The Talmud relates a story about Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues going up to Jerusalem, around a century after the destruction of the Second Temple on the ninth of Av 68 CE. 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. His colleagues started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed.
Said they to him: “Why are you laughing?”
Said he to them: “Why are you weeping?”
Said they to him: “A place [so holy] and now foxes traverse it, and we shouldn’t weep?”
Said he to them: “That is why I laugh…. There are two prophecies: ‘Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field’; the second: ‘Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem.’ As long as the first prophecy had not been fulfilled, I feared that the second prophecy may not be fulfilled either. But now that the first prophecy has been fulfilled [Zion was plowed like a field to the point that foxes traverse there], it is certain that the second prophecy will be fulfilled.”
With these words they replied to him: “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”
But why did Rabbi Akiva respond by asking why they were weeping? Did Rabbi Akiva really not know why they were crying? Watching a fox roaming in what was the spiritual epicenter of the universe, is it not obvious why these great sages were crying upon this desecration?
The answer to these question was presented by one of the most illustrious rabbis of the 19th century, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Chasam Sofer). It all comes from an unforgettable biblical verse in Genesis.
Joseph has been sold into slavery. His brothers have dipped his coat in blood. They bring it back to their father, saying: “Look what we have found. Do you recognize it? Is this your son’s robe or not?” Jacob recognized it and replied, “It is my son’s robe. A wild beast has devoured him. Joseph has been torn to pieces.” We then read: “Jacob rent his clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned his son for a long time. And all his sons and all his daughters arose to console him, but he refused to be consoled, for he said, ‘Because I will descend on account of my son as a mourner to the grave.’”
Why did Jacob refuse to be comforted? There are laws in Judaism about the limits of grief — shivah, sheloshim, a year. There is no such thing as a bereavement for which grief is endless.
A midrash gives a remarkable answer: One can be comforted for one who is dead, but not for one who is still living.
Jacob refused to be comforted because he had not yet given up hope that Joseph was still alive. That hope was eventually justified. Joseph was still alive, and eventually father and son were reunited.
Now we can understand the words of the Talmud: “Whoever mourns for Jerusalem merits and sees her joy.” The Talmud speaks in the present tense, not in the future, to teach us that the joy lies in the very fact that thousands of years later we still care, we still mourn and weep for Jerusalem and refuse to be complacent. The very fact that we cry for the Holy Temple, for Jerusalem in her full spiritual majesty, for the Jewish exile and for all the suffering in the world, means that the Holy Temple and Jerusalem have never “died.” We could never have “closure” with Jerusalem, because we never believed it was gone. We felt it was alive and it would return to us.
There is a legend that Napoleon, passing a synagogue on Tisha B’Av, heard the sounds of lamentation. “What are the Jews crying for?” he asked one of his officers. “For Jerusalem,” he replied. “How long ago did they lose it?” “More than 1,700 years ago.” “A people who can mourn for Jerusalem so long, will one day have it restored to them,” he is reputed to have replied.
This may be the meaning behind the exchange between Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues. He was giving them an insight: Because you are weeping, that is why I am laughing! If you weren’t crying, then I would start crying, because that would have indicated you have come to terms with our destruction. As Jews, we never came to terms with exile, destruction, violence and our alienation from God.
This explains, says the Chasam Sofer, why Scripture refers to the 9th of Av as Moed, a holiday, and hence there is no confession on that day. It is strange. This is our saddest day. How did it become a holiday?
But the truth is the very fact that we are sad on this day is a cause for celebration, for it means that our past is alive in our hearts, and thus we still cry about it.
Whoever mourns for Jerusalem merits and sees her joy; whoever does not mourn for Jerusalem does not see her joy. May we see and celebrate that joy, speedily in our days! PJC
Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum is director of Chabad of the South Hills. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.