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Parashat Terumah 5772 – 02/22/2012

Parashat Terumah

Submitted by
Robert Rabinoff

The Cherubim shall be with wings spread upward, sheltering the Cover with their wings with their faces toward one another; toward the Cover shall be the faces of the Cherubim (25:20)

It is there that I will set My meetings with you, and I shall speak with you from atop the Cover, from between the two Cherubim that are on the Ark of the Testimony, everything that I shall command you to the Children of Israel (verse 22).

When the people of Israel fulfilled Gd’s will, the cherubim would face each other; and when the people of Israel did not fulfill Gd’s will, the cherubim would face the walls of the room. (Bava Batra 99a)

According to the commentators, the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was to be a continuation of the experience at Mt. Sinai, where the entire people experienced pure Knowledge emanating from Gd directly, or a microcosm displaying the structure of the Creation.  Perhaps these are two descriptions of the same thing. 


In either event, the central feature of the Mishkan was the Aron, the Ark, which housed the two tablets Moshe Rabbeinu brought down from Mt. Sinai.  The Ark sat in the physical center of the Mishkan complex and was crowned with a cover of pure gold, out of which the two Cherubim were hammered.  Just as Gd’s Voice had emanated from the thick cloud on Mt. Sinai, and was congealed into the writing on the two tablets in the Ark, so Gd’s Voice would emanate in the future from between the Cherubim.  And just as at Mt. Sinai only Moshe Rabbeinu could actually hear Gd’s Voice and live, so in the Mishkan, the Voice that emanated from between the Cherubim was audible only to Moshe Rabbeinu, who transmitted Gd’s instructions to us as the Written and Oral Torah.


Our tradition tells us that Gd is at the center of Creation.  In fact, Creation is nothing more than Gd’s self-expression into manifold finite forms, while He of course is completely infinite and unchanging.  If this is so, then somehow the Cherubim and the Ark, sitting at the center point of the Mishkan should somehow model this reality.  Last year we discussed the commandment that the Cherubim were hammered out of the same block of gold as the rest of the Ark-Cover, which we asserted modeled the fact that all finite values are actually representations of the same underlying, infinite “substrate” of existence, in much the same way that all the waves on the surface of the ocean are actually nothing other than the same water of which the entire ocean is composed.  This year I would like to consider the fact that the Cherubim were made facing one another.


In the story of the creation of humankind, Torah tells us that when Gd created the first human, “male and female He created them.” (Bereishit 1:27)  The Midrash fills in that originally Adam was created both male and female, with the male side facing one way and the female side facing the other way, perhaps like the Pushme-Pullyou of Dr. Doolittle fame.  When Gd decided that Adam needed an ezer k’negdo – a helper “opposite” him – He formed Eve out of Adam’s side.  The Midrash interprets that Gd split the female and male sides and allowed each its own standalone existence.  Most important, they could now face each other, which means they could come into a relationship with one another.


On one level then, the two Cherubim, which had the form of a young man and a young woman, model the primal relationship upon which all human civilization and tradition are based.  I would like to take this a step further, and argue that this relationship itself models something deeper and more fundamental.


Since we are created “in Gd’s image” we should be able to get a hint about what Gd is like by considering our own condition (this will be only a hint of course, as Gd is infinite and we are finite – as the Prophet says: As the Heavens are far above the earth, so are My ways far above your ways and My thoughts above your thoughts [Isaiah 55:9]) and extrapolating.  We can say two things about ourselves – we exist and we are conscious.  We can extrapolate that Gd must therefore have these two qualities to the maximum degree – He must be pure, infinite Existence and pure, infinite Consciousness.


We can understand the difference between these two aspects by considering our own experience.  Our existence is our objective aspect; passive as it were and acted upon.  Our consciousness is our subjective aspect; it is the “I” within us that goes out and acts in the world.  It is our consciousness, our subjective nature, that can enter into a relationship with another subject.


When we extrapolate to Gd’s level of course, there is no other subject for Gd to have a relationship with.  As Rambam puts it in his 13 principles of the Jewish faith, Gd is completely unified and there is no unity in the realm of diversity like Gd’s Unity.  Gd’s Unity is not composed of parts – it simply Is.  On the other hand, we all have the experience that we can be aware of ourselves (whether animals have self-awareness is a field of active research).  We would have to assume that Gd as well has Self-awareness.  I would suggest that perhaps we could consider this Self-awareness on the level of the infinite as setting up a virtual duality within the very nature of the infinite.  It is as if the original Unity of Gd’s nature has some faint hint of a relationship within it.  Once this virtual relationship has been established, there can be a dynamic back-and-forth between the two poles of the relationship.  Perhaps it is this internal dynamics, precipitated by the Self-awareness of Gd’s pure consciousness, that we perceive as Creation.


Perhaps this is the underlying meaning of Gd’s taking the original human, created in Gd’s image, and bringing its two aspects into a relationship with one another.  The relationship of a man and a woman, in its ideal state, models the internal dynamics within Gd’s Unity, and the Cherubim, facing one another at the center of the Holy of Holies, model it as well.  In the larger field of human communal existence, the relation between the People of Israel and Gd also models this basic dynamics, at least “when Israel fulfills Gd’s Will.”  Our mission as the Jewish people is, in fact, to come into a “face-to-face” relationship with Gd, as we had, albeit briefly, during the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.  When we reach this level as a people, the whole purpose of Creation will be fulfilled, and all knowledge, on every level, will become Self-knowledge.  May we see it speedily in our day!