In describing the construction of the Keruvim, the Torah notes that, “el Hakaporet Yiheyu Pnei Hakeruvim.” The Keruvim were looking down, towards the Kaporet and the Aron. In explaining this position, Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes the Talmud (Baba Batra 89) that this posture is like a student who lowers his eyes before his teacher, as an expression of reverence. When we have questions, comments or complaints concerning Jewish law or Jewish values we need to do so with humility and reverence towards a faith tradition that has been important to the moral development of humanity and that (hopefully) provides our lives with many outlets for meaning and satisfaction.
But that’s not all the Torah tells us about the position of the Keruvim. The full pasuk reads: (25:20):
1) Vehayu Hakruvim porsei kenafayim L’maalah: these figures had wings that stretched upward
2) Upneihem Ish El Achiv: we are also told that the Keruvim were facing each other
3) Lastly, el Hakaporet Yiheyu Pnei Hakeruvim: they were looking down
Explains the Abravanel so beautifully: The position of the Keruvim teaches us three important lessons: Just as the Keruvim’s wings stretched upward, so too should our thoughts be directed towards Heaven. We must consider our relationship with Hashem and how to enhance it, especially through the ritual Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Makom. And Just as the Keruvim faced each other, so too must we take notice of our fellow Jew and all fellow human beings. We must foster our empathy, our sympathy and our sense of responsibility towards others, especially through the enhancement of our interpersonal Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Chaveiro. And just as the Keruvim were looking downward towards the Aron, so too must we keep our eye on the Torah as a guide for how to fulfill the mitzvot and how to navigate life.
According to the Abravanel, the keruvim looking down don’t teach us to be humble; rather, they teach us to keep our eye on the Torah! When we have questions, comments or issues with our Torah or with Jewish life, our approach should be one of humility and reverence. But humility is not enough. We then need to empower ourselves by looking to our Torah. We must commit to learning and understanding so that we are better equipped to address our questions. Sometimes by keeping our eye on the Aron we may be able to resolve our own questions. Sometimes keeping our eye on the Torah, coupled with a healthy dose of humility, allows us to admit that we can’t figure this out on our own and that we need to seek advice or guidance from someone more knowledgeable. And sometimes it means having the humility to bear the question without an answer.
The synthesis of Rabbeinu Bachaye and the Abravanel resonates with me. The posture of the Keruvim is both a call for humility and an appeal for Jewish literacy. May Hashem give us the strength to emulate the Keruvim: by being a conduit to bring Hashem’s Presence into our lives and into our world.