Therefore I Laugh
Maseches Makkos concludes (24b) with the famous anecdote of Rabbi Akiva and three of his peers as they beheld the destruction of Jerusalem. Upon reaching the Temple Mount, the group saw a fox leaving the Holy of Holies, at which Rabbi Gamliel, Rabbi Elazer b. Azaria, and Rabbi Yehoshua all burst into tears. Rabbi Akiva, however, laughed.
Puzzled by his unexpected response, the three sages asked Rabbi Akiva as to the meaning of his bizarre reaction. His response was to ask them the reason why they cried.
They replied, “The place about which it is stated, ‘The foreigner who shall enter shall die,’ and now foxes walk therein ― and we shall not weep?”
He said to them: “Therefore I laugh. For the verse states, ‘I shall bring two faithful witnesses, Uriah the priest and Zechariah b. Yevarchiyahu.’ What is the connection between Uriah, who prophesied in the First Temple, and Zechariah of the Second Temple? Rather, the fulfillment of one prophecy is contingent on the fulfillment of the other. Uriah said, ‘Therefore, because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field,’ and in Zechariah it is written, ‘Once more elderly men and women shall sit in the streets of Jerusalem.’ Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was concerned lest the prophecy of Zechariah will not be fulfilled. Now that the prophecy of Uriah has come to pass, I know that the prophecy of Zechariah will also be fulfilled.”
The Gemara concludes with the words of Rabbi Akiva’s companions: “Akiva, you have consoled us. Akiva, you have consoled us.”
This section of the Gemara requires scrutiny. First, we are unused to finding prophecies whose fulfillment is interdependent. Why should the two prophecies be contingent on each other? Furthermore, what was the unique power of Rabbi Akiva, who could laugh while his peers wept? Why could he see that which his companions could not?
A Miracle for the Bad
We can perhaps reach some understanding of the matter by first addressing the content of the prophecy itself. After the Temple had been entirely destroyed, what special meaning does the plowing of the Temple Mount convey? What extra stage of the Destruction is entailed by the act of plowing?
We can gain an insight into this matter through another powerful passage of the Gemara concerning the time of the Destruction.
When the wicked destroyers entered the holy Sanctuary, they found the two Cheruvim—the golden Cherubs that were placed above the Aron—merged with one another. Taking the Cheruvim into the marketplace, the plundering armies declared: “Behold Israel, whose blessings are blessings, and whose curses are curses, that they should be occupied with such matters.” Immediately, the Gemara concludes, they [Israel] were degraded, as the verse states, “All those who honored her defiled her, for they saw her disgrace” (Yoma 54b).
Elsewhere, the Gemara teaches that the condition of the two Cheruvim represented the dynamic relationship between Hashem and his Chosen Nation. When Israel did the will of Hashem they faced one another as a sign of their intimate closeness; when the people failed to perform the Divine will, the Cheruvim turned from each other as a sign of the distance that had come between them. In the Pilgrimage Festivals, the Cheruvim, merged one with the other, would be shown to the travelers, expressing their love before Hashem (Bava Basra 99a; Yoma 54a).
In view of the relationship they embodied, the fact that the Cheruvim were found, at the very moment of destruction, in a state of physical closeness, is a true wonder. Surely, the time of the Destruction was the time at which the intimacy between Hashem and His people was at a low point. Why, if so, were the Cheruvim found to be merged with each other, in a state of loving intimacy?
This question is posed by Ritva (Yoma, ibid). His answer, in the name of Re’em, is that the closeness of the Cheruvim was a miracle—in the words of Ritva, “a miracle for the bad,” to reveal our disgrace among the nations.
From Pesach to Tishah Be’Av
On the night of Pesach, the night when the relationship between Hashem and the nation of Israel was initiated, it is customary to eat an egg—the same egg that we eat at the meal of mourning preceding the Ninth of Av.
The reason for this, as Rema explains (Orach Chaim 476:2; see Maaseh Rav 191), is that the two events (the first day of Pesach and the Ninth of Av), occur on the same day of the week. This correlation is already pointed out by the Midrash. The glory that was brought upon us on the first day of Pesach turned to bitterness on the Ninth of Av—they forever fall on the same day (Eichah Rabba, introduction 18; ibid 3:8).
Although the Ninth of Av is a day that mirrors, in sadness, the glory of our redemption, the relationship that was initiated as we came forth from Egypt did not (Heaven forbid) come to an end. Yet, although it continues, from the time of the Destruction the relationship can no longer be discerned in a superficial sense. As far as the eye can see, the relationship between Hashem and His nation was terminated on the Ninth of Av.
This is the meaning of the “miracle for the bad” that Ritva mentions. It took a full miracle to bring the Cheruvim together on the day of Destruction. Barring the miracle, they would have continued to express the condition of the ongoing relationship, split asunder by the sins of the nation.
Thus, although the calamity of the Ninth of Av does not imply the ending of the relationship between Hashem and Israel, it denotes the entry of the relationship into a new phase. Rather than the revelation of the Temple era, the relationship went into hiding—even at the very moment of Destruction, the Cheruvim could be merged together.
“These,” declared the destroyers, “whose blessing whose blessing and whose curse is curse”—these whose relationship with Hashem was the source of all good and all evil that befalls the world—have fallen from their previous grace. This claim, as we know only too well, was taken up to the fullest degree by the nations of the world.
Those whose blessing is blessing
In the biblical era, the relationship between Hashem and Israel was the central motif underlying all world events. In fact, since that time nothing has changed. The world continues to revolve around the relationship between Hashem and Israel, around the fulfillment or otherwise of the holy Torah by the Chosen People.
This is the depth of Destruction symbolized by the plowing of the Temple Mount. Not only was the Mikdash reduced to rubble—even the Temple Mount, the acknowledged center of the world, was plowed to nothingness. It became a simple field, a plot of land no more and no less relevant than any other.
This state of affairs cannot last. Falsehood, in the words of the verse, cannot endure: it lacks the legs on which to stand (Mishlei 12:19). The condition whereby Israel, and its eternal relationship with Hashem, appears to have lost all relevancy in world affairs, is a condition of falsehood. It is certain to be overturned.
One prophecy is thus contingent on the other. If Zion, which means (literally) a place that all “point out”—a place that all refer to as the center of the world—is plowed over, then the future reversal is a certainty. If Zion is in total ruin, unrecognizable from its past glory, then we are certain that Jerusalem is destined to be rebuilt.
Those Who Mourn Over Jerusalem
It took the greatness of Rabbi Akiva to perceive the deep connection between current destruction and future rebuilding. Rabbi Akiva is the father of the Oral Law. Statements made in the Mishnah, Tosefta, Sifra, Sifri, and other parts of the Oral Law, all follow different Tanaic opinions. All of them, however, are in accordance with Rabbi Akiva (Sanhedrin 86a).
After the Destruction of the Temple, the light of Torah faded from the world: “Her king and her officers are among the nations; there is no Torah” (Eichah 2:9). Soon after the [First] Temple was destroyed, the light of prophecy departed, and the world was plunged into darkness. It was Rabbi Akiva whose works, the works of the Oral Law, established that the relationship had not changed. Its revelation had shifted from the words of the prophecy to the heart of the wise; its content remains unchanged.
Whereas his peers wept over the destruction, Rabbi Akiva could laugh. In the concealment itself, he saw the revelation; in the darkness, he saw the light.
Chazal state that “all those who mourn over Jerusalem will merit seeing its joy.” Rabbi Akiva, even as he mourned, could see the joy of Jerusalem—even as he saw the Destruction, he perceived the Redemption latent in the ruins themselves.
As we mourn, we, too, know that the promise of Redemption is real. May we live to experience the joy of Zion, speedily and in our days.