Jewish Journal

Facing Each Other

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

by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom

Posted on Feb. 14, 2002 at 7:00 pm

I am sitting in my old seat in the study hall of Yeshivat Har Etzion, tucked away in the Judean hills, having completed a week of solidarity visits, catching up with old friends and attending inspiring and enlightening lectures. As a Bible teacher, I could not resist the opportunity to take a siyur tanakhi (Bible outing) with my old friend "Jabo," an experienced tour guide .

We followed the route of the Ark as it returned to the land of Judah (Samuel 1:6). The final stop was at Kiryat Y'arim, on the north side of Abu Ghosh, just west of Jerusalem. We followed the route to the top of the hill, where we found a church known as "Mary, the Ark of the Covenant." Atop the church is a statue, which at once fascinates and offends our Jewish sensibilities. Mary towers above the building, babe in arms, and at her feet is a representation of the Holy Ark. The symbolism of "Replacement Theology" is all too obvious.

Gazing at the statue, we noticed an oddity that prompted my friend to suggest that the statue may have been fashioned by a knowledgeable apostate Jew. (It wasn't). Before continuing, an introduction to the Ark is in order.

The intricate laws presented over the seven chapters that begin with this week's parsha, detail God's command to construct a mishkan -- a dwelling place for God that would serve as the point of meeting between man and God. The Tabernacle contains a menorah, a table and a small incense altar. Behind the parochet (divider) is the Holy of Holies, which contains one item: A simple box -- containing the tablets given at Sinai -- sits at the very heart of God's sanctuary. The box has an intricate gold cover formed into two cherubic figures. The Torah is quite clear that the figures must face each other: "And the cherubim shall stretch out their wings on high, covering the cover with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the cover shall the faces of the cherubim be." (Shemot 25:20)

The beautiful imagery of the loving relationship between God and His people, captured so poetically in the allegory of "Song of Songs," is symbolized perfectly here. The two cherubim face each other and that exact spot is the point of meeting between God and man.

But the beauty seems to fade when we read of the description of Solomon's Temple: "The wings of these cherubim spread themselves forth 20 cubits; and they stood on their feet, and their faces were toward the building." (II Chronicles 3:13)

If the cherubs face toward the building, they must have their backs to each other. What has become of our beautiful image in the mishkan? The Talmud, noting the contradiction, resolves it simply and succinctly: "The cherubim face each other when the Jewish people fulfill God's will; but face away when they fail to do so." (Bava Batra 99a)

The simple understanding of this resolution is that the cherubim represent God and the nation; when the people do not properly "face God," He turns away, so to speak. What do the rabbis mean by "fulfilling God's will?" It is that we face each other, relate to each other and care for each other. There is another level on which this image should be viewed. As Rabbi S. R. Hirsch suggests, the cherubim not only represent God and the people -- they are also the Jewish people themselves.

Back to Abu Ghosh: When we looked up at the statue, we saw that the cherubim were facing away from each other.

The shock that I felt slowly gave way to a deeper understanding. Those who would erase us from history have always understood the secret of Jewish survival -- our steadfast commitment to our people. The statue in ancient Kiryat Y'arim, towering though it may be, is merely a bit of wishful thinking on the part of the church. Our faces will always look one to another. Especially in a year of tragedy and war as we are experiencing here in Israel, the faces of the Jewish people are constantly turned to each other with love, concern and fraternity. Shabbat Shalom from Har Etzion.

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