The Meaning of the Angels in the Tabernacle | Aleph Beta

The Keruvim In The Garden: Part I/2

Angels In The Tabernacle?

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The keruvim, or cherubs, appear in the Tabernacle in three different places. In this two-part series, Rabbi Fohrman asks: what is the meaning of these keruvim? To answer, he brings us back to the original keruvim in the Torah, the angels who guarded the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were expelled.

By connecting these parallel references to angels, Rabbi Fohrman uncovers a hidden meaning in the design of the Tabernacle. Behind the Tabernacle's angels lies a blueprint on how to bring God back into this world and create a home for him in our lives.


Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Terumah. You are watching Aleph Beta.

This week and next week I want to take you into the Mishkan. It is a journey I suppose for myself as much as it is for you. I do not consider myself much of a Kabbalist but I think if you pay attention to the words of the text, they lead you to the brink of some fascinating ideas that for lack of a better word, I am going to describe as mystical. You will make up your own mind I suppose when you hear it. Let's kind of jump in and see what we make of this. The vehicle for the journey that I'd like to take you on is an analysis and a discussion of the Keruvim in the Mishkan.

What Is the Meaning of the Keruvim in the Mishkan?

According to the Biblical text, there were these angelic figures, cherubs that appears several times in the Mishkan. Now most famously, they appear in this week's Parsha on the arc of the covenant. The ark of the covenant had a cover, known as the  kaporet. It was a solid gold cover and out of one chunk of gold, they were supposed to be fashioned these angelic images of these two Keruvim, almost like children. with their wings arching out towards one another, providing kind of a sheltering presence over the arc itself. It was from between these Keruvim that the voice of God would speak to Moses once the tabernacle was constructed.

So this is the most famous place where we encounter the Keruvim in the Mishkan, but that's not the only place. We also find them  two other places. One of them, on the parochet. Now the parochet was a kind of veil, it was woven out of beautiful tapestry, woven into the veil was supposed to be these representations of Keruvim as well. This veil was placed between the Holy of Holies, where the arc was and the rest of the Mishkan, to separate between the Holy of Holies and the rest of the Mishkan. That's how the verse describes what the parochet is doing. So the parochet had Keruvim. And then one more place you encounter the Keruvim, the yeriot, there were these curtains that formed a kind of roof of the Mishkan. They draped out from the roof over on to the sides of the walls. In the tapestry for these curtains, there had to be Keruvim inlayed on them as well.

And the question is why? Why are there Keruvim in the Mishkan at all and why are they in particular in these three places In the Mishkan? You don't find them etched into the menorah, you don't find Keruvim on top of the four corners of any of the altars, you don't find them inlayed into the shulchan, you don't find them anywhere else but you find them here: you find them on the kaporet, the covering for the arc, you find them on the veil, the parochet, you find them on the yeriot. Why are they here in the Mishkan and why are they here in these three particular places?

This is the mystery that I'd like to use to begin our journey, into understanding the Mishkan from a whole new perspective.

Finding Angels in the Torah

Any discussion of the Keruvim in the Mishkan, I think would have to take some account of the last time we've met Keruvim, We'd really only met them one other time, in the entire Torah. It's at the gates of the Garden of Eden. 

When God decides to banish Adam and Eve, from the Garden of Eden, never to return. He sets up two cherubs, with a flaming double edged sword, to guard back the way towards the tree of life, to make sure that Adam and Eve will never return. And it would seem that in some way that there must be a connection between those cherubs at the gates of Eden and the cherubs here in the Mishkan.

 In addition, another thing to keep in mind is the contrast between these two sets of cherubs. The first ones are holding that flaming, double edged sword. There's no sword being held by the cherubs in the Mishkan, what do we make of that?

Okay, so now, to help us understand all of this, I want to take you back to an idea that I introduced in Parshat Vayakhel, if you haven't seen that video yet, I recommend you take a look. It is actually one of my favorite of all the Parshat videos that we have produced. It's really a very simple yet elegant idea. What are we really doing when we create this tabernacle, this Mishkan? We are emulating God. Man was created to emulate God, he was made betzelem Elokim, in the image of the Almighty, in the image of the creator but what does it mean to create like God created? Well, let's ask, what did God create?

God made a world for us, a universe for us. God carved out a little bit of everything and made a little apartment specifically for us. God lives in the world beyond our own, in a world beyond space and time and some world that we can't understand, and God carved out a little piece of that – so that the one that He could love would be able to live and we in turn, reciprocate by creating an environment for Him, a little apartment in our world. We take our everything, the world of space and time that we call the universe, and we carve our little space and we build it and we call it a Mishkan. A place that God can be.

That's how we reciprocate God's great act of love. And in order to make that apartment work, we too have to abide by the laws. The laws of physics don't make any sense for God, God doesn't need them. God doesn't have any use for the laws of physics, but He pays attention to them so that we can have a place to live and we too abide by Godly laws, the laws of tumah and taharah and kodesh and chol, laws that make no sense to us because we want to make an environment that works for God, these are Godly laws. We make a space for God, just like God made a space for us.

Okay, now let's take off from that idea for a moment. If the Mishkan is really intended to be the place that we make for God in this world, then it has a prototype, doesn't it? Because the world once had a place like that. It was the Garden of Eden. Why indeed was the Garden of Eden called a garden? A garden is a little, cultivated place that the master of the garden makes for himself, for his own enjoyment.

Eden was God's garden in our world. Back in the original garden when Adam and Eve hear the voice of God walking through, strolling through the garden in the afternoon, what kind of imagery is that? It is almost as if God, the master of the garden is doing what people do in gardens. They take a stroll in the afternoon, they are enjoying their garden. God was inviting Adam to join him in that stroll but instead they were hiding. That was the story of the forbidden fruit. We talked about these ideas by the way in Parshat Bechukotai. You can look at that video for more extensive elaboration of this.

So after the sin of the forbidden fruit, what happens? Well, that brings us right to the Keruvim.

Connecting Spiritual Meaning to the Tabernacle's Angels

God stations the Keruvim, these angels with the flaming swords, to make sure that we never get back to that place. It's not a place that we can live in anymore after eating from the tree of knowledge. The garden that God made was no longer accessible for us. Now, we have to build the garden and when we do, the Keruvim are back but they don't have a sword in their hands anymore because they are not there to keep us away. They are there to usher as in.

But how exactly do they usher us in?

That brings us to the three times the Keruvim appear in the Mishkan. The curtains, the veil and the covering for the ark, what are all these things? They are partitions, they create separations. The curtains that create the roof for the Mishkan, separate the Mishkan from the rest of the world. The parochet separates the Holy of Holies from rest of the Mishkan. And the kaporet, the covering for the ark , separates what's inside, from what's outside, from the rest of the Holy of Holies.

Now, ask yourself one final question. Three partitions that separate. If that's what we make when we create an apartment for God, what did God do when he created the apartment for us?

The apartment for us was the universe itself. Go back to the creations story, when that universe God made and you will find three separations. Vayavdel Elokim bein haor ubein hachoshech, first God separates between light and darkness. Then God separates between waters to create air, to create sky and then God separates day from night, using the luminaries in the heavens to allow human beings the consistent experience of time – to understand what days are, months, years through the cycles of darkness and light brought to us through the heavenly bodies.

God made three separations to set up our world.We make three separations to set up the little world that we are making for him. And isn't it interesting that on each of these partitions, that we create, we meet Keruvim. The angelic beings that were part of a fourth separation in creation, a separation that shouldn't have been there, a separation that locks us out of God's world forever, locks us out of the garden. The instruments of that very separation, the Keruvim with their flaming sword, they show up one more time but without the sword. Ushering us back into this garden that we create for God.

The Keruvim bring us through the partitions. From one separation, the curtains to the other, the parochet, to the kaporet, where we finally encounter the voice of God itself. It's the voice we human beings have a faint memory of. Going all the way back to the original garden. When Adam and Eve encountered God in the garden, how did they encounter him? Vayishmu et kol Elokim mithalech bagan leruach hayom, they heard the voice of God, walking through the garden in the afternoon.

The Keruvim bring us back there, they bring us home.

All of these I think, is just a taste of the secrets that the Keruvim, and the three separations that they adorn hold, for us. I invite you back next week as we continue the journey into unraveling their secrets.

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