Calves, Cherubs, and Half Sheqels

Why is it that in last week’s parashah (Ki Sisa) we read all about the sin of the eigel hazahav but this week’s parashah we read about the mitzvah of making two keruvim atop the aron? Why is one a grave sin, and yet the other is mandatory?

Skippable, but enhances the question:

A while back I posted about the linkage between the two (“Angels and Idols“). According to the Kuzari and the Ibn Ezra, the eigel was an attempt to replace Moshe, whose absence was now worrying them. The idolaters could not believe that they are capable of worshiping Hashem directly, “the people saw that Moshe was late to come down from the mountain” and so they panicked and demanded a new conduit between them and the Creator. This parallels the role of Apis, a bull in Egyptian mythology who was seen as mediating between humans and the sun god, Rav, as well as the Sumerian god Kiruv, a bull who was described as pulling a cart of prayers up to the primary gods and their blessings back down to man.

Yerav’am sets up a religion with many of the trappings of the cult of Apis — two Temples, a bull in front of each, big holiday on the 15th of what we now call Marcheshvan. And he also echoes Aharon’s words after making the calf when he declares “… [H]ere are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” So it would seem that the eigel was seen as a form of the cult of Apis. It would therefore make sense that they would choose a bull, or at least some bovine, to play the same role Apis provided for reaching Ra — a conduit to the primary deity for people who were afraid of direct worship.

Keruvim actually get into this picture, aside from the implication of the name of Kiruv over in Sumeria. Yechezqeil describes the four faces of the kind of angel called chayos twice. In 1:10 they have the faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle; in 10:22 they have the faces of keruv, a man, a lion and an eagle. The kiruv replaces the ox.

(See “Angels and Idols” for a more developed discussion of these ideas, as well as discussion of idolatry stemming from treating actual angels whose existence we too acknowledge as though they were gods in their own right.)

So seeing keruvim in the same conduit role as these bovine gods actually has a basis in nevu’ah. But again, there must be a fundamental difference, since one is a mitzvah and the other — avodah zarah.

The Seifer Chassidim 780.2 describes a lesson we are to take from the keruvim:

למה שנים כרובים והדיבור בין שני כרובים? להורות שיעסקו שנים בתורה יחדיו, שנאמר (מלאכי ג:טז) “אָ֧ז נִדְבְּר֛וּ יִרְאֵ֥י ה֖’ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֑הוּ [וַיַּקְשֵׁ֤ב ה֙’ וַיִּשְׁמָ֔ע]” וגו’

Why two keruvim and the [Divine] speech [emerging from] between two keruvim? To teach that two should toil in the Torah together, as it says “Then those who revere Hashem will speak, one to his friend [and Hashem paid attention and listened]…” (Malachi 3:16)

The keruvim represent two people bonding over Torah. When they do so, even Hashem joins in.

רבי יוחנן ור’ אלעזר. חד אמר: פניהם איש אל אחיו. וחד אמר: פניהם לבית.

ולמ”ד פניהם איש אל אחיו הא כתיב (דברי הימים ב ג:יג) “ופניהם לבית”? לא קשיא כאן בזמן שישראל עושין רצונו של מקום כאן בזמן שאין ישראל עושין רצונו של מקום.

ולמ”ד ופניהם לבית הא כתיב (שמות כה, כ) “ופניהם איש אל אחיו”? דמצדדי אצדודי. דתניא: אונקלוס הגר אמר כרובים (דברי הימים ב ג, י) מעשה צעצועים הן ומצודדים פניהם כתלמיד הנפטר מרבו:

R` Johanan and R` Eleazar — One said: They faced one to its sibling. And one said: they faced the building.

According to the one who said “they faced on to its sibling, doesn’t it say “and their face was to the building” (Divrei haYamim II 3:13)? No question. This [them facing each other] is when Israel does the Omnipresent’s Will, this [facing the building] is when Israel is not doing the Omnipresent’s will.

According to the one who said “they faced the building”, doesn’t it say “and their faces were each to their sibling” (Shemos 25:20)? They were turned to the sides. [Facing just to the side of the other, looking past them to the wall.]

As it is repeated [in a beraisa]: Unkelus the geir said, ‘The Cherubim were of image work and their faces were turned sideways as a student who takes leave of his rebbe.

– Bava Basra 99a

Continuing the thought of the first opinion:

אמר ריש לקיש: בשעה שנכנסו נכרים להיכל ראו כרובים המעורין זה בזה. הוציאון לשוק ואמרו, “ישראל הללו, שברכתן ברכה וקללתן קללה, יעסקו בדברים הללו?” מיד הזילום, שנאמר (איכה א) “כל מכבדיה הזילוה כי ראו ערותה.”

Reish Laqish said: When the non-Jews entered the Temple sancturary and saw the keruvim were intertwined with one another [romantically]. They carried them out and said, “These Israelites, whose blessing is a blessing, and whose curse is a curse, occupy themselves with such things?!” Immediately they dismissed them, as it is said: “All that honored her, dismissed her, because they have seen her nakedness.” (Eikhah 1)

– Yuma 54a

The angels, representing the unity between people, were intertwined to show the unity between Hashem and His nation even at this darkest of times?

We see here a basic principle — Hashem is closest to us when we are unified with each other.

This is also true of the giving of the Torah. As the Torah famously says in describing the scene before the giving of the Torah, “vayichan sham Yisrael neget hahar — and He camped there, Israel, opposite the mountain” (Shemos 19:2).  Rashi there quotes the Mekhilta, “ke’ish echad beleiv echad” it is written in the singular because we stood there “like one person, with one heart”. Our standing unified was a precondition for Hashem revealing Himself to us.

For that matter, the mishkan as a whole was built, “ve’asu Li mishkan veshakhani besokham — and they will build for Me a Mishkan and I will ‘dwell’ amongst them” (Shemos 25:8). “Them”, Hashem will dwell amongst the people. How was this funded? Along with the donations people made based on their own generosity, each had to give a half-sheqel. Rabbeinu Bachya writes (ad loc) that each gave a half to express the idea that each of us knows we’re part of a whole. Again, Jewish unity as a precondition to Hashem’s closeness to us.

And this could well be the message of the keruvim and how they differ from the eigel. The eigel was made by people who despaired of relating to the Creator directly. Hashem responds by giving us keruvim, symbols of why we do not need any such middle-man. Interpersonal mitzvos can be a conduit for Hashem’s voice.

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