In Parashat Terumah, God instructs Moses how to fashion a dwelling place, a sanctuary for God’s presence.
Dr. Shula Laderman, lecturer in Judaism and the Arts at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, wonders how to educate a nation of slaves who just came out from a very pagan society. How do you teach them about the presence of God?
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When Moses ascended Mount Sinai after the wondrous Revelation, God gave him a blueprint for the Tabernacle and told him to bid the people to: “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell between them [the people] exactly as I show you…so you shall make it” (Exod. 25:8, 9). This Sanctuary was not to be for the sake of God, but rather for the sake of the Israelites so that they would be able to sense His Presence among them. The Ark of the Covenant was to be the first of the Tabernacle’s furnishings.
Why was the Ark of the Covenant accorded such importance? What was its function? Why were the stone tablets given at Mount Sinai placed inside the Ark and sealed under its cover? What were the roles of the cover and the cherubim above it?
Avner Moriah’s painting for Parashat Truma might be seen as providing some of the answers. From among all of the Tabernacle’s furnishings described in this parasha the artist chose to portray only the Ark of the Covenant, which he apparently sees as a very powerful symbol heralding God’s Presence among the people of Israel. Moreover, the Bible tells us that Moses was to “deposit in the Ark the tablets of the Pact” (Exod. 25:16), so that the Ark with the tablets given at Sinai would be an ever-present extension of the theophany. Concealing the tablets within the Ark underscored their spiritual importance as opposed to their physical appearance.
The artist’s rendition of its gold overlay highlights the sanctity imparted to the Ark, as gold being a pure material, mirrors its holiness. We also see the two golden poles that were permanently attached to the Ark on both its sides by which it was carried from place to place, as it was so holy that it was not itself to be handled: “The poles shall remain in the rings of the Ark; they shall not be removed from it” (Exod. 25:15).
The artist imaged the Ark as described in the biblical text: a deep chest trimmed around with a gold molding and topped with a golden cover – the kapporet (from the Hebrew word kapper or kippur, which means atonement, purge, or purify) – and two cherubim cast onto the cover: “Make two cherubim of gold; make them of hammered work at the two ends of the cover…one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end of one piece with the cover” (Exod. 25:18, 19). “The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover” (Exod. 25:20). This configuration reflected a concept known in the ancient Near East and also found in the Hebrew Bible, wherein winged cherubim guarded and carried the Divine Throne. We find references to the Ark of God as being the Ark of the “Lord of Hosts enthroned on the cherubim” (I Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2), and it was regarded as the throne of a king or the footstool of God.
The artist visualized what he considers to be the essence of Parashat Truma by portraying the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant as representing a continuing theophany: “There I will meet with you and I will impart from above the cover from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact…” (Exod. 25:22). Thus, as the Lord spoke to Moses from a cloud when he stood on top of Mount Sinai, now He will speak with him from between the cherubim.