There’s an old joke about a sterotype that goes like this: How many times does an Englishman laugh at a joke? Three times: first when he hears it, again when it is explained to him, and the third time when he gets it.
We are in the same situation as the Englishman. We put on a laugh, so to speak, when we affirm, “It will be good.” But we likely feel the difficulties and the pain of the here-and-now more than the promise of a bright future. That is the state of galut [exile]. We are doing the equivalent of laughing without really getting the joke because we feel it is expected of us, and we come to expect it of ourselves.
In contrast, when we arrive at geula [redemption] we will not just know this as an abstract truth but really feel it. That’s why we say (Psalms 126) Az yemaleh schok pinu [then will our mouths be filled with laughter]. Like the Englishman who finally gets the joke, all will become clear and we will realize that all out worries and concerns have disappeared like so many unsubstantial dreams in the face of the revelation of reality as good. That’s the quality of the last laugh.
We have just passed through the period known as the Three Weeks during which we focused on galut. Now we are in the Shiva denechmta — the seven weeks during which we read Haftorot [sections of the Prophets that correspond to the Sabbath Torah readings] that deliver the comfort found in the promise of redemption.
The laughter associated with that comes through in the account of the contrast between Rebbi Akiva’s reaction to the ploughed Temple Mount and that of the other sages in Makkot 24b:
Another time, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were ascending to Jerusalem. When they came to Har haTzofim [Mount Scopus], they tore their clothes [a sign of mourning]. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies. They started to cry, but Rabbi Akiva was laughing.
The other sages said to him, “Why are you laughing?“
He said to them, “Why do you weep? “
They replied. “The place about which was written (Numbers 1:51) ‘and the non-Kohen that approaches shall be put to death’ is now a haunt of foxes. Should we should not weep!”
He replied, “That is why I laugh. It is written (Isaiah 8:2) ‘and I will take unto Me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Yeverechyahu.’
“Now what was the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah was during the period of the First Temple, and Zechariah was during the period of the Second Temple. Rather, the verse was making the prophecy of Zechariah dependent on the prophecy of Uriah. Regarding Uriah, it is written, (Michah 3:12) ‘Therefore for your sake shall Zion be plowed.’ Regarding Zechariah it is written (Zechariah 8:4) ‘Yet shall old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem.’
“Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I know that the prophecy of Zechariah will be fulfilled.“
The sages then answered him, “Akiva, you have consoled us. Akiva, you have consoled us.”
This is the time that corresponds to the Englishman’s second laugh, when we get the explanation. For individuals with extraordinary vision like Rabbi Akiva just seeing the results of the prophecy of destruction was proof that the redemption would come, as well. That’s why he laughed because he truly felt it. The other sages understood when he explained it to him and so felt comforted, though they did not arrive at the point of laughter.
For them, as for most of us, the true laughter has to wait until the actual arrival of the redemption, which we hope to see speedily in our days. Then we will experience the last laugh.