The Intimate Estrangement


When the pagans entered the Holy Temple, they saw the keruvim 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]

Talmud, Yoma 54b

The prophets compare the bond between G-d and Israel to the marriage relationship between man and wife. The prophet Jeremiah describes G-d recalling the Exodus as “the kindness of your youth, your bridal love, your following Me into the desert, into a land that was not sown.”[2] King Solomon refers to the covenant at Mount Sinai as “the day of His betrothal,”[3] for the Torah, which outlines our duties as G-d’s people and His eternal commitment to us, is the marriage contract (ketubah) between ourselves and G-d.[4] When we violated the commandments of the Torah, the prophets admonished us as a wayward wife who has betrayed her husband; the resultant galut—the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and our banishment into exile—is referred to as a period of estrangement and “separation” in the marriage; the messianic redemption is the promise of a restoration of the relationship to its original state and the forging of a renewed, even deeper bond of love between the bride Israel and her supernal Groom.

In the innermost chamber of the Holy Temple, the “Holy of Holies,” stood a golden ark, containing the “Tablets of Testimony” upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, and the original Torah scroll written by Moses. Topping the ark were the keruvim, two winged figures, one male and one female, hammered out of a block of pure gold. The keruvim represented the relationship between G-d and His people: the Talmud tells us that when the people of Israel rebelled against the will of the Almighty, the keruvim would turn away from each other; when Israel was faithful to her G-d, they would face each other;[5] times in which the love and goodwill between G-d and His bride were at their peak were reflected in the keruvim’s embrace “as a man cleaves to his wife.”[6]

The Talmud relates that when the enemies of Israel invaded the Temple, 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 keruvim embracing each other. They dragged them out of the Temple and into the streets, perverting and vulgarizing their sacred significance.[7]

The Paradox

In our prayers we remind ourselves that

“Because of our sins, we were exiled from our land… and we are no longer able to ascend and show ourselves and bow before You… in Your chosen home, in the great and holy house upon which Your Name is called.”[8]

For 830 years,[9] G-d dwelled in a physical edifice on a Jerusalem mountaintop, granting us a tactual experience of His presence in our lives. But we proved unworthy of such closeness and intimacy with the divine presence. The Holy Temple was taken from us, and we were cast into galut—a state of existence in which the divine face is hidden and G-d’s love and concern for us is concealed—so that the void in our lives should impel us to repent our ways and repair the damage to our marriage inflicted by our misdeeds.

But if galut is a time of estrangement between G-d and Israel, why were the keruvim embracing each other at the time of the Temple’s destruction? Wouldn’t the destruction of the Holy Temple mark a nadir in our relationship with the Almighty? What greater paradox can there be: the divine Groom is destroying His marital home, allowing His nuptial chamber to be violated and His bride to be carried off by strangers, while the barometer of their marriage indicates the ultimate in intimacy and union!

Three and Seven

Every Shabbat, following the reading of the weekly Torah portion, a weekly selection from the Prophets, called the haftarah, is read. Usually, the content of the haftarah corresponds to the week’s Torah reading. However, there are weeks when the haftarah instead reflects events connected with the time of the year. Such is the case with the ten haftarot, read during the last ten weeks of the year, called “the Three of Rebuke and the Seven of Consolation.”

The “Three of Rebuke” are read in conjunction with the “Three Weeks” from Tammuz 17 to Av 9, during which we remember and mourn the destruction of the Temple and the onset of our galut.

On the 17th of Tammuz in the year 3829 from creation (69 ce), the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the besieging armies of Rome. After three weeks of fighting, during which the Romans advanced with great difficulty through the city, they succeeded in breaking into the Temple; on the 9th of Av they set it aflame.[10] These two days are observed, to this very day, as fast days, and the period between them (referred to by the prophet as “between the straits”[11]) as a time of mourning. During the Three Weeks, the haftarah readings consist of selections from the Prophets in which the prophet rebukes Israel for her crimes and iniquities and her betrayal of her covenant with G-d.[12]

“The Three of Rebuke” are followed by “The Seven of Consolation.” For seven weeks, beginning with the Shabbat after the 9th of Av  (Tisha B’Av), the haftarah readings consist of prophecies describing G-d’s consolation of His people and the rebuilding of the relationship between them.[13] Thus we re-experience each year the process of rebuke and condolence, destruction and rebuilding, estrangement and reunion.

But why, specifically, a ten-week process? And what is the significance of its division into three phases of withdrawal and seven degrees of reconciliation? Chassidic sage Rabbi Hillel of Paritch explains that the “Three of Rebuke” and the “Seven of Consolation” correspond to the ten attributes of the soul, which are likewise divided into sets of three and seven: the soul of man possesses three basic intellectual faculties (conceptualization, comprehension, and application), and seven basic emotional drives (love, awe, harmony, ambition, devotion, bonding, and receptiveness). For it is the interrelation between mind and heart that enables us to understand the true nature of the “estrangement” of galut.

Mind and Heart

The mind, by nature and necessity, is aloof and detached. To apprehend a concept it must assume an objective distance, divesting itself of all involvement with or affinity to its subject and adopting a reserved, even callous disinterest toward the studied entity. Only then can its analysis and comprehension be exact and complete.

The heart, on the other hand, is involved, attached, gloriously subjective. The heart relates to the object of its affections, bridging distances, surmounting the barriers between self and other.

Yet true and enduring attachments are born only out of understanding. Feelings which are based on nothing more than impulse or instantaneous attraction are ultimately as shallow as they are impassioned, as transient as they are intense. It is those emotions that are conceived in the womb of the mind which possess depth and continuity; it is the love that is founded upon an understanding and appreciation of the beloved that can transcend the fluctuations of feeling, the letdowns and the lethargy, and the many other pitfalls of time and change.

So the seemingly cold and distant mind is, in truth, the source and essence of any meaningful relationship. The detachment associated with rational examination actually lies at the heart of our emotive capacity to bond with others.

G-d’s “Mind”

“From my own flesh, I perceive G-d,” says the verse.[14] Man is a metaphor of the Divine: by examining our own physiological and psychological makeup, we learn much about the divine reality and the manner in which G-d chooses to relate to His creations.

Thus the mind-heart paradox—the manner in which mental detachment is the essence and foundation of true emotional attachment—provides us with a model for the paradox of galut.

G-d’s relationship with us also includes both “intellectual” and “emotional”’ elements. At times, we sense what appear to be signs of detachment and disinvolvement on His part. G-d seems to have shifted the focus of His attention from our lives, abandoning us to the whims of “chance” and “fate.” Our existence seems bereft of all direction and purpose. G-d is “distancing” Himself from us, our lives apparently no longer worthy of His concern.

In truth, however, this divine “objectivity” carries the seeds of greater connection. It is a disengagement for the sake of a more enduring relationship, a withdrawal to create an even more meaningful closeness. Ostensibly, galut is a spiritual breakdown, a diminution of the bond between ourselves and G-d; in truth, it is the essence of a deeper identification with and commitment to each other.[15]

G-d’s hiding His face from us in galut is an act of love. Despite our painful incomprehension, it serves to deepen our attachment to Him. In the “Three of Rebuke,” we experience abandonment, alienation and distance; but these give birth to the “Seven of Consolation.” Bereft of the outward expressions of our relationship with G-d, we are impelled to uncover its essence, the quintessential bond which transcends all physical and spiritual distance. Thus, it is only through the experience of galut that the deepest dimensions of our marriage are realized. Externally, the Three Weeks are a period of detachment and estrangement; in essence, they are the height of attachment and connection.

Thus the pagans entering the Holy of Holies found the keruvim in intimate embrace. Without, Israel was being vanquished and exiled, and the Holy Temple set ablaze. Externally the marriage was crumbling, the husband alienated and the wayward wife banished to a foreign land. But within the Holy of Holies—within the innermost sanctum of their marriage—the love between G-d and His people was at the ultimate of closeness and unity.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Tammuz 28, 5716 (July 7, 1956); Av 4, 5749 (August 5, 1989)[16]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Lamentations 1:8.

[2]. Jeremiah 2:2.

[3]. Song of Songs 3:11; see Talmud, Taanit 26b.

[4]. See Rashi, Exodus 34:1.

[5]. Talmud, Bava Batra 99a.

[6]. Ibid., Yoma 54a.

[7]. Talmud and Rashi, ibid.

(The Ark of Testimony, with the keruvim atop its cover, were hidden in an underground chamber in the Holy Temple 22 years before the destruction of the First Temple, where they remain to this day. 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.)

[8]. Mussaf prayer for the festivals.

[9]. The First Temple stood 410 years, the Second, 420.

[10]. The 9th of Av is also the date of the First Temple’s destruction, by the Babylonians, in the year 3339 (423 bce). The breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, at the time of the first destruction, was on the 9th of Tammuz; the 17th of Tammuz was the day on which the Temple service was disrupted.

These dates had already been the scene of prior breakdowns in the relationship between G-d and Israel: Tammuz 17 was the day on which Moses smashed the Tablets of Testimony upon beholding Israel’s worship of the Golden Calf; Av 9 was the day that the people of Israel, influenced by the negative report brought back by the Spies sent by Moses to tour the Holy Land, expressed their refusal to enter the Land, and it was decreed that the entire generation would die out in the desert (see Land and See, WIR, vol IX, no. 38).

[11]. Lamentations 1:3.

[12]. Jeremiah 1:2-2:3; ibid. 2:4-2:28, 3:4; and Isaiah 1:1-27.

[13]. Isaiah 40:1-26; 49:14-51:3; 54:11-55:5; 51:12-52:12; 54:1-10; 60:1-22; and 61:10-63:9.

[14]. Job 19:26; cf. Genesis 1:27: “And G-d created man in His image.”

[15]. Chassidic teaching also offers another metaphor for the paradox ofgalut , this one from within the world of intellect itself:

A teacher is in the midst of communicating a concept to his disciple. Suddenly, he has a flash of inspiration: a new, infinitely deeper and more profound concept has erupted in his mind—a concept which he immediately senses to be of great value for his disciple. Practically in mid-sentence, he falls silent. His eyes, which have been focused upon the attentive disciple, close. The disciple’s questions and remarks are repelled with a brusque motion of his hand. His every iota of mental power is now concentrated on the task of absorbing and retaining the still nebulous concept hovering at the periphery of his mind.

The disciple is devastated. Why has his beloved master turned from him? Why has he shut him out so abruptly? Things go from bad to worse. At first he was brushed aside—now he is being completely ignored. At first his master closed his eyes—now he has turned his back on him entirely.

The teacher senses the anguish of his pupil. If he cared less for him, he would reassure him with a word or two. But he knows that the slightest diversion at this critical time would impair his efforts to fully capture his newly conceived idea before the flash of enlightenment recedes. He is loath to relinquish even a single nuance of the concept which will so enrich his disciple. So despite the manner in which it is received by the pupil, the teacher’s act of “rejection” is, in truth, an act of love—an act which is not only fully in keeping with the nature of their relationship but which serves to deepen and enhance it. On the surface, they are cut off one from the other; in essence, they have never been closer to each other.

(This metaphor also explains why galut increases in severity the closer we move toward our rapprochement with G-d. If the function of galut were only to serve as a punishment for sin, then its intensity ought to lessen as time goes by and we atone for our transgressions. Historically, the very opposite is true—the nearer we reach Redemption, the darker the concealment of galut grows. A case in point is our first galut, our 210-year sojourn in Egypt. For their first generation in Egypt, our forefathers flourished; for the next century or so their situation deteriorated; but the outright slavery and cruel tortures associated with this galut came only in its final 86 years, and the most difficult and trying period came in the final year of the Egyptian exile, after Moses had already prophesied its end! The same is true of our present exile: the spiritual state of our lives—the most basic factor of galut—has known a steady decline from the day of the Temple’s destruction nearly 2,000 years ago. In its earlier generations, an era populated by the great sages of the Talmud, our relationship with the Almighty, though obscured by the concealment of galut, was still a deeply felt reality in many people’s lives. As the generations progress, we find an increasing coarsening and materialization of life, leading to the almost total blackout of spirituality and sensitivity to the divine which characterizes our present-day existence. This, despite the fact that each successive generation has brought us that much closer to the ultimate Redemption.

But this pattern reflects the process of the metaphorical teacher’s “abandonment” of his disciple: the deeper he delves into the concept, the more he must retreat into himself, distancing himself even further from the distraught pupil; yet each successive retreat represents a greater regard for his disciple and a greater commitment to his role as teacher.)

[16]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. II, pp. 359-363; Sefer HaSichot 5749, pp. 609-611; ibid., p. 614, note 45.


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