It was early in the second century C.E.; Rome was at the peak of its power while Jerusalem lay in ruins. The Holy Temple, the center of Jewish religious life for centuries, had been burned to the ground. Jewish sovereignty in Israel had been crushed by the Roman legions. The situation for the people of Israel seemed hopeless.
It is against this backdrop that the Talmud (Makkot 24b) relates an extraordinary and moving story.
The four leading rabbis of their generation — Rabbis Gamliel, Elazar ben Azaryah, Yehoshua and Akiva — were traveling to Rome to plead for the merciful treatment of their brethren in Israel. At the outskirts of the city they heard shouts of jubilation and merriment. The first three rabbis began to cry while Rabbi Akiva laughed.
“Akiva,” they asked, shocked, “why are you laughing?”
“And why do you cry?” he responded.
“Because these heathens and idol worshippers live prosperous and content lives while we are at their mercy, and the temple of God lies in disgrace,” they answered. “Shall we not weep?”
“That is why I smile,” answered Rabbi Akiva, “for if this is the lot for those who violate the Lord’s will, how much more of a reward awaits those who follow God’s laws.”
The Talmud continues that these very same four rabbis were subsequently traveling to Jerusalem. As they reached Mount Scopus and saw the devastation of the holy city, they rent their garments. As they approached the Temple Mount, they witnessed a fox emerging from the very spot where the holy ark of the covenant had rested in the Holy of Holies. This was too much to bear and the rabbis broke down crying once more while Rabbi Akiva once again laughed.
“Akiva,” they asked, “what possible reason could you have for not sharing our pain? We are at the holiest site in the world, a place where only the holiest Jew, the high priest, could enter on only the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. And now wild foxes trample about. What greater disgrace can there be for our people?”
Rabbi Akiva responded: “All my life I worried that the prophecies of redemption and peace that had been promised to the Jewish people may not come true. But now that I’ve witnessed the prophecies of destruction and doom coming true in all their details, I’m confident that the prophets’ promises of hope and reconciliation will come to fruition as well — that once again young and old will fill the streets of Jerusalem with song, and we will witness the coming of the Messiah who will rebuild our temple.”
The Talmud story concludes with his colleagues turning to him and saying, “Akiva, you have comforted us. Akiva, you have surely comforted us.”
I’ve often wondered why these rabbis reacted so dramatically differently from each other while witnessing the same events. Did those other rabbis lack the faith of Rabbi Akiva? Did Rabbi Akiva not feel the pain and humiliation of his people? It’s only natural to cry when confronted by something painful.
The answer perhaps is that Rabbi Akiva was a mystic. A mystic is able to perceive in every being and event the divine light contained within it. The other rabbis maintained that darkness and exile are but a prelude to redemption. Just as there is no dawn without a preceding night, so must we wait out the dark times.
However, Rabbi Akiva’s life experience was of dramatic transformation while overcoming monumental personal challenges. He was an unlearned shepherd until age 40 and a bitter opponent of the rabbis, then he ultimately became the greatest of them all. It taught him that “all God does is for the best.”
To the mystic there is no such thing as darkness, it is just another manifestation of light.
“Nachamu, nachamu ami (Comfort, comfort my people)” begins this week’s Haftorah. These are the soothing words from Isaiah to a nation trying to recover from the devastation of Tisha B’Av long ago.
Sadly today, the people of Israel are once again in mourning for those precious holy lives lost in defense of our homeland. We cry for them and beseech God, “When will this darkness finally end?”
At the same time, we must also have a little of the faith of Rabbi Akiva. We must smile through our tears as we hold on to God’s promise that he has not abandoned us. He is with us and assures us that very soon, these days of sadness will be transformed into days of joy.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com.