Exodus Somewhere Between the Cherubim

By Leah Carnow

Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)  

As a child, I loved “The Wizard of Oz.” Although I grew up watching plenty of movies in color, I remember feeling amazed as Dorothy swirled from the black and white world of Kansas to the colorful world of Oz. The yellow brick road, the blue and white gingham dress, and, of course, the shiny ruby slippers, are etched in my memory. To see the world in rainbow color through Dorothy’s eyes was a magical experience that I enjoyed over and over again.

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, God gives instructions for a place that will be Oz-like in its brilliance. There will be blue, crimson, and purple fabrics; gold, silver, and copper; and animal skins, acacia wood, and colorful precious stones of all kinds. This is the mishkan, the sanctuary where the Israelites will, for the first time, access God in a physical space.

As readers of Torah, it is easy to get so caught up in the specific measurements, building instructions, and other details of the parsha that we miss the grand magnificence of the space that is to be created. After the black and white world of slavery, the people will now physically access God through color and beauty. And it won’t just be beautiful—it will also be useful. Every piece of furniture, every beam, every pole, and every curtain will serve a function—even the cherubim.

The last time we heard anything about cherubim, they were guarding the Garden of Eden, protecting the path to the Tree of Life. Now God tells Moses to make two cherubim out of hammered gold and to place them at the two ends of the caporet, the cover of the ark. God then instructs:

וְהָי֣וּ הַכְּרֻבִים֩ פֹּרְשֵׂ֨י כְנָפַ֜יִם לְמַ֗עְלָה סֹכְכִ֤ים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם֙ עַל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת וּפְנֵיהֶ֖ם אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו אֶ֨ל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת יִהְי֖וּ פְּנֵ֥י הַכְּרֻבִֽים׃

The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. Their faces shall be one toward the other, the faces of the cherubim will be turned toward the cover. (Exodus 25:20)

God says that the cherubim will take up central residence in the mishkan, marking the spot from which God will speak:

וְנוֹעַדְתִּ֣י לְךָ֮ שָׁם֒ וְדִבַּרְתִּ֨י אִתְּךָ֜ מֵעַ֣ל הַכַּפֹּ֗רֶת מִבֵּין֙ שְׁנֵ֣י הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־אֲר֣וֹן הָעֵדֻ֑ת אֵ֣ת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֧ר אֲצַוֶּ֛ה אוֹתְךָ֖ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

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 25:22)

Somewhere between the cherubim, God will give commandments, but what exactly are the cherubim doing in the mishkan? What purpose do these golden, winged figures serve in this holy place? What do they signify?

The Talmud (Bava Batra 99a) illuminates the role of the cherubim by pairing two seemingly contradictory verses together about how the cherubim were positioned. While Exodus 25:20 states that the cherubim were facing each other, Chronicles 3:13 says, “their faces were toward the House,” away from each other. The sages of the Talmud resolve this contradiction between the verses, explaining that the cherubs will face each other during times when the Jewish people are doing the will of God, and they will face the House (the sanctuary), when the Jewish people are not doing the will of God. That is, the cherubim will have different positions depending on how aligned the people are with God. Their function is to represent the relationship between God and the Jewish people, a relationship that will forever be in flux.

Thus, even as we build our first holy space, God reminds us that our relationship with the Divine will take work, that being out of alignment will be a natural part of the relationship. At the same time, the existence of the mishkan—and in particular, the space between the cherubim from which God will speak even when the cherubim face away—is a sign that God is always going to be present, no matter how strained our relationship may be. It is a relief, perhaps, for those of us who at times feel personally unaligned with the Divine to recognize that God is always there, even when we can’t sense God’s presence.

It is significant, too, that the cherubim are able to turn back. They are not always one way or the other, just as in life we are never in one state for long. There will be times when we feel close to God and there will be times when we feel distant. There will be times when we feel in touch with ourselves, living our best lives with the most purpose and meaning, and there will be times when we feel ourselves stuck in grief, fear, anger, or depression. There will be times when we feel close to others and we let ourselves see and be seen by those whom we love most. And there will be times when we distance, turn away, or push away those same loved ones.

The cherubim are our reminder of the ups and downs of life, and through their centrality in this holy place, they remind us that those ups and downs, too, are holy. The despair of an ongoing pandemic, the stirred-up fear from acts of antisemitism, the suffering brought on by illness, brokenheartedness, oppression, and injustice of all kinds—these are all part of the cycle. Despite it being hard to make meaning of our troubles, despite the way they dim our world into shades of gray, they, too, are part of the holy world that our cherubim remind us to see. We, like Dorothy, may yearn for a world where there isn’t trouble, a world that’s “somewhere over the rainbow,” but we know that to live fully in color means embracing the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful.

And ultimately, in those times that we are out of alignment and feeling the world is stuck in black and white, the cherubim remind us to look outward. When the cherubim turn away from each other, what they turn to is the colorful, shiny, beautiful mishkan. Just as they look at the beauty, we, too, can turn to the beauty. Like Dorothy who awakens to a colorful world that allows her to find her way back to herself and to home, the cherubim help us awaken to the color and holiness that is already present in our own lives. Beauty is as ever-present as God is present. We only need to see it. Once we do, we can turn back to ourselves, to each other, and to divinity.

Leah Carnow (she/her) is a rabbinical student in her third year of school at Hebrew College. Originally from Los Angeles, Leah has lived in the Boston area for over 10 years, where she has worked as a yoga teacher, actor, director, healthcare professional, and Jewish educator. Last year, she served as the rabbinic intern at Temple Sinai in Brookline. Leah is currently studying in Jerusalem.

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