After previously denouncing and prohibiting in multiple instances, on pain of death, creation of statues, portrayals of the human form, or anything even remotely resembling idols, God throws an unusual command.
In the building of the sanctuary, in the Holy of Holies, on the very top of the Ark of the Covenant, where the Tablets of the Law are devotedly concealed, God tells us to place, not one, but two human figures.
These two Cherubim, as they are called, have the form of young children with wings on their back.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the seemingly contradictory declaration, by allowing one of the most abhorrent issues in Judaism, in the heart of the most sacred spot of Jewish ritual service.
Sforno claims that it is nothing less than a powerful and overt message. These Cherubim are representations of what today we more commonly refer to as Angels: heavenly ethereal beings that directly fulfill the will of God on earth. In rare occasions they present themselves and allow themselves to be seen by human beings. At times they may appear as unassuming humans, unrecognized in their mission. Most of the time, however, it seems they are invisible to the human eye.
So why are there angels on top of the Ark, and why specifically the winged variety?
I’ll paraphrase from Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz’s notes (the Sforno translator), who draws from Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed (I:49 and I:54):
The act of flying represents the ability to soar to heights as well as swiftness of movement, both of which require wings. Humans also can aspire to develop spiritual and intellectual potential so as to soar to greater heights of apprehension and understanding of God.
This can only be realized by examining God’s ways, as we see from Moses. One can only know Him, through His ways, which is through his 13 attributes, which can only be gained through the Torah. That is why the Cherubim are not only on the cover, but are gazing at the Ark cover – the source of truth and wisdom – the Torah.
Sforno believes that the Cherubim are an implicit message. That at the heart of the Jewish religion is a belief and a demand that we can and must elevate ourselves. That elevation is accomplished through God’s Law. If we keep our eye on the truth – we can soar like the very angels themselves.
To my sister and brother-in-law, Ilana and Daniel Epstein, on their 13th Anniversary. Besides the 13 Attributes of God and Bar-Mitzvah, 13 are also the Principals of Faith that Maimonides enumerates, and Kabbalists also refer to the 13 petalled rose, among other uses (i.e. great number). May they continue to grow and elevate themselves and may they soar to health, happiness and success with their beautiful family.
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