Meeting in the Middle

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on February 5, 2011
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

This week's parasha contains what may be one of the most unexpected mitzvot in all of Torah - one that not only seems to be without a clear reason, but which also seems to risk violating one of the most sacred principles in all of Judaism. As part of the extended instruction for how to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that would serve as the Israelites' center of worship while in the desert, God tells Moshe to build an ark, which will hold the stone tablets on which the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Utterances, are inscribed. So far, so good. But immediately following those instructions comes the following:

You shall make a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. Make two cherubim of gold - make them of hammered work - at the two ends of the cover. 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. They shall confront 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. -- Ex. 25:17-20

Cherubim?! Two rather obvious questions that spring to mind are a) what are cherubim? and b) how can this command be reconciled with the much-repeated prohibition on making graven images?

The answer to these questions is not the subject of this drash. Rather, I'd like to highlight another aspect of this command: that there must be two cherubim, one on each side of the Ark.

The fact that there are two of them suggests that they represent some of the most significant pairs of complimentary categories in Jewish tradition. For example:

Male and female - According to Rav Kahana, in a statement found in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54a, after the Israelites settled in the Land of Israel, when they would come up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the Pilgrimage Festivals, "they [the priests] would roll up the parochet [the curtain covering the entry to the Holy of Holies], and show them the cherubim, who were embracing one another, and say to them, ‘See how beloved you are before the Omnipresent One, like the love of a male and a female.'" The great mystical work, the Zohar (Vayikra 59a), goes a step further and states explicitly that one cherub was in the form of a male being, the other female.

God and Israel - This has already been hinted at in the Talmudic source cited above. The embrace of the cherubim is symbolic of the love God feels for Israel, a relationship which is often understood metaphorically in Jewish tradition as a marriage. Furthermore, in Baba Batra 99a, we are told that the position of the cherubim was not fixed: in fact, they served as a sort of barometer of the state of the relationship between Israel and God. When all is well between God and God's people, the cherubim faced each other. When Israel sinned and rebelled, the cherubim turned away from each other.

Ben adam l'makom and ben adam l'havero; our responsibilities to God and our responsibilities to each other - The cherubim are placed outside and over the ark, one on each side; inside the Ark are the two engraved stone tablets. On one side of those tablets are the first five of the Ten Utterances, which largely deal with mitzvot that address the relationship between God and human beings, such as the prohibition on idolatry, and observance of Shabbat. On the other side are the most significant mitzvoth that govern human relationships, such as the prohibitions of theft and murder.

Heaven and earth - The cherubim are winged, and moreover, their wings are to point upwards towards the heavenly realms. Their faces, however, are turned downwards, towards each other and towards the Ark that they cover.

All this being so, perhaps the most significant thing about the cherubim is what God says about them in verse 22:

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.

Only in the place where we find balance between the dichotomous categories in our life, only in the place where they become complements to each other, only from between the cherubim - that is where God's words to us come from.

Shabbat shalom.