The winged seraphs that rest atop the Aron Kodesh in the Holy of Holies are known as the cherubim. These cherubs, the Midrash explains, have the faces of innocent children — a young girl and boy. The Aron Kodesh contains the most sacred of our physical entities,– the Luchos (Ten Commandments). In the sacred box lay both the Tablets that Moshe carved and the shattered pieces of the G-d written ones that Moshe smashed upon seeing the Golden Calf.
The two cherubs sit atop of a lot of history. They also protect a lot of sanctity. So they must be endowed with great spiritual symbolism. Yet this is not the first reference to cherubim in the Torah. In fact cherubim are mentioned at the onset of creation where they did not sit innocently upon an Aron Kodesh. They stood guard to block Adam and Chava (Eve) from re-entering the Garden of Eden after their expulsion. “Hashem placed the cherubim and the flame of the ever-turning sword to guard the entrance of Gan Eden.” (Genesis 3:34)
The apparent contrast is striking. How is it possible that the very same beings who guard the sanctity, chastity, and purity symbolized by the Aron Kodesh could be flashing fiery swords at the gates of Eden? Is a cherub an image of peace, love, and tranquillity or is it the symbol of destruction and mayhem? It should not represent both — unless the Torah is telling us something. And it is.
A Miami rabbi was lecturing to a group of senior citizens about the life of the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen of Radin. “This great sage,” he explained, “impacted the lives of thousands of Jewish souls with his simple, down-to-earth approach. He published scores of books that applied to everyday living and mastered the art of the parable, imbuing profound Jewish concepts with simple tales.”
The rabbi proceeded to recount a tale that had circulated in the halls of yeshivos the world over. “Once the Chofetz Chaim was informed that a particular boy in his yeshiva was smoking on Shabbos. The Mashgiach (dean of ethics) of the Yeshiva decided that the boy must be ousted from the school. However, the Chofetz Chaim asked to speak to the young man before the eviction was completed. “The young man entered the Chofetz Chaim’s study. He was there for only about 15 minutes, and no one knows what the Chofetz Chaim told him, but the story as I heard it,” the rabbi from Miami exclaimed, “is that not only did the boy decide to remain a Shabbos observer the rest of his life, he also became a strong supporter of Torah institutions.”
The speech ended. The crowd shuffled out. But one elderly man remained fixed in his chair. His face was ashen and his eyes were focused directly at the Rabbi. Slowly he got up and approached the lectern. “Where did you hear that story?” he demanded. “Do you know who that boy was?”
The Rabbi shook his head in nervous innocence. “No,” he stammered. He could not imagine where the conversation was leading.
“It was me!” cried the old man. “And you know what the Chofetz Chaim told me?”
Again the Rabbi, not knowing what to say, shook his head with nervous ignorance. “I have no idea,” he pleaded. “Honestly, I have no idea. What did the Chofetz Chaim say?”
The man smiled. “The Chofetz Chaim said absolutely nothing.” As his mind raced back more than half a century the old man repeated the words again. “Absolutely nothing just held my hand — the one that held the cigarettes — and began to cry. Then the Chofetz Chaim slowly began to whisper the words ‘Shabbos, Shabbos’ over and over in a sad singsong. And the words mingled with the tears that were dripping on my hand that had held a cigarette just hours earlier.
“He sat there without looking at me. Crying. He felt the pain of the Shabbos. And I felt his pain, too. Just being there with him for those 15 minutes changed the hand that held the cigarette to the hand that would hold up the Torah.”
Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l used to comment that the same cherubim that held swords as they stood guard at the gates of Eden are not doomed to that position. They can change drastically when they are placed upon an Aron Kodesh. When they are on top of the Aron, they guard it and cherish it. Young children are affected by their whereabouts. Place them as a guards and they will brandish swords. Put them with the Aron Kodesh — let them feel the sanctity and they will become the cherubim we all cherish and aspire to emulate.
In memory of Edith Gluck by the Gluck Family
Text Copyright © 1996 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.
Drasha is the e-mail edition of FaxHomily, a weekly torah facsimile on the weekly portion
which is sponsored by The Henry and Myrtle Hirsch Foundation
Copyright © 1996 Project Genesis, Inc.