flaming sword to guard the way of the tree of life” (Bereishis 3; 24). If these angels are intended to keep people away from the Garden of Eden, why are these same angels the conduit for G-d to speak to the Children of Israel?
The two k’ruvim above the ark had the faces of a boy and a girl. The Talmud (Yoma 54b) relates: “When the non-Jews [Babylonians] entered the Holy of Holies, they saw that the k’ruvim were intertwined in an embrace. They carried them out to the market and declared: Israel, who’s blessing is a blessing and who’s curse is a curse, are involved in these sorts of things? Immediately they despised them [the Jews].” In the most holy of places why do we have such physical intimacy depicted?
The word Kapores means atonement, and that was the function of the cover of the ark. The command to build the Mishkan was a response to the sin of the Golden Calf. Had the Jews not been involved with that sin, each individual would have been worthy of having the Shechina (Divine Presence) rest within them. After the sin however, it was only as a nation that G-d dwelt among the Jews. The Kapores, the resting place of the Shechina, symbolised that atonement and forgiveness. The k’ruvim and the Kapores were formed from a single piece of gold. Therefore the k’ruvim stretching upwards out of the Kapores were the bridge between the people and G-d. This was the point where G-d showed His forgiveness and closeness with the Jewish nation.
Rambam explains (Laws of Idolatry, Ch. 1) that idolatry began when people prayed to intermediaries rather than to G-d directly. They reasoned that if G-d is so holy and separate from the earth, people should not approach Him directly; therefore they prayed to the stars and constellations as messengers of heaven. Gradually they forgot that the objects of their worship were only intermediaries, and began to worship them as gods. This is the reason that G-d forbade any graven image. However the k’ruvim represent the opposite of idol worship. After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d no longer spoke directly to the nation, but the k’ruvim were the focus of speech from heaven to earth.
This explains the seemingly contradictory roles of the k’ruvim. On the one hand they guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden, to show that mankind are no longer able to speak to G-d directly. However they remain the link to the Garden, through which G-d communicates with Moshe and the Jews. Perhaps this is the meaning of the spinning sword, symbolising the dual function of preventing humans from entering, but allowing G-d’s message to be heard from without.
G-d’s message is the Torah, described in the Garden of Eden as the tree of life. The verse refers to the Torah as “A tree of life to them that grasp it” (Mishlei 3; 18). In the Mishkan, the k’ruvim were placed above the ark containing the Torah, with their wings stretched upwards. This showed that G-d’s communication for all time is the Torah, and that it is a taste of the Garden of Eden. The gateway between heaven and earth, between the Garden of Eden and the earthly Torah, is the most intimate place, the place of knowledge. Knowledge implies physical intimacy, as the Torah says (Bereishis 4; 1) “And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived...”.
The only physical analogy that we can have of the loving relationship between G-d and the Jews is the love of a man and a woman. The k’ruvim symbolised this relationship. They depicted two youths, the time when love is most passionate. The moment when the Jews encountered G-d at Mount Sinai is described as a bride entering the wedding canopy. This love was eternalised in the k’ruvim. The other nations saw pornography, but the Jews understood the spiritual metaphor, which led them to yearn to cleave closer to G-d. The Talmud says (Yoma 54a) “When the Jews came for the pilgrimage festivals they would open the curtain and show them the k’ruvim who were embracing one another. They would say, See the love between G-d and the Jews, like the love of a man and a woman. ”
Rabbi Akiva said (Yadayim 3; 5) “All of scripture is holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies”, yet it was almost banned (Avos d’Rebbe Nasan I) because it depicts the relationship between G-d and the Jews as the love of a man and a woman. There was a concern that it would be misunderstood as inappropriate Biblical literature. This is exactly the mistake that the nations made when they saw the k’ruvim .Rather than despising the Jews, they should have understood the metaphor, and been awed at the strength of their relationship with G-d.
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