Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > family > Mourning the Destruction: A Matter of Relationship

Mourning the Destruction: A Matter of Relationship

Our mourning on the day of Tisha Be'Av relates to the relationship between us and Hashem, which was lost in the Destruction. Yet, the very act of mourning recalls that the relationship lives on. And the special circumstances of today allow us, in some way, to pave the way to its rejuvenation.

Av 5780 / July 2020

The Rambam concludes his Laws of Fasts with a well-known passage concerning the future reversal of fast days into days of celebration:

All these fasts will be nullified in the Messianic era. Indeed, they will ultimately be transformed into holidays and days of rejoicing and celebration, as [Zechariah 8:19] states: “Thus declares the Lord of Hosts, ‘The fast of the fourth [month], the fast of the fifth [month], the fast of the seventh [month], and the fast of the tenth [month] will be [times of] happiness and celebration and festivals for the House of Judah. And they shall love truth and peace.’[1]

We are accustomed to relating to such statements as messages of hope and consolation: today we might be mourning, but tomorrow we will be celebrating. Furthermore, tomorrow’s light will appear specifically against the backdrop of today’s darkness; we need to experience the darkness of the present to appreciate the light of future times. It might be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if we look hard enough, we might just discern the light within the tunnel itself. Or as the Sages mention: “there is no light that does not emanate from within darkness.”[2]

It might be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if we look hard enough, we might just discern the light within the tunnel itself. Or as the Sages mention: “there is no light that does not emanate from within darkness.”

This approach is well-established, and hardly requires my approbation. However, in the present article I wish to infuse a different message and meaning to the reversal of days of sadness to days of joy. The general framework for this will be understanding the Destruction commemorated by the fast days in terms of the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People. We mourn the ostensible loss of this intimate relationship, and we yearn and anticipate its restoration: “As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”[3]

 

The Condition of the Cherubim

The Gemara narrates what befell the golden Cherubim when the Temple was defiled by the hands of the destroyers:

Reish Lakish said: When gentiles entered the Sanctuary, they saw Cherubs clinging intimately to one another. They took them out to the market, and said: These Jews, whose blessing is a blessing and whose curse is a curse, they be occupied with such matters? They immediately debased them, as it is stated: “All who honored her debase her because they have seen her nakedness” (Eicha 1:8).[4]

When the nation of Israel did the bidding of God, they would face each other in an expression of love; by contrast, when Israel strayed from their calling, they would turn away from each other, reflecting the estrangement of God from His people.[5] Yet, at the very time of the Destruction, when Israel was surely in a condition of “not performing the will of God,” the Cheruvim were found locked together in intimacy!

This description of finding of the Cheruvim—golden representations of male and female youth that stood atop the Holy Ark—embraced in a demonstration of intimacy, raises a patent difficulty. Elsewhere, the Gemara explains that the Cheruvim fashioned by Shlomo were a miraculous embodiment of the relationship between Hashem and Israel. When the nation of Israel did the bidding of God, they would face each other in an expression of love; by contrast, when Israel strayed from their calling, they would turn away from each other, reflecting the estrangement of God from His people.[5] Yet, at the very time of the Destruction, when Israel was surely in a condition of “not performing the will of God,” the Cheruvim were found locked together in intimacy!

Yom Tov Asevilli (the Ritva), citing from Yosef ibn Migash, resolves the contradiction by suggesting that the loving embrace of the Cheruvim was “miracle for the bad” (nes le-ra’a): “A miracle was performed for the bad, in order to expose their nakedness.” Instead of being separate, facing away from each other as they should have been given the circumstances of the Destruction, the Cherubim were miraculously shifted to a position of closeness and intimacy. Yet, no explanation is offered for why this was the case: Why was it so important that the Cherubim should be found in a state of intimacy, contrary to the distance between God and Israel that they should have reflected? What ought this unique phenomenon teach us?

The closeness of the Cherubim specifically at a time of exile and destruction indicates that the connection between Hashem and Israel—a connection of intimacy, a connection of covenant—is no longer conveyed by the reality of the world. The Torah is called the “Book of the Covenant,” and Aron the “Ark of the Covenant,” and the Luchos inside is the “Tablets of the Covenant.” Likewise, the Cherubim, placed atop the Aron, articulated the covenant itself. They were the focal point of the worldly representation of our connection with Hashem; the room they were in, the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim, is referred as “the bedroom” (I Melachim 11:3). Yet with the Destruction, this representation was terminated. As far as the eye can see, the wedding knot is broken, the covenant no longer.

This is why specifically at the time of the Destruction, when the Cherubim ought to reflect the distance between Hashem and His people, they specifically embraced one in closeness and intimacy, as though to say: it’s over. It no longer matters. As far as the world is concerned, the story is over. The departure of the Shechinah from the Mikdash is like the ending of the relationship.

 

Is This Life?

The insight above assists us to understand the nature of our mourning on Tisha Be’Av. Jewish life today is thriving in many senses. We have Torah, mitvzos, and chessed—much like the Gemara writes of the generation of the Second Temple destruction. Yet, what we lack is relationship. And that means a lot.

There is nothing more important in a person’s life than relationships, and the first and foremost among them is the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife. This simple fact is stated by the Torah, confirmed by much research, and known by means of everyday human experience.

Many Scriptural verses indicate the centrality of human relationships, and specifically those between husband and wife, for the good human life. We thus read in Kohelet (9:9), “Enjoy life with the wife you love through all the fleeting days of your life that He has granted you beneath the sun.” The Sages derive from this verse that “one who has no wife, has no life”[6]—so deep is the husband-wife relationship for which “a person shall leave his father and his mother, and cling to his wife.”[7] In a similar vein, the Pasuk in Shir Hashirim (8:7) states that “Many waters cannot extinguish the love, and rivers cannot drown it; if a man would give all the substance of his house in exchange for love, he would be laughed to scorn.”

A wealth of research confirms the far-reaching importance of relationships, certainly regarding a person’s health and contentedness. A good example is Harvard’s 80-year study on happiness, known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development. After many decades of following hundreds of individuals, the research found that “close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives [….] Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.” Robert Waldinger, currently director of the study, commented that “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”[8] Our happiness and our health are factors, first and foremost, of our relationships.

Positive relationships, simply stated, are why we get out of bed each morning. They give meaning to our lives, and empower us to succeed in every field, pushing us to achieve and comforting us in times of pain. By contrast, negative relationships drain us of a huge amount of emotional energy, often adversely affecting our function and even our health.

Yet beyond anything else, we know of this from our own experience. Positive relationships, simply stated, are why we get out of bed each morning. They give meaning to our lives, and empower us to succeed in every field, pushing us to achieve and comforting us in times of pain. By contrast, negative relationships drain us of a huge amount of emotional energy, often adversely affecting our function and even our health.

This introduction is key to understanding the tragedy of the Destruction, and, indeed, what it is that we mourn on Tisha Be’Av. Our sadness is directed at the relationship between Hashem and us, a relationship that was once revealed, that we used to experience in a tangible sense, and that is now no longer accessible. The intimacy described in Shir Hashirim, the infinite closeness that the Cherubim represented, is no more. And what our human, everyday relationships do to our body, to our physical existence, our relationship with Hashem does to our spirit, to our spiritual living. Since the Mikdash was destroyed, and since the Shechinah departed the world, we are akin to being “spiritually dead.”

Thus we read in Eicha, “Alas—she sits in solitude! The city that was great with people has become like a widow.”[9] Loneliness kills, perhaps more than smoking or obesity.[10] And the loneliness of Jerusalem, as a widowed woman, is as death. “Her king and her officers are among the nations, there is no Torah; her prophets, too, find no vision from Hashem.”[11] Chazal express the Divine silence in the most powerful sense, stating that it is as though He has become dumb, unable to speak.[12] Without His word, without His presence, it is as though we are bodies without a soul, as dead carcasses bereft of any hope.

Before the Destruction, we used to be the ambassadors of Hashem to the world, bringing His light to humanity as the moon reflects the light of the sun: “This nation I have created for Myself; my glory shall they tell.” And Hashem, in turn, enshrined His presents in his embassy, so that we felt His intimacy, experienced His closeness.

Before the Destruction, we used to be the ambassadors of Hashem to the world, bringing His light to humanity as the moon reflects the light of the sun: “This nation I have created for Myself; my glory shall they tell.”[13] And Hashem, in turn, enshrined His presents in his embassy, so that we felt His intimacy, experienced His closeness. But with the exile and the Destruction, the embassy was closed, and its operations curtailed. From being a nation upon whom was declared “only a wise and discerning nation, this great people,”[14] we became an object of scorn and derision, of whom was said “Away, unclean one! Away, away, do not touch.”[15]

This is why we cry on Tisha Be’Av. We continue to pray; we continue to perform the mitzvos and we continue to study Torah. But the inner core of all these acts, the light that given them their glory and their wonder, is missing. The covenant, the relationship between Hashem and us, is absent. We become parchment alone, while the letters that constitute the script flutter into the air. The physical exile was complimented by a deep spiritual exile. Our lives became lifeless.

 

In Search of the Lost Connection

On the day of Tisha Be’Av we mourn the lost connection. It feels like there is no hope. But after the bereavement comes the consolation, and with it the recognition that despite the continual absence and the perpetual darkness, there remains a great destiny to anticipate. “When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you, at the end of days, you will return unto Hashem, your God, and hearken to His voice.”[16] Yes, there is a way back. And if there is way back, then our experience is life and not death. If there is a way back, then there is hope; the relationship, though hidden, lives on.

The Shechinah departed the Mikdash, its ambassadorial abode among us. Yet, somehow, the Talmudic Sages continue to find it among us:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: Come and see how beloved Israel is to Hashem: Wherever Israel went into exile, the Shechinah went into exile with them. They were exiled to Egypt, the Shechinah went with them […] They were exiled to Babylon, the Shechinah went with them […] And when they will eventually be redeemed, the Shechinah will be redeemed along with them.[17]

Moreover, while the prophet exclaims that “there is no Torah”—that the word of Hashem, the word of the covenant, is absent—generation after generation of Jewish existence was able to develop and to generate the wonder of the Oral Tradition. Yes, there is no prophet among us, but the wise were able to take the place of the prophets and to speak the word of God from within their own hearts, fulfilling the prophecy of consolation: “Sing out, O barren one who has not given birth; break into glad song and be jubilant, you who have not been in birth travail. For the children of the desolate will outnumber the children of the inhabited one, said Hashem.”[18] Despite, and perhaps because of the hardships and travails of our exile, we were able to develop a rich and multifaceted Jewish existence that remains true to its fundamental mission—true to the covenant even when its realization is absent.

But while we rejoice the miracle of our very survival, and certainly the miracle of our return to our ancestral homeland and the incredible thriving of Jewry, including Torah Jewry, upon it, we must not forget that which we lack. Our closeness, our relationship, our intimacy—these are still absent, still unfelt. These we continue to await.

But while we rejoice the miracle of our very survival, and certainly the miracle of our return to our ancestral homeland and the incredible thriving of Jewry, including Torah Jewry, upon it, we must not forget that which we lack. Our closeness, our relationship, our intimacy—these are still absent, still unfelt. These we continue to await. Our mourning, our longing—they attach us to this time, and bring its return ever closer. We connect to Hashem though recalling the connection that was lost.

This is the reason why “anyone who mourns over Jerusalem shall merit seeing its joy.”[19] One who senses the loss, one who searches for and anticipates the lost connection with Hashem, will ultimately find it—will ultimately feel it. And therefore, as the Rambam teaches, these very days of mourning will ultimately become days of celebration. The mourning itself recalls the connection; the mourning itself becomes the fuel of redemption. Insofar as we internalize the lack, the depth of what we are still missing—so we shall merit to live it and to experience it. The mourning itself, the longing of the wife for her missing husband, ultimately turns into joy and jubilation.

***

Since the time of the Destruction, the Sages teach that Hashem has nothing in His world but the “four cubits of halacha.” Prior to the Destruction, Hashem had far more in his world. He had an embassy, a connection, a representation. Post-destruction, all that is left is halacha—the upkeep of the law. But having kept the law for so many years during which there was literally nothing else, today a new potential begins to glimmer. The embassy is not yet reopened, yet we are charged with preparing its infrastructures, with considering its function, with paving the way to its opening. The flash of light that brought us back to our homeland gives us hope, even as we mourn, that great things lie just around the corner.

May Hashem heal our wounds, enshrine peace and tranquility among us, and return His Shechinah to a rebuilt Jerusalem.

 


[1] Rambam, Laws of Fasts 5:19.

[2] Zohar, Bereishis 32a.

[3] Yeshayahu 62:5.

[4] Yoma 54a.

[5] Bava Batra 99a.

[6] Kiddushin 30b; see also Yevamos 62b, where Chazal mention many virtues that an unmarried person lacks.

[7] Bereishis 2:24.

[8] See https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/.

[9] Eicha 1:1.

[10] Gulrez, Tauseef, et al. “Loneliness kills: can autonomous systems and robotics assist in providing solutions?” International Journal of Swarm Intelligence and Evolutionary Computation 5.1 (2016): e113.

[11] Eicha 2:9.

[12] Mechilta de’bei R. Yishmael, Beshalach 8.

[13] Yeshayahu 43:21.

[14] Devarim 4:6.

[15] Eicha 4:15.

[16] Devarim 4:30.

[17] Megillah 29a.

[18] Yeshayahu 54:1.

[19] Taanis 30b.

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