An artist’s rendition of the holy ark that was placed in the Mishkan (desert sanctuary) and the Temple in Jerusalem. Note the angelic-like Cherubim on the top.
Tonight, right after we light the Shabbat candles, we’ll sing Shalom Aleichem – the perfect song to help us prepare for Shabbat. Shalom Aleichem means “peace unto you.” On Shabbat, all we want is peace for ourselves, our family, our friends, our community and the world. So it makes sense to sing Shalom Aleichem as we seek the peace of Shabbat. But this isn’t what makes Shalom Aleichem the perfect song to begin our day of rest. When we look closely at the words of Shalom Aleichem, we note that we’re not singing about our desire to have peace surround us and our fellow singers – rather we’re singing words of welcome to special guests that join us every Friday evening. These guests are not of the human variety. Rather, they’re angels. Yes, Jewish angels, who descend from higher realms, carrying the peace of Shabbat with them and sharing it with us. With joy, every Friday night, we greet these angels, declaring “Shalom Aleichem,” peace unto you, beautiful angels of peace.
If you’re scratching your head thinking, “I didn’t know Jews believe in angels,” you’re not alone. But, the fact is, angels and other holy, winged creatures are an integral part of our tradition. In addition to carrying the gift of peace that we’re eager to embrace every Fridaynight, Jewish prayers, teachings and legends are filled with winged creatures who provide for and protect us. The invocation of the angels in the Shema that we’re taught to say before we go to sleep captures the special power Judaism has given to our winged friends.
But, as I studied this week’s Torah portion, which describes how Moses assembled the Mishkan, the first Israelite sanctuary located in the desert, I was reminded that Judaism doesn’t simply view these winged creatures as our sacred security blankets. They’re also extremely important teachers. Tomorrow morning, as we read from the Book of Exodus, we’ll learn how Moses placed each ritual object into the Mishkan just as G-d commanded him to do. The most important part of the Mishkan (and the most important part of synagogues to this very day) was the Torah which was, at that time, inscribed on stone tablets. These tablets were housed in the holy ark which was placed in the Mishkan’s most sacred section. The Torah teaches us that on top of the ark where two very special winged creatures called Cherubim. “The Cherubim shall have their wings spread upwards, shielding the ark cover with their wings, with their faces toward one another.” (Exodus 24:18) It was between these winged Cherubim, the Torah says, that God would dwell and communicate with Moses, sharing sacred wisdom.
The whereabouts of the holy ark and its even holier contents remains a mystery. While Indiana Jones and many others have attempted to find the ark and its tablets, no one has been successful. Fortunately, in our synagogues today, we’ve built modern arks from which we can take our Torah scrolls, read them before our congregations and discover the ancient wisdom contained within our holy story. The Cherubim, however, have gotten lost over the centuries. But, from the words of Torah and other Jewish texts, these ancient winged creatures still have a powerful lesson to teach us. As I read about the Cherubim this week, I realized just how important it is for us to hear their lesson today.
The Talmud gives us great insight into the Cherubim, challenging those who might assert that these winged creatures were simply stone sculptures that sat on top of the ark. In Bava Batra, one of the sections of Talmud, we learn that the Cherubim had the ability to move! They faced each another when the Israelites treated each other with love and kindness, but, when our ancestors treated each other poorly, the Talmud teaches us that the Cherubim turned away from each other.
While we’ve no idea where the ark is, if it still exists and if the Cherubim are still there, defining the sacred spot from which God spoke to Moses, the legend of the Cherubim and their ability to look at or turn away from each other must be told today and incorporated into the continuously evolving sacred story of the Jewish people. In this chapter of our sacred story, the one we’re experiencing right now, the Cherubim have turned away from each other because we’ve done exactly that, we’ve turned away from each other. Motivated by differences in opinions, beliefs and outlooks, we’ve dug in our heels and refused to look with kindness into each others eyes. With our backs turned to each other, we’re incapable of listening to each other yet very good at making accusations about and spewing hatred at each other.
As we read this Shabbat about the placement of the ark and its Cherubim in the Mishkan, I can only imagine the divine lesson that would be shared from between these winged creatures today, a lesson I believe is captured by the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the father of Modern Jewish Orthodoxy:
“The whole nation of Israel is represented not by one cherub but…by a pair of cherubs…Israel will become a pair of cherubim who, in mutual respect and consideration, are peacefully directed one to the other, each one there for the other, each a guarantor for the other, each entrusted to the other – in brotherly cooperation, a whole nation keeping and protecting the whole community….”
While we disagree on many things these days, may we hear the sacred lesson coming from between the Cherubim. May we remember that we as a people are not defined by one point of view, but by at least two very different points of view. And in order to move forward with strength, we need to care enough about each other that we’re willing to hear and learn from those who stand in opposition to us. We need to appreciate that, just like the Cherubim, standing in opposition to each other doesn’t mean that we can’t face each other, look each other in the eyes and protect the whole community.