As we approach Tisha B’av, my heart begins to shudder. I wish it were about 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 has deep significance to our people. More than the eternal pain of the destruction and lacking of both our holy Temples, it has become associated with remembrance of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and more. It is the day that both world wars began, and of the expulsions from both England and Spain.
Our sages teach us that it is baseless hate that brought us Tisha B’av, and that baseless love will rebuild the destroyed Temples. The clear message is that we must 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 providing great encouragement for the many who feel that the world is the darkest it has been in a long time. The government is corrupt, anti-Semitism is on the rise, and the future looks bleak.
The Talmud tells us two stories:
Rabbis Gamliel, Elazar ben Azaria, Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were traveling near Rome and heard the partying of the Romans. Three of the rabbis started to weep, and Rabbi 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 are not secure.”
Rabbi Akiva answered, “This is why I laugh. If this is the reward of those who sin against G-d, then how great must be the reward of those who follow G-d’s wishes?’”
The same group of rabbis went up to Jerusalem. 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. 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?”
Rabbi Akiva answered with a story about two priests: Uriah and Zechariah. “Uriah lived [in the time of] the First Temple, and Zechariah lived [in the time of] the Second Temple! 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 teach us a powerful life lesson: the appropriate response to fear, terror, anti-Semitism, pain, loss and suffering of any sort.
The Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson explains that both stories beg a deeper question: Why did the sages wait to cry?
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?
They should have cried over the conquering of the Jews. In the second story, why didn’t they cry when they reached Mt. Scopus, instead of when they saw the fox going in and out of the Holy of Holies?
The Rebbe explains that what really bothered the rabbis was not that this was G-d’s wish. They accepted that G-d does things that are not understood to man. Things that in fact feel like a punishment of sorts, or simply unnecessary pain at least from the human perspective. What they couldn’t fathom was the adding insult to injury. They accepted that the Temple needed to be destroyed (for some Divine reason), but why must they party and be tranquil too? They accepted that the Temple lies in ruin, but why must an animal stroll in and out of it? What is the need to mock us on top of it all?
As a Jew, I accept that G-d allows pain, destruction, and hate for whatever Divine reason. But why the shootings, why a Holocaust, why such constant devastation? 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 can feel like G-d is rubbing salt on our wounds.
To this, Rabbi Akiva says: Stop focusing on the loss and focus on the gain. If this is the reward of the wicked, imagine the reward of the righteous. If the prophecies of negative come true, then the positive prophecies certainly come true. The greater the suffering, the greater the ultimate reward. Until then, we have a choice: either to move forward and laugh, or sit on our hands and cry.
Things are far from 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, but instead 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!
And they responded, “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”
Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman leads Chabad of Peabody.