The discussion of the aron and its place in the first and second Temples leads the Gemara to discuss its appearance and its ultimate fate.
Rav Ketina taught that when the Jewish people came to Jerusalem on the festivals, the kohanim would roll back the curtain to the Holy of Holies, allowing them to gaze upon the keruvim (the cherubs) on top of the ark. The keruvim were seen embracing one another and the kohanim would explain that they represented the relationship between God and the Jewish People, which was as significant and real as the love of a man and a woman.
The Gemara attempts to clarify whether this story is told about the first Temple or the second one. We have already learned that there was no curtain in the first Temple, since the Holy of Holies was separated by a solid wall, yet there was no aron – and so, no keruvim – in the Second Temple.
A number of answers are given by the Gemara to this question. Rav Aha bar Ya’akov says that the story took place during the second Temple period, and what the people were shown were not the actual keruvim, but a painting, as is indicated by the passages in I Melakhim (6:29, 35 and 7:36).
The Me’iri explains that the “embrace” discussed here was the wings of the keruvim touching one-another, which represented the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Throughout the books of navi this relationship is described by use of the symbolism of a man and a woman.
Reish Lakish teaches that when the first Temple was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar, they entered the Holy of Holies and saw the keruvim embracing, and they perceived it as something sensual, if not pornographic. They carried the aron out to the marketplace and made fun of the Jews for involving themselves in such things (see Eikha 1:8).
The commentaries ask how this could have taken place, given that the Gemara teaches that the keruvim embraced only when the Jewish people were keeping the commandments. During the time when the Temple was being destroyed, certainly they were not on “good terms” with God!? Several answers are given. Some suggest that this happened specifically so that the Jews would be publicly embarrassed. Another explanation is that this referred to the painting, which always portrayed the relationship in its ideal situation. Finally, there are those who suggest that at the moment the Temple was destroyed the Jewish people had been punished – and forgiven, so their relationship with God had been repaired.