By Rabbi Ian Shaffer
(Based on a Shiur given by Rabbi Yitzchak Bernstein zal in London in 1993).
The Gemara discusses the placing of Keruvim in the first Bet Hamikdash and states the following:
TB Bava Batra 99a
How did they stand? — R. Johanan and R. Eleazar [are in dispute on the matter]. One Says: They faced each other; and the other says: Their faces were inward (i.e. away from each other). But according to him who says that they faced each other, [it may be asked]: Is it not written, And their faces (of the Keruvim set up by Shlomo Hamelech in addition to the ones from the Mishkan of Moshe) were inward? ( II Chron. III, 13)—[This is] no difficulty: The former [was] at a time when Israel obeyed the will of the Omnipresent ; the latter [was] at a time when Israel did not obey the will of the Omnipresent.
The Rashbam explains that the Gemara is telling us that when the Jewish people were ‘doing the will of God’, the Keruvim faced each other, and this applied to both the Keruvim of Moshe and the Keruvim of Shlomo(which were set on the ground of the kodesh kodoshim). If the people were ‘not doing the will of God’, then the two sets of Keruvim faced away from each other. This was a constant miracle in the Temple according to the Rashbam.
The Netziv of Velozhin finds this explanation extremely difficult. He asks that if the ‘facing away’ from each other represents ‘not doing the will of God’, then why did Shlomo place them in the first Temple in this way, facing away from each other as proven in the Gemara above from the pasuk in Divrei Hayamim. Surely this cannot be the intention of Shlomo at the outset of the first Temple to refer to the people as not doing the ‘will of God’?
The Netziv suggests to redefine the terms’doing the will’and ‘not doing the will of God’. He explains this concept in his comments on the second pp. of the ‘shema’ (Devarim ch.11) where the Gemara (TB Berachot 35b) also suggests that the verse referring to the people gathering their own produce (veasafta deganecha…) refers to a situation of ‘not doing the will of God’. Again, how can this be the meaning of the pasuk which is found in a paragraph beginning “And it shall be if you surely listen to My mitzvoth…” which must be referring to following God and not the opposite?
The Netziv concludes that a different explanation is needed there and he redefines this concept, using the metaphor of a King and his army. In a country where the people work and sew and reap and then sell the produce to the King to earn their livelihood, the King is pleased to be able to assist his people to make the ‘parnassa’ they need to survive. However he will also have an army in the country which he truly treasures and is prepared to support and feed, without any payment, as they protect him. They are very precious to him and do his bidding (‘will’) at all times.
The Netziv says that those who study Torah intensely (as in 19th century Velozhin, which produced great Torah leaders in Eastern Europe) are like the King’s guard, and are doing the ‘will of God’ at all times. However, the people who work to support themselves are also beloved to God, but in a different way. They are not ‘doing the will’ of God as the Torah students are, but they are still precious to the King and are described as ‘not doing the will of God’ in the same way as the Torah students. But they are still precious in God’s eyes. Both groups sustain the world but in different ways.
These two positions are reflected in the Keruvim. The Keruvim of Moshe show the ultimate observance of the ‘will of God’ and will face each other when the Jewish people are enveloped in pure Torah study, as they were in the desert in the days of Moshe. For Shlomo however the situation was different (the people living in Israel and working the land in order to earn their livelihoods) and he was showing that the new Keruvim in the Temple reflect a love for his people, but on a different level, called ‘not doing the (ultimate) will of God’, but still earning their parnassa (and praying and offering korbanot)and being faithful to God in their lives. This is also a legitimate derech, and one does not have to have “claustrophobic arrogance” (to quote Rabbi Bernstein zal) to argue that only ‘my way’ is the true way to serve God and thereby reject the other derech as ‘not authentic’. Both paths are valid and it is important to mutually respect each other and find value in all ways of serving God.
I would just add, on a personal note, that this approach answers the question I have on the Torah learning community today, especially in Israel, who want to have the ‘frum’ doctor, psychologist etc but are not prepared to allow their children to study these disciplines, even though for many students it might be more productive that staying in a pure Torah learning environment, to which not everyone is suited. Torah and Mada does have an important place in the Jewish world and Shlomo understood and showed this with placing the other Keruvim in the ‘holy of holies’, as explained by Rabbi Bernstein, based on the Netziv’s wonderful interpretation.
The Keruvim are truly wondrous and teach us a great lesson in communal respect and tolerance which is surely one of the most important teachings which must emanate from the Temple of God to His people and to the wider world. We need Torah scholars and we also need doctors. Both ‘occupations’ are valid and vital for our future survival.
Originally appears on YUTorah.org