As we embark on a series of Torah readings that deal with the architecture and furnishings of the Mishkan, the Israelites’ wilderness-friendly portable sanctuary, we see a great deal of detail that may seem bereft of meaning. After all, do we look for spiritual inspiration in the technicalities of Ikea assembly manuals? But the beauty of Torah is that our interpretative tradition can find wisdom even in the nuts and bolts of our texts.
For example, in this week’s portion, Terumah, we find the building instructions for the keruvim, the Cherubim which were to flank the curtain that covered the ark. The cherubim “shall confront one another–pneihem ish el ahiv”–that is to say, they should be installed facing one another. This detail is innocuous unless one reads to the very end of the Hebrew Bible, where one finds in Second Chronicles (3:13) that the cherubim should “face the house–pneihem labayit.” Why, ask the rabbis, were the cherubim placed differently in Solomon’s Temple than in the Mishkan? Their answer: The cherubim face each other when Israel fulfills God’s will, but they turn their backs on each other when they disappoint God (Bavli Bava Batra 99a).
There’s another way to spin this explanation, and it speaks a great deal to the power of community. Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spector, the rabbi of Kovno (Lithuania) at the end of the 19th century, put it this way: When the cherubim “face each other,” when the Jewish people are in real interaction with one another, concerned with their neighbors’ lives as deeply as they are their own, then we can say with certainty that we are fulfilling God’s expectations. But when we stand “facing the house”–concerned only with our own issues, our own four cubits of existence–we clearly leave God disappointed. And so the two cherubim are actually representations of God and the Jewish people. When we face each other, God’s countenance shines upon us; when we face only our own needs, God’s back turns on us as well.
The cherubim are thus artistic symbols of the best and worst possibilities of the individuals that comprise a community. Were the cherubim of the Mishkan, facing one another, merely the ideal, while those of Solomon’s Temple, with backs to one another, the unfortunate reality? Consider, if you will, that the Mishkan never suffers the fate of destruction that befell Solomon’s Temple. Could therein be heard a loud warning? Don’t turn your back!