Akiva, you have comforted us...
Life post-10/7 feels like being constantly surrounded by reflections of the horrors of that day. I find the terror almost inescapable. In a perfect world, I’d ration how much I see and yet, I also feel a responsibility to witness what happened in Israel.
It’s not just social media or television either. When I walk down the block and I see someone in a wheelchair, I think of Ruth Peretz, a young woman with cerebral palsy who was murdered with her father at the Nova music festival. Or, when my mom comes over, I think of Nurit Cooper, the recently released hostage who is not much older than her. How would my mom have done being kidnapped? And then, of course, most painfully, when I come in to get Cal after a nap and he’s disoriented but then smiles when he sees me, I think of Aviv Katz, the little girl taken hostage and wonder how, instead of being in her crib when she wakes up from her nap, she wakes up to Hamas terrorists.
It all feels like too much and too hard a place to constantly be mentally and emotionally. So I turn to an aspect of Judaism that has been a constant buoy throughout our ancient history: how to find hope amid despair and destruction.
There is a teaching1 that often gets shared around the 9th of Av, one of the great calamities that befell our people:
“When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. They began weeping, and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: ‘Akiva, you always astonish us, we are weeping and you are laughing.’ He said to them: ‘Why are you weeping?’ They said to him: ‘Shall we not weep? The place in whose regard it is written: “And the non-priest who approaches shall be put to death” (Numbers 1:51), behold, a fox emerges from it. The verse stated of it: “For Mount Zion, which is desolate; foxes walk on it,” has been fulfilled!’ He said to them: ‘It is for this reason that I am laughing. Behold, it says: “I had trustworthy witnesses testify for Me: Uriya the priest and Zechariah, son of Yeverekhyahu” (Isaiah 8:2). What does Uriya have to do with Zechariah? Uriya was in the First Temple and Zechariah was in the Second Temple. Rather, what did Uriya say? “So said the Lord of hosts: Zion will be plowed like a field, and Jerusalem will be heaps” (Jeremiah 26:18). What did Zechariah say? “So said the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women will again sit in the squares of Jerusalem, each man with his staff in his hand, due to advanced age” (Zechariah 8:4). And it is written thereafter: “The city squares will be filled with boys and girls playing in its squares” (Zechariah 8:5). The Holy One said: I have these two witnesses. If the words of Uriya are realized, the words of Zechariah will be realized, and if the words of Uriya are void, the words of Zechariah are void. I was joyful that the words of Uriya were realized, and ultimately the words of Zechariah are destined to be realized.’ They said to him in these words: ‘Akiva, you have comforted us. May you be comforted by the feet of the herald.”
That first bit gets the focus. The other Rabbis are inconsolable at seeing the destruction of the Temple whereas Rabbi Akiva sees a fox and from that, a silver lining. He knows, if one part of the prophecy is fulfilled, then the other must not be far behind. Namely, Uriah mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah foresees the destruction of Jerusalem but Zechariah sees its redemption in the form of the central squares being filled with the elderly meandering about and children playing peacefully with one another. Amid the awfulness of what they see in front of them, the Rabbis can still picture a vision of hope. At that moment, they are comforted.
It’s hard to see that vision right now but I have to believe it’s there. As the Malbim2 notes, these words from the Prophet Zechariah came at a time in which the people were seriously worried about being exiled a second time. In response, he offers them the promise that the most vulnerable among them, those that can’t fight for themselves, will find peace and tranquility.
As we all breathlessly watch the news and scroll through our feeds, I think it’s also good to find some time for the mindset of Rabbi Akiva. In addition to other efforts you’re undertaking to help Israel, take some time each day to picture what it might look like for the Avivs and Nurits of the world to return to their lives, drinking coffee, playing with their toys, and sleeping soundly in their own beds.
It may seem distant and unattainable but so did that fox traipsing on our holiest site. May we find the radical hope that has held us afloat for centuries and may all those taken captive soon be returned to their dwelling places.
R’Meir Lebush ben Yichel Michel (19th century Ukraine)