Shayna Goldberg

In need of comfort

Children playing in a Jerusalem square/Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons

There is a heaviness in the air.

And it’s been hard to put into words.

It’s not pain. Pain hurts. You feel it. It’s a reminder that you are alive. That you have loved and lost. That there are people and things you care about. Pain, when channeled, can be empowering. Pain can inspire creative energies. Pain can give way to life and to light.

This isn’t pain. This is despair.

Despair is dark and gloomy. It is heavy and debilitating. It stops you from feeling. It is exhausting and draining. It makes you feel stuck and hopeless. It depletes you of energy. It leaves no room for life and light.

It has been seven-and-a-half months, and we are feeling lost and despondent.

125 hostages are still in Gaza; there are soldiers on their third round of reserve duty; over 100,000 citizens from the North and South are still displaced from their homes; there are many injured soldiers with serious wounds; a war looms on the Northern border; antisemitism around the world is at an all-time high; and the threat of a nuclear Iran continues to lurk in the background.

At least we know our despair is grounded.

But so was that of the Sages in the period following the destruction of the Second Temple.

The Roman Empire ruled the land, there had been terrible infighting, people had died of starvation, Jerusalem had been conquered, Bar Kochva’s rebellion had failed, all hope of a swift redemption had been squashed.

In the context of this time period, the Talmud on the final page of Makkot (24b) recounts the story of four rabbis walking to Jerusalem. When they arrive at the Temple Mount, they see a fox emerge from the place where the Holy of Holies once stood. The other rabbis begin to cry, but Rabbi Akiva laughs. The rabbis cannot understand him. “How can you laugh when foxes trot on a place where even humans once could not stand without dying?”

Rabbi Akiva responds by explaining that he has always known that the prophecy in Zecharia 8:4, which describes the future redemption, was implicitly connected to the prophecy of Uriah, in the book of Micha 3:12, that describes Zion’s destruction as a plowed field and Jerusalem’s ruin as a heap of rubble.

Rabbi Akiva tells his friends: “So long as the prophecy of Uriah had not been fulfilled, I was scared that the prophecy of Zecharia would not come to be. Now that the prophecy of Uriah has been fulfilled, it is known that the prophecy of Zecharia will be fulfilled as well.”

The Sages respond: “Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!”

Rabbi Akiva’s words succeed in bringing some comfort to his colleagues. But more than Rabbi Akiva’s words bring comfort, his whole perspective on life brings comfort. Rabbi Akiva had the unique ability to lift himself above whatever hardship stood before him and see beyond the realities of the moment in order to imagine what lay ahead.

While the other Sages cry over the triumph of Rome, Rabbi Akiva anticipates the much greater future reward for those who do the will of God (Makkot 24a). When his colleagues cannot fathom Yom Kippur without the high priest’s special service in the Temple, Rabbi Akiva actively chooses to focus on the fact that our forgiveness is ultimately dependent on God alone and not on any ritual or intermediary (Mishna Yoma 8:9) And when the other rabbis can see only the ruins of the Temple before their eyes, Rabbi Akiva can already imagine old men and women sitting along the streets of Jerusalem and children playing in its squares (Makkot 24b).

Rabbi Akiva excelled in maintaining an unmitigated positive outlook, and no matter what came his way, he would not allow despair to overtake him.

Even when Rabbi Akiva loses 24,000 students because they had failed to internalize his most central message of “loving your neighbor as yourself,” Rabbi Akiva refuses to give up. He doesn’t quit teaching; he is not ruined by a sense of failure. Rather, he starts over with a classroom of only five. Yet we are told that these five students were successful in preserving and transmitting forward the entirety of the Oral Law (Yevamot 62b).

On Lag B’Omer, which we will celebrate this Sunday, Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying. We commemorate this historical event by stopping the mourning practices that Jewish custom has us observing since the close of Passover.

Over the past few days, I’ve been wondering if this year, we can mark the day by making an effort to try to see our situation through the eyes of Rabbi Akiva.

We see the destroyed kibbutzim, burnt-out cars and overtaken army bases, and we are aghast, mournful and angry. Rabbi Akiva, though, would perhaps hear the voices of those promising to return and rebuild bigger and stronger communities, and he would focus on the resilience of the Jewish people.

We walk through the pictures of the faces of those killed at the Nova festival and cry over their loss, the horrors they endured and the evil in the world. Rabbi Akiva would see in their eyes the love, the beauty and the potential of the young people of this country who search for spirituality and connection and who cherish peace and creative expression.

We watch footage of the empty homes up North and see the displaced families living amongst us and question the government, its plans and its execution. Rabbi Akiva would focus instead on the compassion of those who have taken them into their towns, have welcomed the children to their schools and youth movements and have thought about the many needs. He would wonder at the kindness and selflessness of Israelis and how they extend themselves for complete strangers.

We think about the hostages, and we can barely function and breathe as terrible pictures and videos haunt our days and awful nightmares plague our sleep. Rabbi Akiva would take note that we know each hostage by name, that we pray for them each day, we spend time with their families at Hostages Square and at protests, we leave empty chairs in restaurants throughout the country; and he would be astounded by the value we place on each individual life, the risks we are willing to take and the prices we are ready to pay.

We read and hear endless news reports of the rifts within our country and the infighting between people with different ideas and perspectives, and it depresses us that the tensions have returned and that the unity didn’t last. Rabbi Akiva, however, might notice the passion of our citizens, the sense of connection and investment of our people, the lack of apathy and entitlement of our youth, and he would know that when it really matters, we are able to come together and see past our differences.

And we send our young people off to battle and sit in fear, wondering what their fate will be and how they will move forward even if they emerge intact. But perhaps Rabbi Akiva would see that for the first time in thousands of years, there is a Jewish state that has its own army and the ability to fight and defend itself, and he would feel confident that our future is strong.

Rabbi Akiva did not deny the hardship of any given reality. He felt the pain. He took it in. He did not turn away. He took a long hard look, and then he made a choice. He chose to not get stuck there. To rise above what he saw. To not despair. To maintain the perspective that “everything God does, He does for good” (Brachot 60b).

This year, we are in need of comfort.  We might know that, objectively, our situation as Jews is better than at any time in history. That Jews throughout the generations would have dreamed to be in our shoes.

And yet the despair is real. And it is heavy. It is tough to remain optimistic.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital, ob”m, once said: “A person who sees only today, only now, has questions and doubts. But a person with a sense of history knows, like Rabbi Akiva when he saw the fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies, that ‘Old men and women will yet sit in the open places of Jerusalem.’”

Like Rabbi Akiva, we must lift ourselves above the realities of each day to grasp onto something bigger, something greater — the long, ever unfolding and eternal story of the Jewish people.

Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!

About the Author
Shayna Goldberg (née Lerner) teaches Israeli and American post-high school students and serves as mashgicha ruchanit in the Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women in Migdal Oz, an affiliate of Yeshivat Har Etzion. She is a yoetzet halacha, a contributing editor for Deracheha: and the author of the book: "What Do You Really Want? Trust and Fear in Decision Making at Life's Crossroads and in Everyday Living" (Maggid, 2021). Prior to making aliya in 2011, she worked as a yoetzet halacha for several New Jersey synagogues and taught at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck. She lives in Alon Shevut, Israel, with her husband, Judah, and their five children.
Related Topics
Related Posts