This week’s Torah portion describes the “mishkan” commonly translated as the “sanctuary,” but in fact, literally means the “dwelling place of the divine.” What does it mean to dwell in the house of the Lord? The Torah details the various accoutrements of the sanctuary–curtains, candelabrum, table for the showbread, and the altar. But the central feature is in fact, the holy Ark, and the tablets of stone (decalogue).
Perhaps the most unique feature of the Ark (aron ha-kodesh) are the “keruveem,” the cherubs that rest directly above the ark. These are winged creatures with an ambiguous identity which gave rise to a multitude of interpretations. Rashi described them as infant-faced creatures! No wonder Renaissance painters depicted them as angels and rosy-faced goddesses.
All we know from the Torah is that the “keruveem” are winged. Perhaps the essence of their identity is not in their appearance but in their function; what do they do? The Torah says: “the cherubs shall spread out their wings on high, screening the Ark-cover with their wings, with their faces toward each other, toward the ark cover shall the faces of the cherubs be.” (Exo. 25:20)
When you screen something, you are protecting it. So it appears that the cherubs are present for a protective purpose. Ultimately they are present to protect the “tablets,” the Torah that God gave Moses to be stored inside the Ark.