As we begin the three-week period of mourning commemorating the destruction of our Temples in Jerusalem, I am reminded of one of my favorite stories in the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva’s perspective on tragedy.
At the conclusion of Makkot, the Talmud recounts: Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues were ascending to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. When they arrived at Mount Scopus and saw the site of the Temple, they rent their garments in mourning.
When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerge from the site of the Holy of Holies. They all began weeping, except for Rabbi Akiva, who started to laugh.
They said to him, “For what reason are you laughing?”
Rabbi Akiva responded (with a question, in true Jewish fashion): “For what reason are you weeping?”
They said to him: “This is the place concerning which it is written, ‘And the non-priest who approaches shall die,’ and now foxes walk in it; and shall we not weep?”
Rabbi Akiva said to them: “That is why I am laughing… In the prophecy of Uriah, it is written: ‘Zion shall be plowed as a field.’ In the prophecy of Zechariah it is written: ‘There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem.’ Until the prophecy of Uriah with regard to the destruction of the city was fulfilled, I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah remains valid.”
The Talmud concludes: The Sages said to him: “Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.”
One of the questions asked in the commentaries about this story is regarding the verse of choice to describe the prophesy about the destruction. There is a verse in Eicha (Lamentations) that seems to be a better choice as it describes this very situation: “Because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate; foxes prowl over it.” Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for Rabbi Akiva to quote this verse?
In his popular book “Positivity Bias,” my brother-in-law, Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson, expounds on the pervasive teaching of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s to find the positivity that lies in every situation. Two principles in Judaism help us in this regard: one, the belief that all that happens is Divine Providence; and two, the belief that all that G-d does is for the good. With these two principles in mind, one is led to see things in a positive light.
What do you see when you look at a plowed field? As a city boy, I would perceive the scene as one of mess and destruction, but a farmer would view the very same sight as the promise of growth and beauty that results from the plowed field. In fact, he recognizes that the destruction that meets the eye is what makes the future growth possible.
When the rabbis came to Temple Mount and saw destruction, they cried and mourned not only for the physical and spiritual destruction of the Temple, but for the thousands of lives that had been lost during that period of time. And yet, Rabbi Akiva, a man who had experienced the devastation just as potently as they had, was somehow able to see a “plowed field.” Rabbi Akiva saw the infinite good that the world would experience as a result of the destruction and exile, a final and eternal redemption that would bring with it an end to the existence — and even the possibility — of war, hunger and death.
Hitting rock bottom can be one’s last stop, or it can be the beginning of a growth period that leads to a new place, a place where failure is no longer a possibility.
As we live through these challenging times, it may be easy to find some positive “side benefits” of our current circumstances. But more than these benefits, we must each ask ourselves what the long term positive impact of this situation is for us, so that one day, we can look back and recognize the good that came from it. PJC
Rabbi Yisroel Altein is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Squirrel Hill. This column is a service of Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.