Sermon: The Cherubim – a Symbol of Relationship

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 February 2022

I’d like to ask you, just for a moment to close your eyes, and to picture a Cherub.
What did you see?
What imagery did the word conjure up?

Most likely, if anything at all, what you saw was a child. A plump baby boy with chubby cheeks and incongruous wings. In modern usage, the adjective cherubic comes to mean sweet or innocent, cutely adorable.

So is it this that the Israelites were instructed to make?
Zeb just read for us – v’asitah shnaim k’ruvim zahav – you shall make two cherubim of gold – two golden statues, facing one another across the kapporet – the solid gold lid.
Is this what sat atop the ark containing the two tablets, at the very centre of the most sacred place in our story? Two cuddly winged babies?

Well, possibly.
Certainly, this is one voice that we find in our tradition. The Babylonian Talmud asks the question ‘mai k’ruv – what is a cherub?’ One answer it gives, in the name of a third century Sage from the Land of Israel, Rabbi Abbahu, is that k’ruv is related to the word ‘k’ravya’ – ‘like a child’. He continues ‘she’kein b’bavel korin lee’nuka ravya’ – for in Babylon they call an infant – literally a suckling – ravya.

But the text of the Bavli isn’t quite sure. The image of an infant doesn’t quite fit. It doesn’t fit in our vision of the mishkan, and it doesn’t fit with the role of kruvim elsewhere in the bible. For these are not cuddly babies, but powerful figures. When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden it is cherubim that are stationed alongside the fiery sword to guard the way to the tree of life. In the vision of Ezekiel, cherubim are seen pulling the divine chariot – there they are described as creatures with four faces and wings.

In our haftarah this morning we read from the account of the building of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Later in that passage we read that Solomon made two ‘kruvim atzei shemen’ – two cherubim of olive wood each ten cubits high with a wingspan of 10 cubits – that is, about 5 metres tall, and across. The imagery is less of a cherub as we might imagine it, and more like lamassu – the protective door-guards of ancient Assyria that you can see in the British museum or the Louvre – most often winged bulls with human heads, ancient near Eastern hybrid deities.

Hybridity is common to all attempts to define the cherub, but exactly what they looked like remains a mystery. The medieval commentators present at least half a dozen different opinions of what they were – even before we add in the possible relationship with iconography elsewhere in the ancient world. Winged babies, winged adults, sphinxes, birds, griffins, winged bulls – all have been suggested as possible explanations for these complicated figures.
Though plenty of artists – from Hollywood to Har Habayit – have made representations, we can never know what is really intended by the biblical text.

But while we don’t know what they exactly looked like, we can speak to what they symbolised.
In all these contexts – in Eden, in the vision of Ezekiel, in the mishkan, in the temple – cherubim seem to mark an intersection, a point of contact between God and human beings. Sometimes, as in the story of Adam and Eve, this role is as guard – supernatural bouncers tasked with keeping humanity away from divine power.

But sometimes, as in the mishkan, they mark a point of communication.
Here, in our text this morning, they stand as a symbol of relationship. At the centre of the mishkan, at the heart of the most sacred physical space in our story, central to the place of meeting is a moment of face to face meeting.

Midrashically, the cherubim are transformed – into lovers – husband and wife, God and Israel – into two students in chavruta – a representation, an ideal, of connection.

In this respect, more significant than what they look like is where they are looking. When they are guards the cherubim face out into the world – like those Assyrian door protectors. But as symbols of communication, as connection, as in our portion this morning, they face each other.

This idea forms the basis of one of the most beautiful rabbinic texts about the cherubim.
The Talmud contrasts the cherubim of our Torah portion, which face one another, with those in Solomon’s temple as they are described in the Book of Chronicles – there we read that they faced towards the House, away from each other. Which was it, the gemara asks?

It resolves this contradiction by explaining that the direction in which the cherubs faced would change:
“kan bizman she’yisrael osim r’tzono shel makom, kan bizman she’ein yisrael osim r’tzono shel makom.”
“This one at times when the people Israel are doing the will of God, this one when Israel is not doing the will of God.”

If the cherubim represent an ideal of relationship, they also represent the possibility of that relationship going badly. When Israel are doing the will of God, meeting is possible. Indeed, in order to do the will of God, meeting is necessary. We must meet in constructive relationship – seeing each other, being in dialogue with one another. Communication is central.

But, when not doing the will of God, the cherubim represent the breakdown of communication, a sense of disconnection, turning away in protest. With an awareness of the fragility of connection, the power, perhaps, of the careless word, the reality of the work of relationship – the same figures – cherubim – can be both nurturing lovers meeting and fearsome guards defending.
Relationships need work, need nurturing, if we are not to turn away from one another.

Of course, the cherubim are not quite at the very centre of the mishkan – because the most important point that Zeb described for us is not the ark, or the lid, or the cherubim, but the small sliver of space between them. As Zeb read, ‘v’dibarti it’cha… mi’bein shnei ha’k’ruvim’ – “God says, ‘I will speak with you from between the two Cherubim’”. At the heart of the mishkan is not gold or linen, or precious stones, or dolphin skin but communication.

Another ancient near eastern parallel is informative here. Because another place that we might find an image of winged creatures in ancient near eastern iconography is on a throne or podium – hybrid beings spreading their wings either side of a king or deity, often at the centre of a palace or temple. But at the centre of the mishkan, at the point of greatest sanctity is not a person, not an image, but a space for words.

This is, of course, theologically significant – a response to idolatry. But it is also a message about what is most important. Not the material, not the physical, the central act is words, is communication – unlike so much in our current age – not the medium but the message – v’dibarti it’cha – I will speak with you.

So what did the cherubim look like?
In truth we do not know – it’s a pretty big gap in our knowledge. But even with this gap, the cherubim about which Zeb read for us are a powerful symbol.

They stand as a symbol of the centrality of relationship, of meeting, of communication, of words. The importance of cherishing our connections with one another.

For so many of us it has been connection, relationship – the ability to meet face to face – even over screens – that has sustained us through the challenges of the last two years. And we know that central to our return to normality is meeting – the ability to stop and speak at Kiddush or in the supermarket, or to meet together in the setting of community.

The cherubim at the heart of the mishkan remind us that this meeting and speaking is central, – that the ideal is to connect face to face, grappling with the difficult, not turning away from one another.
But also to take care as we do so – how fragile this can be. We live in an age in which communication can be throwaway, in which carelessness with words is found everywhere from twitter to parliament. Our cherubim can also turn away from one another.

And what is truly key? At the centre of the centre of the centre – is what we say. V’dibarti it’cha – I will speak with you. At the heart of our most sacred space was not the image of a king or a deity, but words – communication, what is said. Our declarative acts, the commitments that we make.

So, I know it is unlikely, but if you are ever asked again to close your eyes and imagine a cherub – what should you imagine?
A cherub is not a winged baby. Nor a winged adult, nor a sphinx, a birds, a griffin, a winged bull. A cherub is an ideal to be cherished – an ideal of meeting face to face, of connection, communication and relationship.