On the ninth of the month of Av in the year 70 CE, the Roman legions in Jerusalem smashed through the fortress tower of Antonia into the Holy Temple and set it afire. In the blackened remains of the sanctuary lay more than the ruins of the great Jewish revolt for political independence; to many Jews, it appeared that Judaism itself was shattered beyond repair.
Out of approximately four to five million Jews in the world, over a million died in that abortive war for independence. Many died of starvation, others by fire and crucifixion. So many Jews were sold into slavery and given over to the gladiatorial arenas and circuses that the price of slaves dropped precipitously, fulfilling the ancient curse: "There you will be offered for sale as slaves, and there will be no one willing to buy" (Deuteronomy 26:68). The destruction was preceded by events so devastating that from an objective perspective, it seemed that the Jewish people had breathed its last breath.
This is what amazed a philosopher like Nietzsche, a fierce and fateful critic of the Jews, as it has so many other thinkers throughout the ages. In Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist the German philosopher wrote: "The Jews are the most remarkable people in the history of the world, for when they were confronted with the question, to be or not to be, they chose, with perfectly unearthly deliberation, to be at any price... They defined themselves counter to all those conditions under which a nation was previously able to live... Psychologically, the Jews are a people gifted with the very strongest vitality... The Jews are the very opposite of decadents."
But how did they achieve this?
The Cherubs Embracing
The Talmud relates a profoundly strange incident that occurred moments before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple:
“When the pagans entered the Holy Temple, they saw the cherubs cleaving to each other. They took them out to the streets and said: ‘These Jews... is this what they occupy themselves with?’ With this, they debased [the Jewish people], as it is written: ‘All who had honored her have despised her, for they have seen her nakedness (1).’”
The meaning of these words is this:
The innermost chamber of the Jerusalem Temple, the most sacred site in Judaism, was known as the "Holy of Holies" and seen as the spiritual epicenter of the universe. Two golden cherubs – they were two winged figures, one male and one female -- were located in the "Holy of Holies." These cherubs represented the relationship between the cosmic groom and bride, between G-d and His people.
Tradition teaches (2) when the relationship between groom and bride was sour the two faces were turned away from each other, as when spouses are angry with each other. When the relationship was healthy, the two faces of the cherubs would face each other. And when the love between G-d and His bride was at its peak the cherubs would embrace “as a man cleaves to his wife.”
Now, the Talmud is telling us, that when the enemies of Israel invaded the Temple – during the time of its destruction in the Hebrew month of Av (3) -- they entered into the Holy of Holies, a place so sacred that entry into it was permitted only to a single individual, the High Priest, and only on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. There they saw the cherubs embracing each other. They dragged them out of the Temple and into the streets, vulgarizing their sacred significance (4).
This seems bizarre. When the enemies of Israel invaded the Temple to destroy it, the relationship between G-d and His people was at its lowest possible point, for that was the reason for the destruction and the subsequent exile. The Jews were about to become estranged from G-d for millennia. The manifest presence of divinity in the world, via the Temple in Jerusalem, would cease; Jews and G-d would now be exiled from each other.
Yet, paradoxically, it was precisely at that moment that the cherubs were intertwined, symbolizing the profoundest relationship between G-d and Israel. How are we to understand this (5)?
Preparing for the Voyage
The most daring explanation was given by the heir to the founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Dovber, known as the Magid of Mezrich (d. in 1772). Quoting the injunction of the sages that a man ought to consort with his wife prior to leaving home on a journey, the Maggid suggests that G-d, prior to His long journey away from home, expressed His intimacy with the Jewish people. Prior to the onset of a long exile, the cherubs were intertwined, representing the intimacy preceding the journey (6).
What the Chassidic master was attempting to convey through this dazzling metaphor – and it is one of the most central themes of Chassidic thought -- was that it was at the moment of the destruction when G-d impregnated (metaphorically speaking) a seed of life within the Jewish soul; He implanted within His people the potential for a new birth.
For two millennia, this "seed" has sustained us. The groom may have seemingly departed and was consciously concealed, often to an extreme, yet a piece of His essence was embedded within the Jewish people; a "seed" of divine life was sown in the Jewish heart.
Many empires, religions and cultures attempted to demonstrate to the Jewish people that their role in the scheme of creation has ended, or that it has never began, luring them into the surrounding, prevailing culture. But the intimacy they experienced with G-d just moments before He "departed," left its indelible mark. It imbued them with a vision, a dream and an unshakable commitment. Throughout their journeys, often filled with extraordinary anguish, they clung to their faith that they were in a covenant with G-d to transform the world into a divine abode; to heal a fractured world yearning to reunite with its own true reality.
The Jews did not only absorb the "seed;" they fertilized it, developed it and transformed it into a living organism. It is an astonishing fact that Judaism flourished in the decades and centuries following the destruction of the Temple: The Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah were created. The very conditions of exile became catalysts for rejewvanation.
This grants us a deeper understanding into the ancient Jewish tradition (7) that the Moshiach (Messiah) was born on the ninth of Av. At the moment the Temple was about to be engulfed in flames, redemption was born. Because the intimacy between G-d and Israel at that fateful time produced a hidden seed that would eventually bring healing to a broken world. The very possibility for the rabbis of those generation to declare that Moshiach was born on the ninth of Av, was nothing but testimony to the intimacy that accompanied the milieu of estrangement and exile.
Now we are ready for the birth (8).
1) Talmud, Yoma 54b.
2) See Talmud Yoma ibid; Bava Batra 99a.
3) The 9th of Av is the date of the first and second Temple’s destruction, by the Babylonians and Romans, in the year 3339 (423 BCE) and 3830 (70 CE).
4) Talmud Yuma ibid. The Ark of Testimony, with the keruvim atop its cover, were hidden in an underground chamber in the Temple 22 years before the destruction of the First Temple, where they remain to this day (according to most opinions). Thus, neither the Babylonians nor the Romans would have found the Ark in the Holy of Holies. The Talmud explains that the keruvim that were dragged out into the streets were not the keruvim from on top of the ark, but reliefs that decorated the walls of the Holy of Holies and which likewise acted as a “barometer” of the state of marriage between G-d and Israel.
5) This question is raised in Maharsah to Talmud Yuma ibid.
6) Quoted in Benei Yisachar in his discourses on the month of Av.
7) Yerushalmi Berachos 2:4.
8) This essay is based on a discourse delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Purim 1984 (published in Sefer Hamaamarim Melukat vol. 2 pp. 269-270).
E-mail the author at: YYJ@algemeiner.org