He Who Laughs, Lasts

As we approach Tisha B’av, my heart begins to shudder. I wish it were about the lofty things like the fact that I am mourning the destruction of the two temples, or the many other tragedies which happened on this day. In truth it is more about my missing cup of coffee in the morning.

You see, unlike Yom Kippur where, as a rabbi, I am busy with other things, like sermons, machzors and chairs, on Tisha B’av, it is usually a hot summer day and, like this year, the fast is pushed to Sunday, so I am home with the kids, and fighting a lack-of-caffeine induced migraine. No distractions from my personal needs, only dealing with other humans (my kids). Regardless of my caffeine addiction or the more lofty thoughts I should be having about this serious day, there is much to be learned from Tisha B’av, nearly 2000 years later.

Tisha B’av is the date of one of the major fasts in the Jewish faith and is more widely observed and has deep significance to our people. More than the eternal pain of the destruction and lacking of both our Beis Hamikdashs, our holy Temples, there is more that this day embodies. It has become associated with remembrance of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism awareness and more. It is also the day that both world wars began and the expulsion from both England, in 1290, and Spain in 1492 happened.

Our sages teach us that it is baseless hate that brought us Tisha B’av, and that is baseless love that will rebuild the destroyed Temples. So the clear message is that we need to purge our new world order of ego and micro-aggressions, and try to dig deeper into our core and find our inner soul that is able to forgive and forget, love and embrace, move on and move forward.

However, there is a much deeper layer that provides great hope encouragement for the many who feel that the world is in the darkest state it has been in a long time. The government is corrupt, anti-Semitism is on the rise, and the future looks bleak. “For this our heart has become faint, for these things our eyes have grown dim.” Lamentations, 5:17.

The Talmud (Makkos 24a&b) tells us 2 stories, both involving the same characters. Rabbis Gamliel, Elazar ben Azaria, Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva.

Story one: They were traveling near Rome and heard the partying of the Romans from 120 miles (mil) away. Three of the Rabbi’s started to weep and R. Akiva started to laugh. They asked him why is he laughing and he responded, why are you crying? They said, we are crying, because the nation that destroyed the Temple sits tranquil, and the Jews, servants of G-d are not secure. R. Akiva answered, and said, this is why I laugh. If this is the reward of those who sin against Gd then how great must be the reward of those who follow G-ds wishes.

Story two. Same group of rabbis went up to Jerusalem. When they reached Mt. Scopus, they tore their garments. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. The others started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed. Same back and forth. Why are you laughing? Why are you crying? They said, “A place [so holy] that it is said of it, ‘the stranger that approaches it shall die, and now foxes are walking through it, how could we not weep?”

To which Rabbi Akiva answered “That is why I laugh. For it is written, ‘I shall have bear witness for Me faithful witnesses—Uriah the Priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah.’ Now what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah lived [in the time of] the First Temple, and Zechariah lived [in the time of] the Second Temple! But the Torah makes Zachariah’s prophecy dependent upon Uriah’s prophecy. With Uriah, it is written: ‘Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field; [Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the Temple Mount like the high places of a forest.]’ With Zachariah it is written, ‘Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.

“As long as Uriah’s prophecy had not been fulfilled, I feared that Zechariah’s prophecy may not be fulfilled either. But now that Uriah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.”

With these words they replied to him: “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”

These stories are both powerful ones, and teach us a powerful life lesson, an appropriate response to fear, terror, anti-Semitism, pain, loss and suffering of any sort. 

The Rebbe explains in a talk from 1974, that in both stories there is a deeper question to be asked. Why do the sages wait to cry? In both stories they should have cried sooner. In the first story, why did they only cry when they heard the Romans celebrating? They should have cried at the fact that the Jewish people had been conquered. Why only when they saw the enemy partying did their tears begin?

In the second story too, why didn’t they cry when they reached Mt. Scopus, why only when they saw the fox going in and out of the Holy of Holies?

The Rebbe explains, that what really bothered the rabbi’s was not that this was Gd’s wish. They accepted that Gd does things that are not understood to man. Things that in fact feel like a punishments of sorts, or simply unnecessary pain at least from the human perspective.

What they were couldn’t fathom was the adding insult to injury. I accept that the Temple needed to be destroyed (for some Divine reason), but why must they party and be tranquil too? I accept that Temple lies in ruin, but why must animal stroll in and out of it? What is the need to mock us on top of it all?

To rephrase this in (my personal) modern vernacular, as believing Jew I accept that Gd allows pain and suffering, destruction, hate and anti-Semitism for whatever Divine reason, by why the shootings, why a Holocaust, why such devastation on top the loss? I accept that there must be loss of loved ones, but why the emotional trauma on top of it all? A “certain amount” of pain is a Divine part of life, but it seems like too much. It feels like Gd is putting salt on the wound?

And to this R. Akiva says essentially one point. Stop focusing on the loss, but turn on your positivity bias and focus on the gain. If this is the reward of the wicked, imagine the reward of the righteous. If the prophesies of negative come true, then the positive prophesies certainly come true.

According the darkness is the light. The greater the darkness, the greater the light. The greater the suffering, the greater the ultimate reward. Until then, we have a choice. To move forward and laugh or sit on our hands and be cry.

This was Rabbi Akiva’s lesson to the other rabbis and his legacy to all of us. Sure things are not perfect. In fact, they may seem downright bad at the moment. Yet, we have assurances that it will be better. Let’s not get stuck on the bad that has happened, but focus on the good coming our way! Choose to laugh, not to cry. Focus less on what happened and more on what will/can be!

 You don’t see it yet? Well, this is why we await Moshiach, the fulfillment of these realities.

And they responded, “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”

42/52 picture freepik.com

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