Parshat Yitro: The Keruvim and the Mizbei'ach
By: Rav Moshe Stav
“…You saw that from the heavens I spoke to you. Do not make along with Me gods of silver, and gods of gold do not make for yourselves. An earthen altar you shall make for Me… And if you shall make for Me a stone altar, do not build it out of chiseled stone” (Shemot 20:18-21). This command appears immediately after the account of Matan Torah and is inherently connected to it, as indicated by the first pasuk in this passage: “You saw that from the heavens I spoke to you.”
The prohibition of creating idols includes two different aspects. The first is the forbidden worship of any being other than the Creator. This includes both adopting an entirely different belief system, as well as adding a different form of worship in the hopes that it will be in one’s favor, even without abandoning belief in Hashem. The second implication of this prohibition is that it is forbidden to serve Hashem by performing acts of worship before some form or illustration that is meant to represent Hashem. This includes the copying of ceremonies adopted by idol worshipers – in the manner of “How do the gentiles serve their gods, and I will do so myself” (Devarim 12:30) – the building of a matzeiva or asheira in the worship of Hashem, or the creation of an idol or picture that the worshippers uses to express Hashem’s presence.
The root of these prohibitions is explained by the Rambam in the beginning of Hilchot Avoda Zara in his description of how idol worship developed. On the one hand, the fact that people became accustomed to worship wood and stone led to their inability to appreciate the existence of the Creator; on the other hand, man, being material, cannot conceptualize abstract concepts without some illustration. Without words or actions that reflect ones spiritual worldview, emuna and Torah cannot endure. (Some people who consider themselves wise mock the fulfillment of mitzvot and adherence to the details of Halacha, claiming that the main point is the intellectual conception. They and their followers fail to understand that there can be no intellectual conception in the absence of action.) Indeed, this explains the great importance of holy sites, such as the makom haMikdash, which was sanctified through the akeida, Ma’arat HaMachpela (where Kalev prayed), and Be’er Lechai Ro’i (where angels appeared to Hagar and where Yitzchak later prayed).
How can we create a balance between appropriate actions and illustrations that will positively affect a person and images that will lead to idolatry and rejection of Hashem (such as the egel)? Clearly, the Torah’s commands regarding the construction of the Mishkan and its keilim reflect divine wisdom, which presents the specific form that will fulfill the need for a physical representation, but at the same time will not lead to negative results. The Rambam elaborates on this idea at length in Moreh Nevuchim with regard to the descriptions of Hashem, in explaining the gemara’s statement that one should not use any adjectives to describe Hashem other than those said by Moshe and established by the Anshei Kenesset HaGedola: “HaKel haGadol haGibor vehaNora.” These descriptions include all that is necessary and fulfill the need to describe Hashem in the appropriate balance. Similarly, the form of the Mikdash – in addition to the inherent divine wisdom behind each and every detail – reflects the presence of the Shechina without allowing for excessive physical representation of Hashem. As the Rambam explains, there were two keruvim on top of the aron, and not one, so that it would be clear that they do not represent Hashem, who is One. Rather, the Creator is above them, and there is no representation of Him.
After explaining why it is inappropriate to create a form for worship, the Maharal (Tiferet Yisrael, ch. 44) explains why the keruvim do not fall in this category: “Since HaKadosh Baruch Hu commanded that we create the two keruvim, they are like all the other things that Hashem created and ordered in His wisdom, and none of the things that Hashem created leave His dominion.” I believe that what he means is that the recognition that the world was created by Hashem leads to the fact that study of the world does not contradict proper understanding, whereas when a person invents a form of his own making, he corrupts the proper understanding of Hashem’s presence. Whatever Hashem commands is the proper form of understanding Hashem, but when a person invents a form without the input of divine wisdom, it is corrupted into avoda zara.
At Matan Torah, Bnei Yisrael saw the presence of Hashem in the world, which cannot be expressed in any picture or form, and they therefore realized that the service of Hashem must be without any physical form and that those forms that are permissible and obligatory must be limited to the specific form and place commanded by Hashem. Thus, the forming of the keruvim, which are expressions of the Shechina and the love between Klal Yisrael and Hashem, is considered sinful and akin to avoda zara when not formed properly and in their proper place. (After the churban, Amon and Moav mocked the keruvim, which they found embracing one another – as the pasuk says, “All those who honored her mocked her, for they saw her nakedness.” This is a mashal to the idea that love is a beautiful thing when it is revealed in private, but it becomes lowly when it is taken out of its appropriate context and place. The location of the keruvim changes their very nature. Similarly, Chazal teach that words of Torah must be transmitted in the proper place and manner.)
The mizbei’ach appears not only as part of the Mishkan and the Mikdash, but also as an independent entity. It has a central role as the vessel on which korbanot are offered, but it also serves as the point of the revelation of the Shechina through the fire that descended to consume the korban. The altar reflects and creates the relationship between the Shechina and man. Thus, for example, the fire that descended to consume the korban represented the revelation of the Shechina to Manoach, Gidon, and others.
The pasuk states, “In every place in which I recall My name, I will appear to you and bless you” (Shemot 20:20). This implies two things: that through the mizbei’ach, a place for the revelation of the Shechina is created, and also that the mizbei’ach should be located in the place that Hashem chooses. The ability of man, who is found on earth, to connect to Hashem in heaven is through the relationship between the Creator and His creation. Chazal taught that man was created from the earth at the place of the mizbei’ach. When man makes an altar, the point of connection between created man and his Creator is renewed, but only on the condition that he follows the rules. If one creates an altar that is not a simple earthen structure, he corrupts the connection. The Torah therefore forbade any human input in the formation of the mizbei’ach; it must be made of dirt, and not of any stone chiseled by human hands. (The word adam is rooted in the word adama. Man can become haughty and think, “adameh le’elyon,” “I am similar to God, or he can attain the greatest levels of serving Hashem and connection to Him by negating himself to the level of adama.)
The Torah further specifies that one may not ascend the mizbei’ach on stairs “so as not to reveal your nakedness.” In addition to the peshat, which indicates that there must be a ramp to the mizbei’ach, Chazal learn from here that even the dayan and the Kohen, who are involved in avodat Hashem, must act with humility. This is not simply a matter of proper middot. Rather, without humility, there is no true recognition, but rather an imaginary form mixed in with physicality.
May we merit to prepare in our hearts a place for the Shechina, and may Hashem fulfill His promise: “In every place in which I mention my name, I will come to you and bless you.”
Shiur ID: 7471