Parshat Trumah: “With their faces one to the other” – the Cherubim as an image of Disagreement for the sake of Heaven

Posted by Daniel Roth on April 3, 2015
Topics: Divrei Torah, Terumah

This Shabbat, parshat Trumah, we read about the mitzvah of making the Cherubim (Exodus 25:18-20) “And you shall make two cherubim …. And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another.” The image of the faces of the Cherubim “one to another” merited different interpretations.

One interpretation, by the Ba’al HaTurim, was that the Cherubim invoked the image of Torah Scholars learning Torah in havruta (pair study): “’Their faces one to another’- like two friends discussing Torah. Rabbi Meir Segal added to his words (Imrey Da’at, Trumah), “and it is by two Torah scholars discussing words of Torah in a modest way, where each one perceives himself as a student learning from his friend, that truth comes out. And how beloved are such wise people like this before the Holy One, Blessed Be He, that they were set to be the model image of the Cherubim that stood above the Holy Ark in the Holy of Holies.

A second interpretation, from Rabbi Binyamin Levine (Chamesh Yadot , part I, Trumah), held that the Cherubim hint to the relationship between two different types of national leadership: “And their faces should be turned one towards the other, like two friends, hinting that there should always be peace between them, between the rabbis and religious leaders and the (political) lay leadership of the people.”

A third interpretation was that the Cherubim turning one towards the other represented the desired relationship between different groups within the nation, as Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote (on Exodus 25:20): “The whole nation of Israel is represented not by one cherub but by two, 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 co-operation, a whole nation keeping and protecting the whole community….”

It seems, therefore, that for these commentaries the image of the Cherubim turning one towards the other had a very practical translation as they represented the desire of Torah scholars facing one another; of two different types of leadership working well together; or of diverse groups within the nation coexisting peacefully. The differences and disagreements between them will certainly continue to exist. However, since they “are facing one another” in peace and brotherhood, they may be described as “disagreements for the sake of Heaven.” As it has been said regarding the relationship of Hillel and Shammai, that even though they had many disagreements between them, nevertheless they exemplified “machloket leshem shamayim” (disagreement for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 5:17). And they were even referred to as “friends and brothers” in the piutim (liturgical poetry) of the Kalir, similar to the relationship between Moses and Aaron.

However, as it seems, the Cherubim only faced one another when the people “did the will of G-d”. When they did not do so, the Cherubim did not face each other (Baba Metzia, 99a).

This coming week we mark the fast of the 9th of Adar because according to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 580), “On the 9th (of Adar) Beit Shammai and Hillel disagreed.” Stating this as the reason for declaring a fast seems a bit strange, since Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were always disagreeing! In fact, the commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch disagreed regarding the nature of the disagreement between them on that day. According to Rav Mordechai Yaffe, “On the ninth [of Adar], Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed with one another, and since a machloket [disagreement] fell between the scholars of Israel, even though their disagreement was for the sake of heaven, nevertheless the Torah had become, G-d forbid, as if it was two Torahs, this one forbids and this one permits, this one declares a matter impure, and the other declares it pure, and no law is known completely. Behold this is like a tragic day and we fast on it.” In other words, this was indeed a “disagreement for the sake of Heaven”. However since this was their first disagreement, it is worthy to mourn and fast on this day. However, according to Rav Eliyahu Shapira, “On the 9th of Adar, they disagreed: And three thousand of the students died.”The killing of three thousand students can no longer be referred to as a “disagreement for the sake of Heaven”, rather the opposite. This is literally a civil war. There is no doubt that if this is what happened on that day, which was known in the Talmuds (Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:4, Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 17a) as being “as wretched for Israel as the day on which the [golden] calf was made”, the Cherubim would not be facing each other as a protest to the nation “not doing the will of G-d.”

Therefore this day, the 9th of Adar, was chosen by the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution to be the international Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict (Yom machloket leshem shamayim). Throughout the world, thousands of people and over a hundred schools, synagogues, mediation centers, religious Zionist kollelim and more will be commemorating this day throughout the coming week (February 21 – 28/ 2nd Adar – 9th of Adar). Each person, organization or community that participates is doing so in different ways, for example through studying texts in havruta, or participating in a facilitated dialogue around a controversial issue, or committing to a type of ta’anit dibbur (fasting from speech) refraining from destructive speech and more. However, the common denominator between everyone that signs up is the desire to establish the 9th of Adar as the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict, and thereby holding onto the hope that one day we should merit to see the Cherubim once again face one another.

About Daniel Roth

Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth is the Director Emeritus of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution and an adjunct faculty member. He taught at Pardes for over twenty years and is now the Director of Mosaica - The Religious Peace Initiative. He also teaches graduate courses on religion and peace building at Bar-Ilan University’s Conflict Resolution, Management and Negotiation Graduate Program, as well as at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation, and at Hebrew University’s Coexistence in the Middle East summer program. Roth initiated Pardes's Mahloket Matters: How to Disagree Constructively and the 9Adar Project: Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict, known in Israel as DiburHadash: The Israeli Week of Mediation and Dialogue. Roth is a regular lecturer of MEJDI (multi-narrative) Tours and National Geographic. He was a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. He holds a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University’s Conflict Resolution Program, MA in Talmud from Hebrew University, B.Ed in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Herzog Teachers’ College, and studied for eight years in Yeshivat Har-Etzion during which time he received rabbinic ordination. Click here to read more.

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