Kaporet

  • Rav Ezra Bick

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT TERUMA

Kaporet

By Rav Ezra Bick

 

The topic for this week's shiur is a very difficult one, for a number of reasons. First, considering the purpose of any of the mishkan elements presents problems, for we really have no clear method of interpreting the meaning of the elements of the mishkan. The early commentators, the Rambam, the Ramban, R. Bachye, Abravenel, all suggested symbolic interpretations for the mishkan and its utensils, based on various philosophic or mystical methods of correlation. The basis of each of these interpretations in the philosophic assumptions of the particular commentator is obvious, and leaves us at a quandary how to proceed. However, the kaporet, the seat of the keruvim, is especially puzzling. If there is anything we have been trained, first by the previous parshiot, and secondly by everything we have ever been taught to include in OUR philosophic assumptions, to NOT expect in the mishkan, it is two images of winged angels, smack at the center of the holiest spot in the mishkan, above the ark, in the holy of holies.

I am not sure that we will be a lot wiser when this shiur is over. But, following the method we have been pursuing the last couple of weeks, I suggest we examine the verses themselves and see if we can begin to see a path to a solution there.

  1. The Kaporet
  2. First, let us identify the specific topic. The "kaporet" is basically the cover of the aron, the ark. One might, therefore, argue that there is no such element as the kaporet, but that it is just a part of the aron. But the verses seem rather clear on this matter, and there is, in fact, a clearer break between the aron and the kaporet than between other elements.

    The construction of the aron, the first in the list of commands given in our parasha, is found in 25,10-15. This is followed by the command, "And you shall place in the aron the testimony which I shall give to you" (16). This verse is somewhat anomalous here, since it does not describe a detail of construction, which is what the entire parasha is about. (See the Sforno, who suggests that, unlike the other elements in the mishkan, the aron is not part of the sacrificial service, and therefore the Torah wishes to explicate its function as the receptacle of the tablets of the law). But whatever the reason for this verse, it clearly delineates the end of the description of the aron's construction. Before we are told what to do with the aron, it is necessary to complete making it. But this verse PRECEDES the construction of the kaporet. It clearly serves as a break between the construction of the aron and that of the kaporet, making it clear that the kaporet is an independent element, distinct from the aron and not merely a part of it.

    This conclusion is supported by a second reference to the aron and kaporet later in the parasha. When the Torah describes the parokhet (curtain), it also gives instructions how to hang it.

    You shall place the parokhet beneath the hooks, and you shall bring there, inside the parokhet, the aron ha-eidut; and the parokhet shall divide the Holy from the Holy of Holies.

    And you shall place the kaporet on the aron ha-eidut, in the Holy of Holies. (26,33)

    The different parts and elements of the mishkan are first constructed and then placed inside. Here the aron is brought to the Holy of Holies and only afterward is the kaporet placed on it. The Torah, in fact, emphasizes, and apparently requires, that the kaporet be placed on the aron "in the Holy of Holies." This makes it clear that the aron, as a "kli mikdash," is complete without the kaporet. Placing the kaporet on the aron is part of constructing THE MISHKAN, not the construction of the aron. The Torah, in the very next verse, continues to describe other objects that are placed relative to the parokhet - "You shall place the table outside of the parokhet, and the menora opposite the table...." (26,35). Four distinct objects are placed in relation to the parokhet; the aron, the kaporet, the table, and the menora.

    (I must point out that in parashat Pekudei, when God's instructions are carried out, it is written that Moshe placed the tablets in the aron, covered it with the kaporet, and then brought it to the mishkan [40,20-21]. Since this contradicts the instructions in our parasha, it obviously requires an explanation, but this is not the time. See Ramban and Netziv, 26,33-34).

    Of course, one cannot conceive of the kaporet as being wholly independent. After all, if there were no aron, the kaporet, its cover, could not exist. In fact, the very proof that I brought to demonstrate the kaporet's independence also serves to show its interdependence. The kaporet is described in 25,17-20. This is followed with a verse describing what to do with it (just as the construction of the aron is followed with the verse telling Moshe to place the tablets in it. "And you shall place the kaporet on the aron from above, and IN THE ARON YOU SHALL PLACE THE TESTIMONY THAT I SHALL GIVE YOU" (25,21). This is, in its second half, exactly the same instruction that followed the construction of the aron. Rashi comments that "I do not know why it is doubled;" and then suggests that the intent is to require placing the tablets within the aron before attaching the kaporet. While this suggestion would strengthen my claim that the aron is complete and ready for its purpose (housing the tablets) even before the kaporet is added, it is, in itself, rather difficult. If anything, the repetition of the verse would suggest the opposite; first place the kaporet, then place the testimony (see Ramban). We shall return to this question specifically in a little while; in the meantime it is sufficient to note that the Torah has divided the kaporet from the aron and provided an identical concluding verse for both sections, requiring the insertion of the tablets into the aron. This both separates and relates the two objects, the aron and the kaporet.

    (It must also be noted that the construction of the aron and that of the kaporet are not separated by a parasha mark (setuma or petucha), which appear between the other mishkan elements in Teruma).

    What is the purpose of the kaporet, if it is not merely the cover for the aron? The Torah provides an immediate answer.

    I shall meet with you there, and shall speak to you from above the kaporet, from between the two keruvim, which is on the aron of the testimony, all that I shall command you concerning the Israelites (22).

    We seem to have an answer; the aron holds the "testimony" (the tablets of the law), and is therefore called the "aron ha-eidut," the kaporet, with its two cherubs, serves as the place where God's voice speaks to Moshe. This is a distinct purpose, and therefore justifies viewing the kaporet as a distinct element. The question now, what is the relationship between the kaporet and the aron?

    That this relationship is not merely accidental is indicated by the last verse. God tells Moshe that He will meet with him "above the kaporet," "between the two keruvim," and adds that the kaporet is "on the aron ha-eidut." The fact that God chooses to speak to Moshe in this place is related to the presence of the keruvim, but also, apparently, to the fact that the kaporet is "on the aron." This fact, which we are perfectly familiar with from the previous verse, which directed Moshe to place the kaporet on the aron, is apparently relevant to verse 22 as well, and explains why this place is chosen. So, although the aron is the receptacle of the tablets, and the kaporet is the site of meeting, the second fact is somehow dependent on the first as well.

    These two functions, to hold the "testimony" (eidut) and to be the place of meeting (veno'adti), lend their names to the mishkan as a whole, which is known both as "ohel moed" (the tent of meeting) and, especially in Sefer Bamidbar (see e.g. 1,50-53; 17,19-25; in Shemot, the phrase appears only once, at the of Pekudei), as "ohel eidut" (tent of testimony). Neither of these functions has a particularly evident connection to what could be considered the prime role of the mishkan, the bringing of sacrifices. Eidut basically means law and the Torah, and moed refers to prophecy. It is the aron and the kaporet that are at the center of these roles, rather than most of the other elements of the mishkan, such as the altars, which are part of the sacrificial service.

     

  3. The Keruvim

Most of the construction details of the kaporet are devoted to the keruvim.

You shall make a kaporet….

You shall make two golden keruvim, of one beaten work shall you make them, out of the two ends of the kaporet.

Make one keruv from the one end, and one keruv from the other end, from the kaporet shall you make the keruvim on the two ends of it.

And the keruvim shall be spreading wings on high, overspreading the kaporet with their wings, and their faces looking at one another; to the kaporet should their faces look.

And you shall place the kaporet on the aron from above…. (25,17-21)

This description bears unmistakable parallels to the construction of the menora.

You shall make a golden menora,

Of beaten work the menora shall be made; its shaft, branch, bowls, bulbs, and flowers from itself.

Six branches come out of its sides; three menora branches from one side, and three menora branches from the second side.

….

You shall make its lamps seven, and light its lamps, and it shall give light against it. (25,31-37).

The two keruvim are made out of the kaporet itself from its sides and face each other and the kaporet. The six branches are made out of the menora shaft itself and face it ("give light against it").

What do the details required by the Torah indicate? I think that, without attempting to delve too deeply in the symbolism, it is clear that the two details, "miksha" (beaten out of one piece of gold), and facing the center and the source, are meant to indicate unity of what is a basically complex object. Although there are two keruvim (and six branches), AND THEY ARE DELIBERATELY CREATED OUT OF THE OPPOSITE EXTREMES, they are one with the golden kaporet and they face the kaporet. There is a picture of dynamic tension here – the two keruvim reaching out from the very ends of the kaporet, as far apart as possible, yet turning to each other and to the physical source from which they are made. The wings are spread out, as though to fly off, yet the keruvim are totally one with the kaporet; in fact, the spreading wings are "sokhikhim," covering protectively the kaporet. The picture of the kaporet is of an object straining to fly apart, its wings poised for flight in two different directions, yet, at the same time, unified by the love (face to face) of its parts for each other and for the kaporet as a whole, and rooted in the kaporet of which it is one indivisible part. Verse 19 presents the tension between, on the one hand, being at opposite ends ("one keruv on one end and one keruv on the other end") and, on the other hand, being of one piece with the kaporet ("from the kaporet shall you make the keruvim on its two ends"). Verse 20 presents the tension between wings spread on high and faces looking at each other and at the kaporet.

C. What Is It?

This is all, I hope, very interesting, but we still have not addressed the main question. If the kaporet is not merely a cover to the aron, and the keruvim are not merely an adornment to the kaporet, what indeed are they? What purpose do they serve and why?

As we saw above, the Torah defines the purpose of the kaporet as the place from where God speaks to Moshe. It is a place of "meeting" (ve-no'adti). What does this mean?

It has been noticed by many commentators that the idea of winged keruvim being the location of God is expounded at length in Yechezkel, in the mystical vision of "the chariot." In chapter 1, Yechezkel describes four fiery creatures, each with four wings and wheels (the word "merkava does not appear in the description in Yechezkel, but was supplied by Chazal). Above their heads is a firmament, and above the firmament is a throne, and on the image of the throne appears "the image of the appearance of a man on it above." Yechezkel concludes this vision by stating that it is "the appearance of the image of the glory of God" (1,28). In chapter 10, he calls these same creatures (v. 15) "keruvim."

The Ramban (Shemot 26,21) states that the kaporet with its keruvim is "the throne of glory." The Ramban ends his comments on this verse with the words, "the enlightened will understand;" in other words, his explanation is based on the kabbala and he does not intend to explain exactly what he means. Obviously, I shall not do so either, not only because it would be inappropriate in this framework, but also because I do not understand the Ramban myself. But following some of his leads, we shall at least try and proceed.

The Ramban writes that the wings were lifted up high to "signify that they were the chariot, bearers of the glory." In terms of what we saw before, this means that the wings reach up to the sky, to the transcendental glory of God. But they are also overspreading the kaporet itself. This is the paradoxical tension I described above. The kaporet represents the paradox that the infinite glory of God, transcendent above all, communicates with Man. The transcendent is connected to the earth. That which leaps up and completely transcends all is yet of one piece, unseparated, with the gold cover of the aron, the box which man makes to hold the Torah which is given to him.

Of course, we all know that God is not IN a particular place. As King Shlomo exclaimed when he completed the construction of the Temple, "For indeed, does God dwell on the earth; behold, the heavens and the heavens' heavens cannot contain You, can this house which I have built?" (I Kings 8,27). But that understanding, if carried to its logical extent, would conclude that there can be no contact between God and man. That error, as we saw two weeks ago, is the opposite of the meaning of Torah, and lies at the root of the search of man for intermediaries between himself and God. Judaism has the concept of the "throne" of God, which expresses the fact that God does indeed rule on earth. This concept is paradoxical, expressing the immanence of the transcendental - and that is exactly the form of the kaporet with its keruvim. The Absolute Transcendental takes root.

Naturally, we must be very careful not to imagine that the transcendental BECOMES part of the world. This, as we shall see in the shiur on Ki Tisa, is the error at the root of the golden calf. In the picture of the kaporet, the Torah carefully states that God speaks from "ABOVE the kaporet, BETWEEN the two keruvim." The keruvim are the throne of God, not God Himself. God is above the kaporet, between the keruvim, in an undefinable space. But nonetheless, we have a reference point to which to turn. This is what the Torah calls "MEETING" - a point of contact between the transcendent and the created world.

This verse has, as we saw, a third locus. "I shall meet with you there, and speak with you above the kaporet, between the two keruvim, which is on the aron ha-eidut." The throne of God is placed over the Law, the Torah, in the form of the tablets. Specifically, the tablets are the law in the form of the direct word of God, the words which demonstrated that, as parashat Yitro put it, "You have seen that I have spoken to you from the heavens" (20,19). This explains the dialectic of the kaporet as independent and interdependent, relative to the aron. God sits on a throne placed on the earth. But if you will ask, what makes that possible, the answer is Torah, the tablets of the law. The throne is set up over the law. And so, the Torah states that the tablets shall be placed in the aron twice. Once, when viewing the aron as an independent article, as the receptacle for the law. The mishkan is the place where the law rests. Secondly, the kaporet, the throne of God, requires that it be "on the aron ha-eidut." Hence, the Torah repeats"in the aron you shall place the testimony that I shall give you." The placing of the kaporet in the mishkan also requires that the tablets be in the aron, just as the placing of the aron in the mishkan requires the tablets.

I would like to suggest that this is the meaning of the term "eidut," as applied to the luchot whenever they are in the aron. The word means "testimony," although in context it seems to be synonymous with "law."

The tablets testify to the truth of today's shiur, that the transcendent God speaks from the heavens to denizens of the earth. This amazing fact requires constant testimony, reminding us, in the words of parashat Yitro, that "you have seen that from the heavens I spoke to you" (20,19). Because the tablets are the testimony to this historical and metaphysical fact, they are placed at the center of the shrine, in the ark of testimony," and for the same reason, they form the underpinning of the throne of glory, the kaporet.

Is this idea not fraught with the possibility of terrible error? Might it not lead to idolatry, to physical representation and eventually corporealization of God? The answer is, of course! That is why the Torah constantly warns against idolatry and iconography. The tension inherent in the transcendent God being present in their midst will finally erupt on the fortieth day of Moshe's sojourn on the mountain - but for that we must wait two more weeks, until parashat Ki Tisa.

FURTHER STUDY:

  1. The construction of the keruvim is described twice, in two adjacent verses (18 and 19). In terms of meaning, the two verses appear to be identical. What is the purpose of the repetition? (see also 37, 7-8). (See Netziv).
  2. Why did Moshe put the kaporet in the aron and then place them both in the mishkan (40, 20-21), although God had told him to connect the kaporet AFTER bringing the aron to its place in the mishkan (26, 33-34)?
  3. Aside from THE keruvim, which were part of the kaporet, there were two other sets of keruvim in the mishkan; on the parokhet (26,31) and the "yeriot" (the curtains) (26,1). What do these keruvim signify?
  4. We have seen that the mishkan element is called kaporet - the keruvim are a feature of kaporet. Compare this to the construction of the Beit Hamikdash by Shlomo Hamelekh - I Kings 6,26-27, where the keruvim are independent and not connected to the aron. Explain.

 


 

 

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