Parashat Pekudei brings the Torah’s main discussion of the construction of the Mishkan to a conclusion. At this point in time, let us go back for a moment to focus on one of the Mishkan’s central components: the Keruvim. The two Keruvim, magnificent, golden, winged creatures adorning the top of the Aron Kodesh, at the spiritual epicenter of the Mishkan, were two of the most majestic items in the Mishkan, but at the same time, it seems most strange and bizarre. What do they represent? What critical role do they play in the Mishkan? Much ink has been spilled over how we are to square God’s command to construct the Keruvim with the Torah’s general abhorrence of statues and graven images; the fact that the Torah nevertheless condoned and even mandated their construction in spite of this concern only highlights their significance, and indicates that they must have conveyed a potent and powerful message. So what was the message they carried?
One approach, taken by Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (3:45), is that the Keruvim are a testament to the existence of angels. Rambam asserts that the existence of angels is a fundamental Jewish belief, and to remind us of this the Torah placed Keruvim at the center of the Mishkan. The Keruvim are thus not intended to represent God himself, but rather to remind us that angels do exist. In fact, Rambam writes that the reason there are two Keruvim is to make sure we realize that they are not meant to be images of God himself, as God is unique and singular. Similarly, Rambam writes that the Keruvim were made to face towards the Aron to show they were subservient beings, loyal only to God.
A second approach to the Keruvim is advocated by Ramban (Shemot 25:21 s.v. Ve’El Ha’Aron Titein Et Ha’Eidut). He writes that the Keruvim are designed to mimic God’s divine chariot, the Merkavah. As described by Yechezkel, God’s chariot has various animal, human, and angelic figures holding it up, including Keruvim, and each one of those characters has a place in the Mishkan’s construction. According to this approach, the Keruvim’s purpose is to highlight the message that the Aron is the ‘chariot’ designed to carry God’s divine presence into this world. This explanation fits in well with the Ramban’s general view of the Mishkan (in contrast to the view of many other Biblical commentators), namely that its primary purpose is to serve as a conduit for God’s presence to enter this world.
Another approach is taken by the Gemara (Bava Batra 99a), which famously points out what appears to be a contradiction between two verses describing the Keruvim in the Holy of Holies. One verse writes that the Keruvim would face one another, whereas the other indicates they faced towards the walls of the Kodesh HaKodashim, away from one another. The Gemara resolves this apparent contradiction by saying that in times where the Jews were acting in accordance with God’s will, the Keruvim would face one another, while in times in which Bnei Yisrael strayed from the Torah, the Keruvim’s faces would face apart. According to this, the Keruvim were not images of G-d, but were designed to metaphorically demonstrate the love that G-d has towards the Jewish people in good times. Rabbenu Bachya (Shemot 25:18 s.v. Ve’Asita Shenayim Keruvim Zahav) writes that the two faces of the Keruvim may have been that of a father and a son, to indicate the familial love God and the Jewish people have for one another. According to other Midrashim, the two faces were those of a husband and wife, to demonstrate the mutual love and shared mission between God and his nation.
It is interesting to note the sole place in which the Keruvim appear outside the context of the Mishkan and Batei Mikdash: as guardians to the entrance of Gan Eden (BeReishit 3:24). Rav Menachem Leibtag points out that the roles and descriptions of the Keruvim in that context provide a bizarre contrast with their role in the Mishkan. The Keruvim guarding Gan Eden are grouped together with the intimidating “Lahat HaCherev HaMithapechet,” “The sharpness of the rotating sword” (ibid.), and Rashi (ibid. s.v. Et HaKeruvim) points out that those Keruvim were angels of destruction. The Chizkuni (ibid. s.v. VaYegareish Et Ha’Adam) writes that they were intimidating figures, designed to scare all who beheld them.
These menacing Keruvim stand in stark contrast to the beautiful and loving picture of the Keruvim on display in the Mishkan. How can one reconcile these conflicting images of the Keruvim, and why are the guardians of Gan Eden appearing in the Mishkan?
The answer to these questions brings into focus the true role and potential of the Mishkan. The Mishkan had the ability to act as a conduit to rectify man’s original banishment from Gan Eden. By entering the Mishkan and utilizing it to become closer to their Creator, people could transform the frightening Keruvim into creatures of love; in fact, Rabbeinu Bachya (BeReishit 3:24 s.v. Et HaKeruvim Ve’Eit Lahat HaCherev HaMitHapechet) writes that a person has the power, through fulfilling Mitzvot, to overcome the guardians to Gan Eden and remove the impediments standing between him and his Creator. The Mishkan is one manifestation of exactly that idea.
All too often, people are trained as children to think of Hashem as a God of fire and brimstone, an intimidating, punishing God, a God who banished mankind from paradise, never to return. But the Keruvim remind us that that is not the case. They remind us of the love Hashem has for us, that of a father and son or a husband and wife. The Keruvim remind us how we can return to the original intimate status which we once held with God. The gates to the closeness of Gan Eden were never locked. We just have to climb through it.