Moses is instructed by God to place a cover atop the portable Ark used to carry the Torah. The cover is to be decorated by two solid gold “keruvim” placed at either end of the cover. These “keruvim,” according to Exodus 25:20, are winged creatures with human faces, arranged to face each other. These relatively small creatures were later to become models for a much larger, freestanding set that graced King Solomon’s temple. According to the royal records (2 Chronicles 3:13), the “keruvim” in the temple faced inward, not each other. The rabbis of the Talmud (Bava Batra 99a) were constrained to offer an explanation for this seeming contradiction.
One explanation suggests that the Solomonic “keruvim” were designed to simulate people in conversation whereby a person’s body may face one direction but that person’s head is turned in another direction. Hence, there is no contradiction. The “keruvim” were oriented inwardly just as the chronicler reports. But they still faced one another as the Torah describes.
Another explanation seems less plausible but more interesting. According to this second explanation, the “keruvim” were barometers of the loyalty and fidelity of the people Israel to God. As such, the “keruvim” rotated according to what they measured. When the people transgressed, the “keruvim” faced away from each other and faced inwardly in shame. This symbolized the reluctance of God to look His people in the eye. But when the people were faithful, the “keruvim” faced one another in pride. If this explanation is true, one can only imagine what it would have been like to enter the temple and, by observing the position of the “keruvim,” immediately know how the people stood viz. God. Just a simple glance and the observer would discover whether it was time to repent or time to rejoice.
For Jews today, however, things are more complex and less obvious. Instead of looking at the “keruvim,” Jews need to look at themselves. Jews must determine independently whether they can look others in the eye without shame or guilt or hide their faces and look away. It is different than looking at the “keruvim” but still necessary.