By Rabbi Shais Taub
Department of Redundancy Department
“Look here,” a husband says to his wife, “This article says that men use about 10,000 words per day while women use about 20,000 words per day!” “That’s because their husbands don’t understand them the first time,” the wife says. Her husband looks at her stunned and says, “What?”
* * *
This past week, we commemorated the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. This Shabbos, the Shabbos after Tisha b’Av, is known as Shabbos Nachamu, the Shabbos of Consolation, when we read a special haftarah of consolation that talks about the promised redemption and rebuilding of the Temple.
The haftarah begins: “Nachamu nachamu ami– Console, console my people….”
Why does it repeat the word “console” twice?
Rabbi Akiva Laughed
To understand this, I will tell you a story.
Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were survivors of one of the most violent and tumultuous eras in Jewish history—the Roman decimation of the population of Yerushalayim and the destruction of the Second Temple. The once thriving metropolis and home to the holiest place on earth had become a veritable ghost town. The aforementioned sages lived in northern Israel, where the Sanhedrin had been relocated.
Once, they were walking together toward the site of Yerushalayim’s ruins and as they came to Mount Scopus where they could view the once glorious city. They all tore their garments in mourning, as halacha requires.
As they continued, they arrived at Har HaBayis and saw a fox emerge from the desolated spot where the Kodesh Kakedoshim had once stood. At that moment, the sages began to cry, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.
The sages asked Rabbi Akiva why he was laughing. Like a good rabbi, he answered their question with a question and asked them why they were crying. They answered that when the place once off limits to all but the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur is now inhabited by wild animals, how can one not cry?
Rabbi Akiva explained:
“Yesheyahu said, ‘I will bring two witnesses regarding my people, Uriah and Zecharia.’ …The possuk makes Zecharia’s prophecy dependent on Uriah’s. In Uriah’s case, it is written, ‘Therefore, because of you, Tzion will be plowed under like a field.’ In the case of Zecharia, we find, ‘Yet again, elderly men and elderly women will sit in the streets of Yerushalayim.’ Now that I have seen Uriah’s prophecy fulfilled, I know that Zecharia’s prophecy will also be fulfilled.”
Hearing this, they said to him, “Akiva, you have consoled us; Akiva, you have consoled us.”
There are many questions we can ask about this story but let’s just ask two big questions that jump out at us.
First, why did Rabbi Akiva ask the sages why they were crying? Wasn’t it obvious why they were crying? After all, he had also torn his garments in mourning. He obviously understood that they were standing on a spot where Jewish blood had been spilled and where holiness had been desecrated. It seems callous to ask such a question.
Second, it seems very strange that Rabbi Akiva would imply that it was seeing foxes in the place of the Holy of Holies that made him confident that there would one day be a geulah. The coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash is the subject of countless prophecies as well as one of the most basic beliefs in Judaism. How can it be that Rabbi Akiva didn’t already believe that these prophecies would be fulfilled?
In order to understand this, I want to tell you a true story that may or may not have happened. In other words, while I don’t know if it really ever happened, it certainly could have happened, and even if it didn’t happen, it teaches us some truth.
During the Stalinist regime in Russia, a Jew was exiled to Siberia on obviously false charges of espionage. In the middle of winter, his wife wrote him a letter. “I have to plow our yard so I can plant the potatoes, but the ox has died. What shall I do?”
The farmer wrote back, “Don’t plow the yard! The rifles and grenades are buried there.”
Several days later a truck-load of Russian soldiers descended upon the yard and furiously began digging. Hours later, with nothing to show for it, they returned to their truck and drove off. The Rabbi’s distraught wife wrote to her husband, “The soldiers were here and they turned over the entire field from beginning to end.”
The farmer wrote back, “Now you can plant the potatoes.”
Destruction or Preparing for Growth?
If you see a person tearing up the ground, how do you know if he’s destroying it… or if he’s really plowing it?
Simple. If someone later plants there, then he was plowing it… even if he himself thinks he was destroying it!
This is the deep truth that is hidden in the story of the Jewish potato farmer.
Whether we talk about our history as a people or our lives as individuals, when we look back, we see how the most difficult and challenging periods were like plowing. Superficially, they appear like destruction. But after the passage of time, we see how they are just as much a part of the growth process as “planting.” Indeed, the “plowing” moments of our history and our lives are, in a way, even more indispensable to growth than planting because they make planting possible!
Furthermore, the more you plow, the more things grow.
What that means is that the more chaotic and destructive a moment appears to be, the more growth it actually makes possible. So when things are breaking down all around us, not only do we need to know that things are going to get better, but that the breakdown is actually part of growth. It’s the plowing that makes planting possible.
And now we can understand our story about Rabbi Akiva and the sages.
When Rabbi Akiva explained the reason for his laughter he specifically quoted the verse that prophesied, “Zion will be plowed over like a field.”
Rabbi Akiva knew that the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed, and that Hashem decreed that it should be so. But he did not know just how thorough and complete its desolation was.
So when he saw the ruins of the city, which is something that he expected, he had a natural reaction and tore his garments in mourning along with the other sages. But when he saw “insult heaped upon injury,” so to speak, that the Beis Hamikdash was not just in ruins but that it had been completely razed to the ground and that wild animal had made their homes there, at that point he couldn’t help but be pleasantly surprised.
You see, of course Rabbi Akiva already believed that the time would come for redemption and rebuilding. But he wasn’t sure how great of a redemption and how great of a rebuilding it would be. But since the planting and the growth are all according to the plowing, when he saw the degree to which the Temple was destroyed, he instantly appreciated the degree to which it would also be rebuilt.
Imagine, if you will, two snapshots of a man about to jump in the air. One snapshot shows a man with his knees slightly bent and his back curved just a bit, ready to push off of the ground with his feet. The other snapshots show another man at the exact second when he is crouched so low that his arms nearly touch the floor.
Which man is jumping higher? The man who is standing up almost perfectly straight or the man who is stooped low?
And that’s why Rabbi Akiva asked the sages why they were crying. It was as if to say, “Look, we all knew that we were going to find here. We were going to find destruction. And when we first saw that destruction, I tore my garments along with you. But who imagined we would see such destruction? When I saw that, I couldn’t help but laugh as I realized just how glorious the future redemption really will be. If there was this much ‘plowing,’ just think of how much growth and harvest there will be! Don’t you see it too?”
And this explains why the sages then said, “Akiva, you have consoled us; Akiva, you have consoled us”—twice. Rabbi Akiva reminded them that not only would the destruction someday be canceled out by the rebuilding (which they all knew already), but that the destruction itself was an integral part of the growth process, and that the greater the destruction the greater the ultimate rebuilding would be.
By the way, why did only Rabbi Akiva appreciate this on his own? What gave him unique visions that the other sages did not possess?
All of these particular sages came from illustrious pedigrees. Rabban Gamiliel was the president of the Sanhedrin and was from the royal tribe of Yehudah. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah was a Kohen, directly descended from Ezra HaSofer. Rabbi Yehoshua was a Levi.
Rabbi Akiva, in contrast, was the child of converts, and did not begin studying Torah until he was forty.
Because of his background, Rabbi Akiva uniquely understood what the others did not—that being far away from where you need to be can actually be part of the process of getting there.
And now we can understand why our haftarah says, “Nachamu nachamu ami, Console, console my people….”
It is the ability to see how not only will adversity eventually be offset by victory but how our challenges themselves make even greater triumphs possible!
Plowing is part of growth; stooping low is part of leaping high. Not only will our hardships one day be a thing of the past; with Moshiach we will see how these hardships were all a vital part of reaching our goal.
May all of our hardships immediately become revealed for what they truly are. We have plowed enough. It’s time to harvest—with the coming of Moshiach now.
 Yesheyahu 40:1.
 Makkos 24a-b.
 Mishnah Torah, Hilchos Taanis 5:16.
 Yesheyahu 8:2.
 Micha 3:12.
 Zecharia 8:4.
Rabbi Shais Taub is scholar-in-residence at Chabad of the Five Towns and directs the Torah learning website SoulWords.org. He writes and lectures on Jewish spirituality and its application to our lives.