I looked the word up in a dictionary, and found the following: “having the childlike innocence or plump prettiness of a cherub.” Maybe you’ve seen Renaissance paintings adorned with little pudgy winged smiling babies. Is that what a cherub is?
Not in Jewish tradition, it’s not. The first mention of cherubs — in Hebrew, כרבים / kruvim — comes in the book of Genesis. When Adam and Chava are barred from the Garden of Eden, kruvim with flaming swords are stationed at the edge of the garden to keep the first humans from returning. The second mention of kruvim comes in the book of Exodus, in the description of the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary where God’s presence could dwell.
As we read this morning, the craftsman Betzalel made the ark out of acacia wood, and covered it with gold. Atop its cover he made two golden kruvim, with their wings outspread, facing each other. In an earlier passage, God indicated that once the mishkan was built, God would speak to Moses from between the kruvim atop the cover of the ark.
Later, when the Temple was built in Jerusalem, it too would have a pair of kruvim. But descriptions of those Temple kruvim differ. In one place, we read that they faced each other, like the ones above the ark. In another place, we read that they faced the Temple itself. One could decide, faced with these conflicting descriptions, that the Tanakh just didn’t have a very good editor! But the sages of the Talmud had another perspective. When the children of Israel followed God’s will, they said, the kruvim faced each other lovingly. When the children of Israel disobeyed, the kruvim turned their backs on each other.
Torah teaches that God spoke from within the empty space between the two kruvim. And Talmud teaches that the kruvim faced each other when we followed the mitzvot, and turned away from each other when we did not. What happens when we bring those two teachings together?
When we follow the mitzvot — loving one’s neighbor, one’s “other,” as oneself; treating the earth with respect and letting her lie fallow as needed; acting with justice and mercy — then the kruvim face each other, and God speaks from the place between them. They face each other when we face each other. I don’t just mean facing each other in a spatial sense, but facing each other with heart and soul. This is what Martin Buber called I/Thou relationship. Borrowing from the language of yoga, one could say “the spark of God in me greets the spark of God in you.” That’s when God is present between us.
Martin Buber also spoke of I/It relationship. This is the opposite of I/Thou. Relating in an I/It way means treating each other as objects, rather than as holy beings created in the image and the likeness of the Holy One of Blessing. And when we do that, the kruvim turn their backs on each other. Maybe they turn around in sorrow. Maybe they turn around because they are imitating us: when we treat each other lovingly they gaze at each other in the same way, and when we are unkind and dismissive all they can do is follow suit. Regardless, when they turn their backs on each other, God’s voice disappears.
Whether or not we hear the voice of God is up to us. Whether or not we receive continuing revelation is up to us. We can choose to act in ways which create the space within which that voice speaks, or we can choose to act in ways which will negate that possibility. The voice of the Infinite issued forth not from the golden statues themselves, not even from the holy text which was contained in the ark then and is contained in our scroll now, but from the dynamic space between the kruvim. God speaks to us from emptiness — but not just any emptiness. God speaks from the spiritually charged space of relationship.
The mitzvot are a path toward imbuing our lives with meaning, and that’s one of the prerequisites for hearing the voice of God. The other prerequisite is relationship. When we follow the mitzvot and relate in an I/Thou way, then God speaks from the space between the two kruvim, the space between you and me. This brings new meaning to the Jewish tradition of studying Torah in hevruta, with a study partner: not just because two minds are better than one, but because only when we resist the temptation to “go it alone” can new Torah be revealed. The only way to hear the voice of God is to listen, lovingly, together.
Image: one rendering of what the ark of the covenant might have looked like, topped with golden keruvim.
This is the d’var Torah Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat morning. It draws substantially on”Kruvim in the Canon: Angelic Paradigm Shift” by Rabbi David Evan Markus.