• March 30, 2023
  • 8 5783, Nisan
  • פרשת צו

The WebYeshiva Blog

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

The Truest of Gifts

Three years ago, when the Coronavirus was just beginning to disrupt normal life in different parts of the world, an article appeared in Lehrhaus by Dr. Jeremy Brown, describing an old Jewish practice that was performed during times of plague. This practice became known as the “Shvartze Chassuneh,” or the Black Wedding, and it was performed as a measure to eliminate the plague from the Jewish community. It involved the Jewish community finding a destitute pair of orphans who had no parents to marry them off, making a shidduch between the two, and sponsoring their wedding. The additional twist was that the wedding was held in a cemetery, usually near the graves of the holiest people in the cemetery. In 1865, there was a terrible locust plague in northern Israel. The Jews of Safed made multiple Chuppot for orphans in the Safed cemetery, in-between the graves of the great tzadikim Rav Yoseph Karo and the Ari z”l. Shortly thereafter, there was a cholera outbreak in Jerusalem, and the Jewish community made a lavish wedding atop the Mt. of Olives. The wedding was attended with much fanfare by the entire community. Surely, during a time of plague, communal fasts are called for, collective prayer services with Tehillim, all that we understand. But why do a wedding? And why in a cemetery, of all places?!

"Adam" vs "Ish"

At the beginning of Vayikra, the Torah launches into the sacrificial process (1:2):

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַיקֹוָק מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה מִן־הַבָּקָר וּמִן־הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶם

The Torah describes a human being as an “Adam.” This is an unusual term to describe a person who wishes to bring a Korban. Nowhere else in Leviticus, when describing a person bringing a sacrifice, is the term “Adam” used. It’s rather used only when describing a person, like a leper, who contracts spiritual impurity. Why does the Torah open the sacrificial order with “Adam” and not with the more normative word for a person, “איש” – “Ish”? The simplest conclusion is that in order to bring a sacrifice before Hashem, which in and of itself is a humbling, self-abasing act, one needs to feel like they are like nothing, like the earth itself. Man is called Adam because he derives from the soil, the “אדמה” – “Adamah”. If we are describing a person who feels wretched about a sin they’ve committed and wishes to atone through a Korban, it’s natural to think that the word Adam should be used to describe him or her.

Adam HaRishon

But the Midrash has a different approach. The word “Adam” hearkens back to the very first man, whose hallmark was not humility, but rather great holiness, purity, and righteousness. As Rashi cites: “Just as original Adam did not bring his offerings from stolen property, since everything belonged to him, so shall you not bring your offerings from stolen property.” This is just one example for expressing how one has to be pure not only in intent but also in deed when bringing their offering. Why doesn’t the Midrash use the simple interpretation of Adam being a term of humility? Bartenura and others explain that the introductory verses of Korbanot do NOT refer to a person who is bringing a Korban because of sin; they rather refer to a person who is coming to the Temple because they are religiously inspired without need for atonement at all. Such a person may not feel wretched because of sin, but is nevertheless inspired to become close to God. This person is like the first Adam, who is holy and pure. The Midrash is teaching an additional lesson: If you wish to voluntary come to the Temple to bring offerings, make sure your motivations are pure, like Adam’s. Don’t come with animals to impress your friends or to feel important. Adam was the only person alive and so he didn’t need to impress anyone. He did it for the purest of intentions, and so should anyone wishing to bring a Korban voluntarily.

The Noam Elimelech & the “Shvartze Chasuneh”

One of the first recorded episodes of the “Shvartze Chasuneh” occurred in Poland in the late 18th century. The story is told about the great Chassidic tzadik, the Noam Elimelech of Lizhensk. He was once visited by a poor farmer who had a 36-year old single daughter, but had no dowry to offer a young suitor in order to marry her off. Since it was a time of plague, Reb Elimelech decided to arrange a wedding for the woman, and took Lizhensk’s 30-year old bachelor water carrier and arranged for the Chuppah. Some of the greatest early Chassidic luminaries attended: The Kozhnitzer Magid played the violin; the Chozeh of Lublin was the “badchan” (wedding jester). The dancing and singing were intense as everyone immersed themselves into the simcha. Reb Elimelech walked with his student, Reb Shmuel of Kariv, to see the celebration, and he noted that there was a great fire of holiness surrounding the entire assemblage. He remarked to his disciple: “Ribono Shel Olam, I declare that in the merit of this dancing that we have participated in, at least one hot coal awaiting us in Gehenna has been removed from all of us.” This story indicates that it wasn’t the fasting and sackcloth that helped to alleviate the plague. It was rather the selfless rejoicing for another. So often, we make celebrations to reflect to the world who we are. Even the weddings we make for our children are sometimes ways of shining a light on ourselves, and reminding ourselves and all of our friends how necessary we are to the bride and groom and how central a role we play in the lives of family and friends.

Appreciation for everything

It may be why the “Black Wedding” was held in a cemetery. It’s to remind those congregated that life goes on even without us. Every person who is buried here may have once thought: the world can’t function without me. But lo and behold, the world did just fine after they left. To really incorporate the lesson of a plague, we make a wedding for two orphans, people to whom we have no personal connection, whose wedding in no way is being made to impress ourselves or our friends about how important we are to the world and to the community. This young couple is NOT a reflection of us. We make the wedding for them, not for ourselves. This is the original “Adam”. Adam served Hashem with joy not because he needed to show the world what he was doing and to be the center of attention, but rather because he appreciated so much how everything that he had in his life was a gift from God. This is why Adam is associated with the very first Korban mentioned in the book of Vayikra. May we be similarly inspired to offer our gifts of thanksgiving to God while being unconscious of our image being projected to others. May we continue to hear the “קול ששון וקול שמחה” of every bride and groom of the world, in Yerushalyaim Ir HaKodesh, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua
By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

We’re All Connected

When all the Mishkan components were finally completed, Moshe felt it necessary to do an inventory of all the materials that were used. After all, Bnei Israel had donated mightily to this project, and Moshe wished to reassure the people that their donations were used properly, and that nothing had been pocketed by himself, the contractors, or the builders for personal gain. Our Sages teach us that even someone who is normally above reproach must make every effort to exonerate oneself in the eyes of the public. One example can be found in Tractate Shekalim (3:2), where it is recorded that the Kohen in charge of extracting coins from the Temple treasury to purchase animals for the Altar could not have any hems in his garment to ensure that no one could suspect him of secretly placing coins in the hem and embezzling Temple funds! This is based on the scriptural dictum (Num. 32:22): “You shall be clean from both Hashem and Israel,” meaning: that it’s not enough to know that you are innocent; you must also exonerate yourself in the public eye.

Moshe's inventory and corruption

The Midrash relates that after Moshe finished his inventory, he actually came up short. He could not account for 1,775 shekels worth of silver. He became quite nervous, because he knew that some people looked at him cynically, thinking that there was no way that Moshe would be able to resist the temptation of pocketing some of the donations for himself. Hashem Himself had to intervene and caused Moshe to lift his gaze up to the silver hooks – called “vavim” in Hebrew – that were used to link together the curtains of the Mishkan. Because of their small size, Moshe had completely forgotten to include them in the inventory, and these hooks accounted for the deficit. The Jewish people were thus appeased and their suspicions allayed. I recently discovered an addendum to this Midrash which is cited in some medieval sources. After Moshe had gone through this nerve-racking ordeal, he instituted the prayer, “Emes V’Yatziv,” which we recite every morning after the Shema in our daily Shacharis service. After we recite the word “Emes” (“Truth”) at the end of the Shema, we append to it these fifteen words:

וְיַצִּיב וְנָכוֹן וְקַיָּם וְיָשָׁר וְנֶאֱמָן וְאָהוּב וְחָבִיב וְנֶחְמָד וְנָעִים וְנוֹרָא וְאַדִּיר וּמְתֻקָּן וּמְקֻבָּל וְטוֹב וְיָפֶה הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה עָלֵינוּ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד

—and firm, and certain, and enduring, and upright, and faithful, and beloved, and cherished, and desired, and pleasant, and awesome, and mighty, and correct, and acceptable, and good, and beautiful [is this Shema affirmation to us for all eternity.]

15 "vavs" that connect us all

Ra’avan HaYarchi (12th cent.) writes in his Sefer HaManhig that Moshe instituted these fifteen words, all relating to the truth and integrity of the words of the Shema. He made sure to have each word start with the letter “vav” – translated as “and” – in order to remind us of the fifteen “vav” hooks that Moshe found and which resolved the accounting deficit. The imagery of this Midrash is quite specific, in that Moshe had lost track of the “vavim,” the hooks. Why was this the particular inventory item that he had forgotten? Furthermore, it seems like it’s merely a play on words that “hooks” and the preposition “and” share the same “vav” in Hebrew. What’s the connection? Finally, why was the prayer of Emes V’Yatziv, which is an affirmation of our belief in G-d as expressed in the Shema paragraphs chosen as a reminder of this episode? What is the connection between our affirming the truths of the Shema and reminding us that Moshe was exonerated from suspicion? As many commentaries observe, it’s not a coincidence that a hook and the word “and” are both represented by the letter “vav” in Hebrew. The role of the hooks in the Mishkan was to unify and unite all the disparate curtains into one unified wall hanging in the Mishkan. We “hook” things together in order to unite them, and the letter “vav” serves the same function, which is to append one idea to another linguistically.

A full accounting

Why was Moshe so concerned about making sure that the inventory was correct? According to the Midrash he had heard certain cynical voices within the community who were critical of him and who didn’t trust him. Moshe’s mistake was not seeing the entire community, but rather allowing individual cynical voices to drown out the almost unanimous support that he had garnered as the people’s faithful redeemer and leader. By allowing Moshe to find the hooks, Hashem was teaching a lesson to Moshe, that it’s usually the outliers and those who view themselves as separate from the community who are the ones who are the cynics and naysayers. Moshe, you should not heed those voices, but instead look to the fabric which connects Am Yisrael. If you do so, you will see that the people are good and trusting, and that you have no reason to fear suspicion. When looked at in this light, Moshe was really the guilty party in thinking that his beloved people were cynical and mistrusting of him. Yes, there were individual voices, but he should not have vested so much weight in those cantankerous voices and should have instead seen the loving faces of the vast majority of the nation. As a way of making amends for his mistake, Moshe instituted the Emes V’Yatziv prayer not to remind Am Yisrael of HIS honesty, but to remind Am Yisrael that Moshe was mistaken about the nation’s cynicism and mistrust. My people, he was saying, you are an accepting and loving people, filled with trust and honesty of those who lead you. To prove my point, I will institute a prayer that you will say daily affirming your acceptance of the precepts of the Torah and your unequivocal trust in Hashem and His Torah. By doing so, Moshe was restoring Bnei Israel’s faith in themselves. Emes V’Yatziv is an affirmation of OUR faith and innocent acceptance of our Torah and our Torah teachers.

Combating cynicism's ugly truth

It is so difficult these days to rise above the cynicism and unadulterated lashon hara that pervades the media. I think that one of the lessons of this Midrash is that when we feel separate from others, we become cynical and mistrusting of everyone else. When we view ourselves as part of a larger group, we become more accepting of others, and the individual cynical voices are drowned out by our realization that we are part of a larger collective that is loving and accepting. Perhaps Moshe felt more mistrusted specifically because he was the leader of Israel, which perforce made him feel somewhat separate from the collective. We all, from time to time, give in to the cynical voices in our head. We allow ourselves to think the worst of our fellow man and our fellow Jew. But in reality, we’re just allowing ourselves to see the ugly outliers and we fail to see the beauty of the vav’s of the collective Am Israel who, as a whole, are beautiful, faithful, and trustworthy. When we forget the vav’s, the glue that connects us all, we allow the ugly voices to take over. Especially in a world of social media where people relate to each other from a distance without really knowing who our “friends” are, it’s easy to lose sight of the vav’s that connect us, and to see the worst in humanity emerge. Let’s try to reunite with each other in society, so that we can put aside those cynical voices and start to see the “Emes V’Yatziv” that is within each and every one of us. May our faith in humanity bring us to a greater faith in Hashem, and may this bring us to the ultimate Redemption, may we see it, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua
By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

Moshe petitions God

In his Guide for the Perplexed (1:54), the Rambam discusses an important dialogue between Moshe and Hashem in the aftermath of the Golden Calf. As the people sinned, Hashem informed Moshe that He was going to annihilate them. Moshe prayed to Hashem to spare them, and his prayers were answered (32:14). Nonetheless, Hashem informed Moshe that there would be lasting repercussions of their sin, and that through their sin, some kind of distance had been created between G-d and Israel. Moshe, noting that he was appointed to be the leader of Israel, then made two petitions of Hashem. The first was (33:13):

ועתה אם־נא מצאתי חן בעיניך הודעני נא את־דרכך ואדעך למען אמצא־חן בעיניך וראה כי עמך הגוי הזה

If I have found favor in Your eyes, show me now Your ways, so that I might know You and further find favor in Your eyes. See that these people are Your nation. What does it mean to be “shown the ways of G-d”? Furthermore, why did Moshe tell Hashem at the end of his request to “see that these people are Your nation” – what does this have to do with Moshe being shown Hashem’s ways?

Petition #2: Show Your Glory

Before we answer these questions, let’s look at Moshe’s second petition (33:18): “ויאמר הראני נא את־כבדך” – “Moshe said: Now show me Your glory.” What was Moshe asking in this second request? What is the difference between G-d’s “ways” (“דְּרָכֶךָ”) and G-d’s “glory” (“כְּבֹדֶךָ”)? Here is where the Rambam launches into the major thrust of his discussion, explaining how man can never really truly “know” Hashem essentially. The difference between Hashem’s “ways” and His “glory” is that the former means understanding how G-d interacts with the world, while the latter means understanding who Hashem really is innately. To illustrate, I may think that I “know” a public figure based on how he or she interacts with the public, but that may merely be a façade that this person is displaying to the public. I really only know that person’s “ways.” What that person is truly like when they go home and the cameras turn off may be something completely different. Thus, I don’t know that person’s “glory.” Hashem instructed Moshe that it is possible for man to understand how G-d interacts publicly with the world, but it is not possible for man to understand Hashem’s true essence. Man’s intellect simply is not built to process this transcendent information. This is why, when assenting to Moshe’s first request to understand Hashem’s ways, Hashem said (33:19), “אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל־טוּבִי עַל־פָּנֶיךָ” – “I will pass all my goodness over your face.” “Goodness” is a code word for all of creation, since after creation the Torah records that (Gen. 1:31) “Hashem saw that it was all very good.” Hashem was giving Moshe a glimpse of how He created and maintained all of reality. In this way, Moshe would be able to comprehend how Hashem interacts with all that exists.

The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

Hashem then taught Moshe the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (34:6-7), which the Rambam explains as a further lesson of G-d’s “ways.” Hashem was teaching him how not only He interacts with all of creation in general, but specifically how He interacts with his crowning creation, man, and His system reward and punishment when dealing with mankind. In a brief statement, the Rambam explains why Moshe needed to know this information: As their leader, I need to understand the best way to lead Bnei Israel. By learning Your system of tutelage, I can emulate the way You lead, and I will lead Bnei Israel accordingly. This explains why Moshe said at the end of his request, “See that these people are Your nation.” He was presenting to Hashem that his desire to know His ways was not just out of his own curiosity and desire to grow in his knowledge of God, but that there was a real utilitarian benefit in knowing Hashem’s ways to enable him to emulate God in his leadership role. If you wish me to deal properly with Your nation, Hashem, give me the tools that I will need in order to do so.

Why ask God for help in leading now?

What the Rambam doesn’t explicitly address, however, is why Moshe was making this request specifically now, after the Sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe had already been appointed their leader much earlier, and if he truly felt that he needed leadership skills training, why did he wait until now to make this request? One answer might be that after the Golden Calf, Hashem informed Moshe that He would not be as directly involved with the nation as He had been before the Sin. Moshe understood this to mean that Moshe, as the mortal emissary of Hashem, would now have more responsibility in attending to the needs of the people. He specifically needed now to know how to lead, since Hashem was taking a back seat in His leadership role and leaving most of the job to his underling, Moshe. By analogy, it would be like the CEO of the company telling his second in command, the COO (chief operating officer), that he’s taking a leave of absence. This would be the time for the COO to get debriefed by the CEO about how to run the company. But another way of understanding why Moshe put forth his request now is by noting that Moshe was seeing Hashem as a punishing God of His chosen people for the very first time. He realized that although he had seen Hashem act with vengeance against man when He punished the Egyptians, he had not seen Hashem do the same to His beloved nation, the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. This piqued Moshe’s curiosity, because this meant that he, too, when dealing with the Chosen People, could not always be benevolent. Moshe, too, would have to learn when to be cruel and when to be kind.

Learning from Hashem Amidst Crisis

Of particular interest is that sometimes these kinds of opportunities to “know Hashem’s ways” arise specifically amidst crisis and unfortunate events. We know that we gain better understanding of the human condition when we see people immersed in crisis and pain. As the Talmud (TB Eruvin 65b) states, one of the ways of truly getting to know someone is seeing them when they we become upset. Additionally, we have a better opportunity to make sense of Hashem and how He interacts with us when we are presented with crisis and pain. By witnessing Hashem’s mercy even when He presents us with privation and pain, we can learn how to emulate this behavior even when it is necessary to deal harshly with our opponents. As an example: Before Hashem presented us with the pandemic, forcing us to into lockdown, He gave us amazing technologies that could connect every single human being on the planet virtually, and that could create delivery systems to have things appear at our door with the touch of a button. It’s almost as if Hashem’s attitude was: If I need to discipline my children by confining them, let me provide them with a consoling element in their lives that will enable their confinement to be more tolerable. There are so many more examples, but we must first open our eyes if we are to learn. All of us should be turning our eyes to the heavens and asking God, “הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת־דְּרָכֶךָ” – please show me Your ways, so that I might know how to live a virtuous life that is filled with benevolence and love even amidst adversity. During these weeks before Pesach, our time of Redemption, let us look forward to a new season of liberation and freedom, and let us always try to take the lessons of this past year and apply them judiciously to our lives until the coming of the ultimate Redemption, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua
Remembering the Wine and the Vinegar By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

Longevity = Positive Attitude

The Midrash records some thing very strange. When the Jewish people first heard the commandment of (Deut. 25:17) “Zachor!” – Remember what Amalek did to you so that you will know to eradicate this evil personified, they were perplexed. They turned to Moshe and questioned: “Moshe Rabeinu, how can you command us to remember Amalek, when you’ve already commanded us to remember the Sabbath?! How can we fulfill both ‘Zachor’s?” Before we look at Moshe’s answer, let’s ponder this strange question. Why were Bnei Israel bothered by the fact that they were commanded to “remember” both Amalek and Shabbos? Why can’t a person remember two different things? I was very bothered by this question until I remembered a person whom I’ve grown to admire greatly. Her name was Alice Herz-Sommer, and she died at the age of 110 in 2014. She and her son were survivors of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, but her husband, parents, and sister were all murdered by the Nazis. She was a professional pianist and stayed alive by playing piano in a trio in the camp.

Hatred eats the soul

Until her passing, she was the oldest survivor of the Holocaust. When asked about the key to her longevity, she answered that it was her positive attitude, which allowed her to be happy every single day. She saw only the beauty in everything, even in painful situations. She never complained and had a perpetual smile on her face. She was an eternal optimist: “When you are optimistic, when you are not complaining, when you look at the good side of your life, everybody loves you.” And, she never looked back with hatred against the Nazis: “Hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated.” Alice had a beautiful soul, which was fed by her music and her joy of life. We read about her and are somewhat envious, because we know that what she says is true. If only we would focus on the good parts of life and ignore the bad, we would be so much happier. I believe this is what Bnei Israel were questioning when they heard about the mitzvah to remember Amalek. Their line of reasoning was: Moshe, you’ve already commanded us to fill our minds and souls with the thoughts of Shabbos, the most holy and spiritual day of the week. We thought this meant that we were supposed to focus on the good and the holy in life, and to look past the evil and the ugly. We appreciated this commandment, because it’s so much healthier to focus on the good and the beautiful. How can you now tell us that we need to also focus on the bad in the world? How are we going to live to be 110 years old, and to always be happy, like Alice? Won’t our souls be consumed with hatred if we must remember Amalek?!

Moshe's two answers

Now that we have somewhat a grasp on the Midrash’s question, let’s look at the answer. There are actually two versions in two different Midrashaim of Moshe’s answer. In one version, Moshe answered Bnei Israel: “There are two kinds of beverages: Spiced wine, which we drink to celebrate, and vinegar, which, while bitter, we drink to cure an upset stomach. Both are necessary, just as both commandments to ‘Remember’ are necessary.” In the second version, Moshe offered a different parable: “A king makes a festive meal. When the table is laden with all of the delicious food and drink, he tells his guests, ‘Remember my beloved friend, John.’ Later, when the table is cleared off and they are all sitting around an empty table, he tells his guests, ‘Remember my despised enemy, Tom.’ Similarly, there’s a time to remember Shabbos, when the table is full, and a time to remember Amalek, when the table is empty.” The Midrash’s response is truly profound. In essence, Moshe was telling the Jewish people that seeing the world’s beauty only is a luxury that you as the Jewish people cannot afford. Evil exists, and to ignore it will have dire consequences, just as not taking bitter vinegar or medicine when you are sick will have dire consequences.

There is good and there is evil

By telling us to remember both Shabbos and Amalek, Hashem is essentially teaching that while there is much beauty in the world, evil will always abide, and the role of the Jewish people is to be part of the solution to eradicate that evil. There will be times in life when the “table will be empty” and mankind will be thrust into darkness and hatred. Usually, the Jew will be the “canary in the mine,” the first object of that hatred. If we don’t know how to deal with Amalek (as Mordechai and Esther did in the Purim story), we risk being annihilated by our haters. True, being forced to remember Amalek may actually curtail our quality of life, because by not living like Alice, our hearts may get filled with anxiety and dread from time to time. But this is our albatross as the Jewish people: We’ve been assigned to be the guardians of the light and the good by watching out for evil in all its incarnations. (I emphasize that this not a criticism of Alice Herz-Sommer; she encountered and endured Amalek face-to-face. She fulfilled many lifetimes-worth of her mitzvah of “Zachor” while in Theresienstadt, and was certainly entitled to spend the rest of her life focusing only on the good and the beautiful. For the rest of us who are not survivors, the mitzvah of “Zachor” requires our constant diligence, no matter how tempting it may be to emulate this great woman’s attitude on life.)

Zachor es HaShabbat & Zachor es Amalek

We should also note that the mitzvah to “remember the Sabbath” is one that applies every single day, as is noted by the poskim. But the mitzvah to “remember Amalek” can be fulfilled by hearing the passage in the Torah only once a year. This should indicate to us that while both mitzvos are to remember, the Torah wishes for us to place much more mental and emotional investment in thinking about the holy and the beautiful than the evil and the ugly. Until the Messiah’s arrival, we should spend every day remembering the good and the holy. Remembering Shabbos daily reminds us that there is so much beauty in this universe, which far outweighs the evil and the ugly. Occasionally, we must also remember that Amalek still abides, both within us and outside of us. Our failure is sometimes in creating the right balance. Just as “spiced wine” should be far more plentiful than “vinegar” on our tables, we mistakenly ingest too much vinegar and not enough sweet wine. It would be a mistake to only look at the animus and anti-Semitism that still lingers in certain segments of the world. We have at least as much obligation to see the “spiced wine” of the philo-Semites who truly love Israel and the Jewish people. May we succeed in eradicating Amalek in our lifetimes, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua
By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

Learning to Be Cherubic

Usually when purchasing a container, one views the container’s cover as something ancillary to the container. But this doesn’t seem the case when it comes to Ark and its Cover. The Kapores, the Ark Cover (by the way, the English word “cover” derives from the Latin “cooperire,” which curiously resembles the word Kapores), is given prominence by the Torah as an important object on its own. Not only are the specifications for the Cover spelled out, but the Torah commands that two statues should be hammered out of the same gold that is used to manufacture the Kapores. In fact, the most visible and distinctive feature of the Aron is the Cover and its two Cherubim. Much has been discussed about the Cherubim, why they are not idolatrous icons and what their function is, but a commentary by R’ Yissochor Berish Eichenstein of Ziditchov provides fodder for what we might wish to extract as a moral lesson from seeing these two statues upon approaching the Holy of Holies. Rashi (25:18) tells us the Cherubim were sculptures of small children with wings. Furthermore, the Torah emphasizes that the statues were positioned on both “ends” of the Ark Cover (25:19): “כְּר֨וּב אֶחָ֤ד מִקָּצָה֙ מִזֶּ֔ה וּכְרוּב־אֶחָ֥ד מִקָּצָ֖ה מִזֶּ֑ה”. In fact, the Torah states this positioning on both “ends” no less than three times. What’s the lesson?

Cherubim as metaphor

When looking at these Cherubim, I can be inspired to think about myself. These sculptures are metaphors for each of us who is struggling to understand the meaning of life and the beautiful Torah that Hashem gave us with which we might have greater understanding about our existence and purpose. The Cover represents the fact that despite our best efforts at understanding the Torah, we’ve “barely scratched the surface.” Even when we think that we understand a Torah message, we’re only receiving the surface message. There’s so much more depth and infinitude that is inaccessible to us, just as the Cherubim stand atop the Cover, never being able to truly access the contents of the Aron. Secondly, the image of the small child on both “ends” of the Cover represents that as much as I think I may have attained wisdom over the course of this life, I am still but a child, even in my advanced age, when it comes to truly understanding the meaning and purpose of life. As much as I think I’ve advanced from one “end” of my life to the other, when I compare my accumulated knowledge to the knowledge of G-d, I realize that I’ve moved the wisdom needle ever so slightly in an infinitely deep and vast sea of wisdom.

Face to face humility

This is why the Torah states that the faces of the Cherubim are (25:20) “אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו” – facing each other. This communicates that when I’m a young person I look forward to attaining the wisdom of an older person, and look forward to the older version of myself, anticipating that as I get older I’ll become much wiser and capable. But as I get older, I look back to the younger version of myself and realize that I had so much more energy, vitality, and idealism, devoid of the cynicism and scars of a beleaguered life. This is the difference between King Solomon as a young man, when he wrote Shir HaShirim, the love song between the Jew and G-d, and the King Solomon as an older man, who wrote Koheles, filled with its wistful nihilism of looking back on life and saying, “הכל הבל”, everything is meaningless, because we’re all headed to the same demise.

Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev

The image of the Cherubim doesn’t just teach humility; childishness has its advantages, too. Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev is quoted teaching that there are three lessons you learn from babies: (1) When the child needs something or is in pain, it cries to its parent. (2) A baby is always busy -- you never see a baby just sitting there doing nothing. (3) When a baby falls down, it always gets up. Furthermore, despite the fact that we’ve only reached the surface of the Torah, and that we are but children even after an entire lifetime, the Cherubim are still portrayed as having wings, wings that are (25:20) “פֹּרְשֵׂ֨י כְנָפַ֜יִם לְמַ֗עְלָה” – spread out to the above. This reminds me that despite all my shortcomings as a mortal human being I can still spread my wings and try to fly. I may have feet of clay, but I also have wings which I can spread toward Heaven and do my best to reach whatever is attainable in this short lifetime. Looked upon this way, the Cherubim’s message is one of both humility and optimism about the human condition. Entering the Temple and seeing these majestic sculptures could help every single Jew visualize how he or she is to use their Judaism to propel them to the next level of living.

Bringing Divine Presence down

From the Cherubim, we can learn that as much as we think we know, as much knowledge and wisdom that we think we’ve accumulated, we still know nothing. But we can also draw optimism and hope from the Cherubim that the Jewish people were given the greatest gift when Hashem gave us the Torah. Not only a set of laws and practices with which to live our lives, but also a philosophy of optimism, that we have the great ability to spread our wings upwards to the open skies and reach for Heaven. And where does Hashem rest His Divine Presence? “וְנוֹעַדְתִּ֣י לְךָ֘ שָׁם֒ וְדִבַּרְתִּ֨י אִתְּךָ֜ מֵעַ֣ל הַכַּפֹּ֗רֶת מִבֵּין֙ שְׁנֵ֣י הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים” (25:22) – between those two Cherubim. When a Jew lives his life based on the Cherubim, the Divine Presence comes into his world. This is the Jewish people, especially in Israel today. We should all be very grateful that we are alive to bear witness. May these days of great hope and success for Israel continue to propel us to the Messianic Age, may we see it bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua
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