The wings of the cheruvim should spread upwards, sheltering the Kapores
with their wings. The face of each should turn to the other. Towards the
Kapores will the cheruvim face.
Simply put, the cheruvim speak of love. Their outstretched wings unfolded as
a protective canopy of love, that ensure the safety and continuity of the
contents of the Aron. Since the two cheruvim symbolize G-d and His people,
they pose a striking image of sharing a deep passion for Torah. At the same
time, the cheruvim look to each other – reminiscent of the deep longing of a
bride and groom for each other. The relationship between G-d and His people
is not primarily one of Master and subject, but of mutual commitment and
love. More specifically, as they face each other expectantly, part of the
gaze of both is directed downward to the Kapores, the cover of the Aron. If
you must know what cements the relationship between Hashem and Klal Yisrael,
it is the Torah itself. Our pasuk visually displays the famous claim of the
Zohar, “Yisrael, Torah and Kudsha Brich Hu are one!” In the position of the
cheruvim atop the Kapores, the three are visually joined
History, however, spoiled the image. At least it changed it significantly.
When Shlomo built his Beis ha-Mikdosh, he installed cheruvim that stood
beside the Aron, and are described as facing out towards the Temple
structure – not towards each other as specified by our pasuk. The gemara
posits a solution. The cheruvim turned towards each other when “Yisrael
acted according to the will of the Omnipresent,” but away from each other
when Yisrael did not.
Rashbam explains that the cheruvim turned miraculously, responding to the
spiritual qualities of the nation. This view is difficult to defend. The
verse that describes Shlomo’s cheruvim as facing outwards pictures them as
they were initially emplaced by Shlomo, and not at a time of some later
spiritual failing. Without doubt, every Shlomo’s Temple faithfully followed
explicit Divine instruction.
We could explain somewhat differently. The gemara does not imply anything
miraculous in the posture of the cheruvim. Where they faced was a product of
different epochs in Jewish history, not the spiritual vicissitudes within
We can understand these epochs by looking to the way kings relate to their
subjects. A beneficent king provides sustenance for all in his realm,
compensating his subjects who work the land for him. These workers not only
work hard to earn what they eat, they must toil to turn their entitlement
into a consumable meal. Food is not handed to them as a finished product.
What they produce depends not only on the energy they expend, but on general
conditions – mazal – that are beyond their ability to control. Very few of
the king’s closer advisors come from this group.
Members of a second group are treated very differently. To those who charge
into battle to protect the honor of the sovereign and his realm, meals are
provided, already prepared, in a relatively fixed and predictable manner.
The king relates to these servants with special warmth. While he will not
ordinarily stop to speak to a common laborer, he does not find it beneath
his royal dignity to converse with a common soldier.
These two roles translate into different ways people are sustained by our
Heavenly King. For most people, sustenance depends on labor – avodah. That
avodah can come in the form of the korbanos (when the Temples stood) or of
prayer (even when they didn’t.) The quality of a person’s avodah provides
him with an “entitlement:” a potential to succeed in some activity or
venture. The individual must still toil with great exertion to turn the
potential into reality, doing what is required to generate some item or income.
A smaller number of people fight the wars of Torah. They take up and
safeguard the honor of Hashem’s precious Torah by their deep and diligent
attention to their meaning – of constant involvement in the milchamtoh shel
Torah. Their needs are provided for through the direct supervision of the
King; what He gives them comes to them with limited exertion. As is well
known, “Hashem loves the gates distinguished by halachah” more than
places of avodah.
In the decades of their travels in the wilderness, the Bnei Yisrael occupied
themselves exclusively with the study of Torah. They were fed mon, for which
they did not have to exert themselves. (While korbanos were offered, those
offerings served primarily as a way of inviting in Hashem’s Presence for the
purpose of direct encounter. They were not offered as they would be in the
future – as the preferred form of avodah. The cheruvim of such a period
faced each other as a depiction of the mutual love of Hashem and His people.
This changed entirely with the inauguration of Shlomo’s Beis ha-Mikdosh.
Klal Yisrael’s sustenance would come through the avodah of korbanos. The
expectant eyes of the people would be upon His special House. Hashem Himself
would, kivayachol, look there expectantly for His beloved korbanos. The
cheruvim, therefore, faced outward. Shlomo’s cheruvim symbolized the
lifestyle of the entire epoch, not spiritual failure within it. Even when
the Bnei Yisrael were attentive to both halachah in general and the
requirements of the korbanos, they were still as a society considered “not
following the Will of the Omnipresent” relative to the years in which
several million Jews occupied themselves with Torah study. At the same
time, the meaning of Moshe’s original cheruvim was never lost. Those
cheruvim remained atop the Aron during the centuries of Shlomo’s bayis,
serving alongside the free-standing cheruvim that Shlomo provided. Indeed,
even the churban could not erase their significance, as Moshe’s cheruvim
were sequestered away for safe-keeping , in a place where they are safe
even today. Their symbolism would be relevant for all times, in regard to
those individuals who make their life’s work the study of Torah. They, too,
would know this loving relationship and close management by Divine Providence.
The King does not demand that all serve in His army. Yet one who is capable
of serving in the milchamtohshel Torah but chooses a different role for
himself cannot be said to be “following the will of the Omnipresent.”
1. Based on Ha’amek Davar and Harchev Davar, Shemos 25:20
2. Divrei ha-Yamim2 3:13
3. Bava Basra 99A
4. See Divrei ha-Yamim1 28:19
5. Berachos 8A. The gemara apparently means places where Torah is studies
deeply enough to arrive at definitive halachic conclusions.