Angels and Torah
Last week a Rabbi asked why the Torah repeats the command to place the Tablets in the Ark. Exodus 25:17 reads, "And place in the Ark the Testimony (Tablets) I gave to you." Verse 21 reads, "And place the Kaporess (the Ark's cover with the two angels) on the Ark above, and into the Ark place the testimony I gave you." The Rabbi cited Rashi who stated "I do not know the reason for this repetition." But this must not cripple us from thinking into the matter; no Rabbi holds a monopoly on the Torah's answers. And while I appreciate Rashi's position about the apparent repetition, there is a possibility I wish to suggest.
The second verse (25:21) contains two matters, the placement of the Kaporess and the placing of the Tablets. Based on this connection, we may suggest the following. Although already commanded to place the Tablets in the Ark, this earlier verse (25:17) merely indicates the "purpose" of the Ark. That is, after God describes the Ark's design, He tells us its purpose: it is to house the Tablets. But the second verse is for another idea altogether…
The Ark's cover is one of the most astonishing elements of the Temple. The the gold angels are more than mere constructions like the other vessels. There is a most fundamental idea here. I quote below Maimonides from the Guide to the Perplexed (Book III chap. XLV):
"Naturally the fundamental belief in prophecy precedes the belief in the Law, for without the belief in prophecy there can be no belief in the Law. But a prophet only receives divine inspiration through the agency of an angel. Compare,"The angel of the Lord called (Gen. xxii. 15)"; "The angel of theLord said unto her (ibid. xvi. 11)" and other innumerable instances. Even Moses our Teacher received his first prophecy through an angel, "And an angel of the Lord appeared to him in the flame of fire (Exod. iii.)." It is therefore clear that the belief in the existence of angels precedes the belief in prophecy, and the latter precedes the belief in the Law. The Sabeans, in their ignorance of the existence of God, believed that the spheres with their stars were beings without beginning and without end, that the images and certain trees, the Asherot, derived certain powers from the spheres, that they inspired the prophets, spoke to them in visions, and told them what was good and what bad. I have explained their theory when speaking of the prophets of the Ashera. But when the wise men discovered and proved that there was a Being, neither itself corporeal nor residing as a force in a corporeal body, viz., the true, one God, and that there existed besides [Him] other purely incorporeal beings which God endowed with His goodness and His light, namely, the angels, and that these beings are not included in the sphere and its stars, it became evident that it was these angels and not the images or Asherot that charged the prophets. From the preceding remarks it is clear that the belief in the existence of angels is connected with the belief in the Existence of God; and the belief in God and angels leads to the belief in Prophecy and in the truth of the Law. In order to firmly establish this creed, God commanded [the Israelites] to make over the ark the form of two angels. The belief in the existence of angels is thus inculcated into the minds of the people, and this belief is in importance next to the belief in God's Existence; it leads us to believe in Prophecy and in the Law, and opposes idolatry. If there had only been one figure of a cherub, the people would have been misled and would have mistaken it for God's image which was to be worshipped, in the fashion of the heathen; or they might have assumed that the angel [represented by the figure] was also a deity, and would thus have adopted a Dualism. By making two cherubim and distinctly declaring "the Lord is our God, the Lord is One," Moses dearly proclaimed the theory of the existence of a number of angels; he left no room for the error of considering those figures as deities, since [he declared that] God is one, and that He is the Creator of the angels, who are more than one."
Maimonides teaches that the angels are connected with the Law, the Tablets. They are the means through which man attains prophecy. And it s only through prophecy – God's communications with man – that we possess the Torah. Thus, the angels are integral to the Ark that houses the Torah. Not only are the Tablets evidence of that great event of Revelation at Sinai, as the writing on the Tablets was miraculous, but the two angels convey the concept of prophecy.
Interesting is their design. The two angels covered the Ark below with their wings, while also facing downwards, looking at the Ark. This expresses the sole function of angels. When one covers something, he expresses a concern to protect, or guard the object. Facing towards it expresses one's focus. Through this unique positioning of the angels' wings and their downward facial attention, we learn that angels are primarily occupied with God's wisdom.
It is for this reason, I believe, that the Torah again mentions that the Tablets must be placed in the Ark, in connection with the Kaporess that has the angel forms. Meaning, the Kaporess can only be placed on the Ark if it contains the Tablets. Without the Tablets, the angels lose all meaning. So although already commanded in 25:17 to use the Ark as a container for the Tablets, we must also learn in 25:21 that the Kaporess can only find its true meaning if the Tablets – the Torah – are in the Ark. The prime lesson here is that angels function to relate God's Torah to man. Without the Torah, the angels have no relevance to us. Therefore, this second verse teaches that besides the Ark's function to "contain", the Kaporess has a different purpose, that can only be realized once the Tablets are inside. Thus, the angels and the Tablets together form one lesson, that the Law was received via prophecy, via the angels. But had it been permitted to allow the angels to exist apart from the law, and not looking downward at the Ark's contents and not covering the Ark with their wings, an onlooker might assume the angelic forms exist for themselves, like the Gold Calf.
Now we understand the peculiar posture of these two angels, why they are connected with the Tablets, why they are two, and why we are told a second time to place the Tablets in the Ark. The repetition is thereby explained.