Unfortunately, it still remains the annual rite of a Jewish summer, a jarring contrast to the free-spirited summer fun that occupies Western society; we commonly refer to it as the three weeks, – that saddest period of our calendar – one that commemorates our national tragedies, most significantly, the destruction of the two batei mikdash [Temples]; our Rabbis so poignantly and cleverly call this the bein hametzarim, (1) depicting a people caught in calamity with no place to turn.
A powerful gemara portrays a most tragic aftermath to the First Temple destruction: [Yoma 54b]:
Resh Lakish said: When the heathens [Babylonians] entered the Temple and saw the keruvim [cherubs] – who were clinging to each other, they carried them out and said: These Israelites… occupy themselves with such things!
Upon seeing the keruvim, the golden figurines atop the ark, the Babylonians accuse the Jews of idolatry: Not only did we destroy their Temple, but we have exposed their hypocrisy! Babylonian enmity turns into derision [Yoma, ibid]
And immediately they despised them, as it is said: All that honored her, despised her, because they have seen her nakedness [Eicha, 1:8].
We may now add lost Jewish dignity and massive chillul Hashem to the extensive collateral damage surrounding the destruction of the Temple. Beyond this troubling Talmudic notion, a powerful factual question emerges:
First, another gemara: [Yoma, 54a]
R. Kattina said: Whenever Yisrael came up to the Festival, the curtain [of the Beit Hamidash] would be removed and the Keruvim would be shown to them, and their bodies would be intertwined with one another; they would be thus addressed: Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman.
In other words, those ascendant olei regel [who came to Jerusalem for the Holidays] were given a quick peak [from afar] into the Holy of Holies and at the keruvim. Somehow, in that glance, they sense the Divine embrace. How so?
A third gemara puts it all together [Bava Basra 99a]:
How did they [the Keruvim] stand? — R. Yochanan and R. Eleazar [are in dispute on the matter]. One says: They faced each other; [and the other says: Their faces were inward]. But according to the one who says that they faced each other, [it may be asked]: Is it not written, And their faces were inward? — [This is] no difficulty: The former [was] at a time when Israel obeyed the will of the Omnipresent; the latter [was] at a time when Israel did not obey the will of the Omnipresent.
Thus, in the keruvim, one detects the state of the [Divine-Bnei Yisrael] Union. When keruvim face each other [in an embrace], that is very good; when keruvim face away, that is very bad.
Hence, the obvious question: At the churban [Temple destruction], why are the keruvim in an embrace? It is a famous one. Herein, a few samplers from the meforshim:
1. The miraculous keruvim embrace was Hashem’s way of heightening Bnei Yisrael’s shame(2) [Shita Mekubetzes, Bava Basra 99]
2. The 1st Temple keruvim were always in an embrace and did not move miraculously. They differed from Moshe’s [i.e., Biblical] keruvim(3) [Ritva, Yoma 54b]
3. Hashem wanted the Babylonians to know how much love He previously had for Bnei Yisrael [Shita Mekubetzes, ibid]
In these approaches, one understandably finds motifs of punishment and lost glory. A classic Chassidic work, Bnei Yissoschar’s [R. Tzvi Elimelech Shapira, Dinov, 1783-1841] gives us a different way; in his words a critical message of hope lurks where we expect it least and need it most:
Our tradition teaches that the Moshiach will be born on Tisha B’Av?! The reason is that the soul of the Moshiach must be utterly expansive and broad. It therefore requires an elevated union.
When we examine this-worldly physical love between friends or between husband and wife, when they are together, the [great] love between them is not readily discerned. [Only] when they intend to depart from each other – over a great distance and long period of time – then their souls become deeply moved by a great and fierce love, in anticipation of the great longing they will feel… Therefore one must remember(4) his wife before he goes on the road [cf. Yevamos 62]
Understand therefore that immediately before departure, the love union is the greatest and from that emerges the most elevated soul. Tisha B’av, which is that day of the departure, [and is Kabbalistically called the day of departure on the road] – on this day, from this union will be born the most elevated soul, that of Moshiach
With this notion, we shall understand what the students of the Rav Dov Ber(5) asked their Rebbe about the enemies who found the keruvim on that day in an embrace – which was only for the time when Yisrael was doing Hashem’s will … He answered them that one must remember his wife when he is going on the road and understand this (6)
Precisely at the time of the physical destruction, when [k’veyachol] Hashem distances himself from His people, He parts with a hug(7); and in that embrace is the message to his people: I still love you and will always love you. Yes, I must destroy the Beit HaMikdash(8), but don’t think that I have rejected you(9). Furthermore, I am going on the road [shechinta b’galuta] – but I shall return! The challenge of the Exile is now framed; sans the mikdash, we must seek and find the Divine embrace – wherever, whenever, and however.
In my exposure to Jews of all stripes and varieties, I never cease to be amazed that the supple Jewish heart remains ever so sensitive to the subtle Shechina light that peers out from between the cracks of our lives, personal and national. After almost 2,000 years of schlepping through the exile, an unmistakable sense of that Divine embrace reminds us that the secret of Jewish survival is rooted in what we Jews feel with every fiber our being – A Jew is never alone!
1. Cf. Rashi Eicha, 1:3 and Eicha Rabah, 1:29. The midrash is based on the verse kol rodfeha hisiguha bein hametzarim – all who pursued her [Judea], caught her in the narrow straits
2. i.e., to Babylonian eyes, not only was it idolatry, but it was erotic.
3. Ritva himself asks the obvious question, that if they were not mobile: how were they possibly reflective of the Divine relationship so poignantly described one side of a page earlier in the Talmud
4. Cf. Shuchan Aruch Yoreh Deah, 184:10 This halachic obligation either requires intimacy or spending of special time.
5. The primary student of the Ba’al Shem Tov – also known as the Maggid of Mezritch (~1710-1770)
6. Here are the beautiful original words of Bnei Yissaschar:
שמעתי בשם הרב הקדוש מורינו הרב ר’ מנחם מקארעץ זצוק”ל, על הא דאמרו רז”ל בט’ באב נולד בן דוד הטעם הוא להיות נשמת משיח בן דוד היא נשמה היותר גבוה וכוללת , ואם כן צריכין ללידת זאת הנשמה זווג היותר עליון
והנה נוכל להתבונן בענין אהבה גשמיות בעולם הזה כענין אהבת חברים ואיש עם אשתו בהיותם ביחד לא תוכר כל כך האהבה, מה שאין כן כשרוצים להיפרד ולהרחיק נדוד לזמן רב אז יתפעלו הנפשות באהבה יתירה אהבה עזה מגודל הגעגועים, ועל כן יבמות סב (חייב אדם לפקוד וכו’ בשעה שיוצא לדרך,
ואם כן תתבונן לפי זה דבשעת הפירוד אז הוא הזווג באהבה יתירה ביותר,ומקרי זווג היותר עליון ונולד מזה הנשמה היותר עליונה ,על כן להיות בעוה”ר הפירוד בין הדבקים נעשה בתשעה באב, מיקרי בעוה”ר יום יציאה לדרך, נולד מזה הזווג משיח הנשמה היותר עליונה וכוללת הבן
ועל פי זה תתבונן מה ששמעתי שהקשו תלמידי הרב הקדוש מוה”ר דוב בער זצוק”ל לרבם על הא דאמרו רזל שמצאו האויבים ביום ההוא את הכרובים כמער איש – והלא אמרו רז”ל )ב”ב צט (שזה לא היה רק בזמן שישראל עושים רצונו של מקום ובהיפך חס ושלום הכרובים הופכים פניהם זה מזה, והשיב להם הקדוש הנ”ל, חייב אדם לפקוד וכו’ בשעה שיוצא לדרך וכו,ואתה הבן
7. The notion of a kiss of departure is found throughout Tanach. Midrash [Shmuel 14] speaks of three different kisses: a. Kisses of greatness [Shmuel- Shaul]; b. Kisses of Departure [Naomi-Orpah]. C. Kisses of Reunion [Aharon-Moshe] . (The common theme is extreme emotion at major junctures). Cf. Melachim 1, 1:20 when Elisha leaves his family to go with Eliyahu, he first requests to kiss his mother and father.
וישקהו. כל נשיקה לתפלות, בר מן תלת. נשיקה של פרישות, נשיקה של גדולה, נשיקה של פרקים. נשיקה של פרישות, (רות א, יד) ותשק ערפה לחמותה וגו’. נשיקה של גדולה, ויקח שמואל את פך השמן ויצק על ראשו וישקהו. נשיקה של פרקים, (שמות ד, כז) וילך ויפגשהו בהר האלקים וישק לו. רבי תנחומא אמר, אף נשיקה של קריבות, (בראשית כט, יא) וישק יעקב לרחל. שהיתה קרובתו:
8. Rabbi Avraham Willig pointed out to me a stunning parallel to this notion in the Torah itself. Moshe describes his reaction to Bnei Yisrael’s sin of the Golden Calf. He destroys the luchot, but note the strange terminology: [Devarim 9] 17. So I grasped [va’etpos] the two tablets, cast them out of my two hands, and shattered them before your eyes. Verse 15[“and the two tablets of the covenant were on my two hands”] already relates that Moshe was holding onto the luchot… Perhaps before Moshe destroys the luchot – a necessary tragedy, he gives them a parting hug – an expression of his true feelings!
9. Rav Soloveitchik highlights a Tisha B’av paradox: We lighten our mourning post-midday on Tisha B’av. [getting up off the ground and wearing tefillin] even as the actual Beit HaMikdash was set ablaze only on late Tisha B’av afternoon?! Indeed some Tannaim wanted to establish the fast on the Tenth of Av. Why do we let up now? The Rav points out [based on the midrash Cf Kiddushin 31b, Tosafot ibid.] that even as the Temple went up in flames, shattering the edifice of intimacy, the deep observer recognized the unbreakable link between Hashem and His people. (God was kila chamaso al eitzim v’avanim). That realization of the eternal bond creates the moed aspect of Tisha B’av and forges the comforting message necessary to survive Tisha B’av. Post churban Judaism needed to understand that Hashem can be found anywhere and that Shechina resides in the Diaspora as well. This of course is the depth of the Haftorah of Shabbat Nachamu where Hashem personally comforts us. Nachamu, Nachamu Ami yomar elokeichem
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles