After the exile from the Garden of Eden, the cherubim were guarding the way to the Tree of Life in the Garden, so that this way should not be lost to humankind. Along with the cherubim was "the flame of the ever-turning sword" – a symbol of the ever-recurring social affliction and ruin that human beings bring upon themselves when they abandon the higher purpose for which they were created. Yet as we discussed in the previous letter, this suffering and ruin can also cause a spiritual awakening which will inspire human beings to rediscover their true purpose and thereby find the way back to the Garden.
The cherubim – the guardians of the way to the Tree of Life – appear again in the Sanctuary built by our ancestors. Within the Sanctuary was the Ark of the Covenant which housed the Tablets of the Covenant of Torah, as well as the Torah scroll. And on top of the ark's cover were two cherubim who were guarding the ark, as it is written, "The cherubim shall spread their wings upward, shielding the cover with their wings" (Exodus 25:20). The cherubim were guarding the Ark of the Torah, and regarding the Torah it is written, "She is a Tree of Life" (Proverbs 3:18); thus, the cherubim were guarding the Tree of Life!
What is the main difference between the cherubim at the gate of the Garden of Eden, and the cherubim within the Sanctuary of the Torah? In the Sanctuary of the Torah, the cherubim were not accompanied by the "flame of the ever-turning sword." This served as a reminder that through fulfilling all the mitzvos of the Torah which enable us to serve and protect life on earth, we can eliminate the suffering and ruin which resulted from the selfish sin in the Garden. For through fulfilling all the mitzvos of the Torah, our land will become like the Garden of Eden. Our tradition finds a reference to this idea in the following Divine promise:
"If you will follow My statutes and guard My mitzvos, and you will perform them; then I will provide your rains in their season, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit." (Leviticus 26:3,4)
According to a midrashic work known as Toras Kohanim, the above passage alludes to the tradition that when we study and fulfill the precepts of the Torah in the Land of Israel, the produce and fruits of our land will be similar in quality and quantity to the produce and fruits in the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Hirsch explains that the earth will then be freed from the curse placed upon it when Adam sinned, and it will return to its original, undiminished power.
After the Divine promise concerning the produce comes another promise concerning security and peace:
"I will provide peace in the land, and you will lie down with none to frighten you; I will cause harmful beasts to disappear from the land, and no sword will pass through your land." (v. 6)
In Toras Kohanim, we find a debate about the meaning of the words, "I will cause harmful beasts to disappear from the land." Rabbi Yehudah understands these words in a literal sense: The Compassionate One will remove the species of harmful beasts from the land. Rabbi Shimon says that the harmful beasts will remain on the land, but the Compassionate One is promising that the nature of these beasts will change, and they will no longer be violent. Rabbi Shimon then cites as an example the following prophecy of Isaiah regarding the messianic age:
"The wolf will live with the sheep and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and a calf, a lion whelp, and a fatling will walk together, and a young child will lead them. A cow and a bear will graze, and their young will lie down together; and a lion will eat hay like cattle. A suckling child will play by a viper's hole; and a newly weaned child will stretch his hand toward an adder's lair. They will neither injure nor destroy in all of My sacred mountain; for the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Compassionate One as water covering the sea bed." (Isaiah 11:6-9)
The Ramban (Nachmanides) states that Rabbi Shimon's interpretation is the correct one, and he writes:
"For when Israel fulfills the mitzvos, the Land of Israel will be like the world was at its beginning, before the sin of the first human being, when no wild beast or creeping thing would kill a human being. As the Rabbis have said: 'It is not the wild ass that kills; it is sin that kills' (Talmud Brachos 33a)... For dangerous beasts only prey on account of the sin of the human being." (Commentary to Leviticus 26:6)
The Ramban also points out that when the Land of Israel will return to the state of the Garden of Eden, these beasts will no longer prey on each other, for they will once again be vegetarians like they were when they were first created, as it is written, "And to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the sky, and to everything that moves on the earth within which there is a living soul, all green plants shall be for food" (Genesis 1:30).
The Ramban adds that "peace will return to the world and preying and all dangerous beasts will cease." This seems to indicate that the Land of Israel will be the starting point of a process of physical and spiritual redemption which will eventually embrace the entire world. In this spirit, it states:
"They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore. They will sit, each person under his vine and under his fig tree, and none will make them afraid, for the mouth of the Compassionate One, God of the hosts of Creation, has spoken." (Micah 4:3,4)
The classical biblical commentators, Radak and Ibn Ezra, explain that the peaceful and pastoral vision of "each person under his vine and under his fig tree" includes all humankind. Israel, followed by all humankind, will find the way back to the Garden.
We are to begin the journey home. When we fulfill all the mitzvos of the Torah – the path to the new beginning - we find our way to the peaceful Garden. And through following the path of the Torah, we become the people of the new beginning.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen