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Parashat Terumah 5780

February 28, 2020
A D’var Torah for Parashat Terumah
By Rabbi David Markus

Sometimes it’s what Torah doesn’t say. Listen to Torah’s silence and she might reveal whole new worlds just waiting for you to hear them into being.

With this week’s Parashat Terumah, Torah begins describing how Moses, Betzalel and their team will build the Mishkan. Chapter after detailed chapter, Torah specifies the metals, fabrics, dimensions, shapes, colors and vessels of the Indwelling Place in which our wandering ancestors would channel and receive the sacred. Torah’s architectural design and building instructions were explicit, nuanced and exacting…

… except for the two kruvim adorning the Holy of Holies. It’s easy, God says: just pop ’em on top.

“Make two kruvim of gold, make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the cover. Make one kruv on one end, and one kruv on the other end…. The kruvim will stretch their wings above, covering the [Ark’s] cover with their wings, and each face will front the other…. From between the two kruvim atop the Ark cover, I will speak to you all My commandments for the Children of Israel” (Ex. 25:18-22).

Easy indeed – so long as we don’t need instructions about what kruvim are, or how large, or what the “face” might look like, or what the “wings” are like, or why have two of them, or why have them at all.

Why is Torah explicit about most everything about the Mishkan and especially the Ark, except for the kruvim? Surely this detail wasn’t unimportant: it’s the Ark of the Covenant, after all, and the exact place from which God would speak!

Torah debuted kruvim at Torah’s beginning: they were sentinels guarding the path back to Eden (Gen. 3:24). Later, the Psalmist harnessed kruvim for God’s celestial ride (Ps. 18:112 Sam. 22:11), and two kruvim fronted the Temple (2 Chron. 3:10-13). Talmud’s rabbis imagined that the Temple kruvim would move, like a spiritual compass, facing each other (as if to channel God’s voice) only if the people honored God’s will (B.T. Bava Batra 99a).

Over and over again, no clear description of what kruvim looked like.

Cue midrash. Talmud and Rashi imagined kruvim to look “like children” – in Aramaic,k’ravya (B.T. Sukkah 5bRashi Ex. 25:18). The Rashbam (R. Shlomo ben Meir, Rashi’s grandson) imagined kruvim to look “like birds” (Rashbam Ex. 25:18Ezek. 28:14). Just a bit of mash-up imagination yields the cherubic child-bird visage of medieval Christian iconography and modern greeting cards.

But still no consensus description of what kruvim looked like.

Nor do rabbinic texts agree on the place of kruvim in the angelic pantheon. Maimonides placed kruvim near the proverbial bottom of the angelic barrel, just “up” from ishim – close to us ourselves (Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:7). Other kabbalistic works, and Islam as Judaism’s cousin tradition, classically place kruvim as the angelic form “closest” to God.

Yet again, no consensus view.

With so little textual clarity about the what and why of kruvim, perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps it’s precisely about what Torah and sacred text don’t say.

Perhaps we didn’t need Torah to tell us what kruvim looked like because we already knew. Perhaps kruvim were such familiar images in the Lavant and slave-era Egypt that Torah didn’t need to describe them. Perhaps our ancestors saw kruvim. Perhaps it’s only us moderns whose narrowness blinds us to everyday mystical visions in plain sight.

Or maybe image is precisely not the point. To Maimonides, the Ark’s kruvim taught not to look too close – a point he inferred from Torah’s comparative lack of clarity about them and also from their number. The fact of two kruvim proved that they were not God. Only God is One, so two kruvim couldn’t be God precisely because there were two of them. The Ark’s two kruvim thus taught about God not by showing us what we can see but rather by reminding us what we cannot see (Guide for the Perplexed III, 45:2).

Put another way, the kruvim were negative symbols – manifestations of what they were not (and, in academic jargon, a vector of apophatic theology). Kruvim reminded of God but themselves were not God. Precisely in their hewn golden forms, they were spiritual correctives for any temptation to see appearance as essence. Kruvim thus were fancy dogmatic disclaimers: “See that these depictions, however glorious, cannot depict divinity. Let their forms remind you of all they cannot be, for that is how God speaks – not from the wings themselves, but from the space between the wings.”

Too often we moderns forget that our spiritual eyes deceive us. Too often we forget that our texts, our liturgies, our synagogues, our clergy, our donors, our community structures and even our vaunted seminaries are at best like the Ark’s golden kruvim – beautifully amorphous, hauntingly ambiguous, existentially multiple and thus not themselves ultimately sacred. They, like the kruvim, are holy only by measure of what flows through them.

Listen for the sacred sound of silence from between the wings of the kruvim. After all, sometimes it’s what Torah doesn’t say.

Rabbi David Evan Markus (AJR Adjunct Faculty – Rabbinics) is senior rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY) and Founding Builder of Bayit: Building Jewish, a spiritual innovation start-up for all ages and stages. Rabbi Markus also serves as Faculty in Spiritual Direction and past Board Co-Chair for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. By day, Rabbi Markus presides as Judicial Referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, as part of a parallel career in government service.