The Laugh


Can You Swim?

Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were walking in the vicinity of Rome. From far away, they heard the sounds of a thriving metropolis, and three of them began to cry, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They said to him, “Why are you laughing?” {Rabbi Akiva responded:]“And you, why are you crying?” “These barbarians, who bow to idols and burn incense for false gods, are living in peace and security, while we, the footstool of whose G-d is burnt with fire – should we not cry?” He said to them, “That is exactly why I am laughing. If people who violate the will of G-d have it so good, how much better will those who act according to His Will, have it?”

Another time, the same scholars were walking towards Jerusalem. When they reached Mt. Scopus (from which it is possible to see the Temple Mount), they tore their clothing. When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox running out of the area where the Holy of Holies had been. They began to cry, while Rabbi Akiva laughed.

They said to him, “Why are you laughing?” He responded, “Why are you crying?”

“If from the place about which it is written, ‘And the stranger who enters there, shall die,’ we see a fox coming out, should we not cry?”

“For that very reason, I am laughing. Isaiah the Prophet said, ‘I will bring two reliable witnesses regarding my People, Uriah the Priest and Zecharia ben Yevarech’yahu. ‘(Isaiah 8:2) Now what do Uriah and Zecharia have to do with each other? Uriah prophesied in the time of the First Temple, and Zecharya in the time of the Second Temple! But the verse in Isaiah makes Zecharia’s prophecy dependent on Uriah’s.

“In Uriah’s case, it is written, ‘Therefore, because of you, Zion will be plowed under like a field.’ (Michah/Uriah 3:12) In the case of Zecharia, we find,

‘Yet again, elderly men and elderly women will sit in the streets of Jeruselam (and each will have a staff in his or her hand from great age. And the streets of the city will be full of children, playing in her streets) (Zecharia 8:4-5)

Until I saw the fulfillment of Uriah’s prophecy, I had some doubt as to whether Zecharia’s prophecy would come true. Now that I have seen Uriah’s prophecy fulfilled in full detail, I know that Zecharya’s prophecy will also be fulfilled.”

Hearing that, Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues said to him, “Akiva, you have comforted us. Akiva, you have comforted us.” (End of the tractate Makot)

This time of year is the saddest one in the Hebrew calendar. During these “Nine Days,” the period from the first day of Av until the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av), we mourn the destruction of the two holy Temples: the first Temple destroyed by the Babylonians 2426 years ago, the second one by the Romans 1936 years ago.

Why would we still be grieving over a structure destroyed thousands of years ago?

For two reasons:

1/ The Temple was not a mere piece of real estate. It was a window between heaven and earth. The Temple bridged spirit and matter. Thus its destruction was not just an isolated historical event, but one whose effects are still reverberating today. As long as tension remains between the physical and the spiritual, we are experiencing the loss of the Temple. Which is why our sages tell us that “a generation that does not rebuild the temple is considered as if it destroyed it.”

2/ Time is not linear but spiral. Events that happen in a particular time of year are related to the energy flow of that respective time. And that energy flow repeats itself each year as the cycle returns to that point in time.

The negative energy that manifested when the Temple was first destroyed repeats itself each year during this period in time.

In other words: Historical events are merely outer manifestations of invisible forces that are always at work behind the scenes.

Our grief for the destruction of the Temple includes all areas in life that cause us anguish.

Therein lays a profound lesson in life, and a universal lesson at that.

The Hebrew calendar reflects the true rhythm of life. Life is not a comprised of particles but of waves. Like the waves of the sea, life consists of cycles, with troughs and crests, some of which may be extreme.

A good swimmer recognizes the dynamic nature of water, and adjusts accordingly. In contrast to a static plateau, which one can navigate without fluctuation, the waves of water require constant vigilance to negotiate the cycles. When a strong wave hits, a proficient swimmer will not resist or fight the wave, but “go with the flow” and allow the cresting wave to carry him. Any attempt to ignore or fight the wave will quickly deplete the swimmer’s energy, with the risk of drowning the swimmer. In the case of a severe stormy sea, the need to surrender to the flow of the waves is only amplified.

On the other hand, when the waves are relatively calm, the swimmer uses their energy as a catalyst for forward thrust.

Interestingly, when negotiated properly, both stages, whether it be stormy waves or calm ones, are forms of energy that are all part of the swimming cycle. Indeed, a powerful wave that cannot be fought can be tapped in a powerful way, as long as you ride it and don’t try to resist.

Now back to the wave-cycle of time. Time too consists of crests and troughs. The Hebrew calendar is a sort of travel guide through time that helps us align ourselves to the inner rhythms of life’s cycles.

As the Talmud declares: “Just as when Av arrives decrease joy, so too when Adar arrives increase joy.” Strange statement: Why equate the two periods in time? Even if the Talmud wanted to make both statements, it could have simply said: “When Av arrives decrease in joy; when Adar arrives increase in joy”?!

The Talmud is telling us that time is a cycle. Av and Adar are not just two unrelated, diametrically opposed, periods in time: One filled with sorrow, the other with joy. They are like the trough and crest of one wave: Just as Av brings on a decrease in joy, so too Adar brings on an increase in joy.

And therein lies the secret behind Rabbi Akiva’s laugh. It goes without saying that Rabbi Akiva also fasted and grieved on Tisha B’av, and probably shed a tear or two. The Temple’s destruction was no less a tragedy for him than it was for his colleagues. Yet, Rabbi Akiva recognized the bigger picture: Within the tragedy he was able to see the end of the story. Within the death he was able to see the birthing of a better future.

When he heard that the Jews continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple for close to two millennia, Napoleon purportedly said: “Because they continue to cry for the Temple, they will ultimately get it back.”

Crying over the loss of the Temple is like riding the difficult waves. By not ignoring and not fighting them, the tears become part of the swim, part of the journey, that swim ultimately leads us to our destination. If you forget and get desensitized to the sadness of life, then you become desensitized to the joy as well. In other words: If you don’t cry when it’s time to cry, you won’t be able to rejoice when it’s time to celebrate. If you cry when the situation calls for it, you will see it through and rejoice when the time comes (“Just as when Av arrives decrease joy, so too when Adar arrives increase joy”). When you navigate the troughs you have the power to ride the crests.

This also explains how the Munkatcher Rav (Minchas Elozor) interprets the Talmud: “When Av arrives decrease – the negative energy of Av through – joy.” How can he turn around the literal meaning of the statement, which specifically directs us to decrease joy? In Jewish thought, based on faith in G-d, even a decrease in joy is not an end in itself, but part of a larger picture. In that context, even the decrease in joy in the month of Av is only a decrease on an ostensible level; within the sadness lays a deep joy – the joy of the light at the end of the tunnel, that our mourning today is a yearning that will lead us to the rebuilding of the Temple. How do we reveal that joy? By acting joyously (in ways that are halachakly/legally permitted) during the month of Av.

There are two ways to celebrate joy. One is through revealed joy, like the overt celebration of Adar; the other is through the joy that lies within the challenges of life as well. Both are part of one story – both part of one journey, the journey of our life’s waves.

There was once a Chassid who was unjustly imprisoned by the Czar’s regime, a common event in those days. His Rebbe was allowed to visit him once. When the Rebbe came to see him he noticed that the Chassid was despondent. “Why are you feeling so down?” the Rebbe asked him. Didn’t we learn that one must always serve G-d with joy, and even negative experiences are also for the good?” The Chassid replied: “I am not saddened by the fact that I am in prison, but because it’s now two weeks that I have been unable to recite a blessing in this prison.” In his cell there was a pail used for lavatory purposes that did not allow one to recite a blessing.

The Rebbe smiled and told him: “But isn’t it true that the same G-d who commanded us to recite a blessing, also commanded us not to recite on under such conditions. So, even as you don’t recite a blessing you are equally performing a mitzvah, which should be done with joy!”

Upon hearing the Rebbe’s words, the Chassid jumped up and began to dance. His exuberance was contagious and the other prisoners, Jews and non-Jews, joined him in celebration. One of the rabid anti-Semitic guards inquired as to the reason for the joy. One of the prisoners told him,

“That Jew over there is the one that began the dancing. I don’t know the exact catalyst, but I know it has some connection to the pail in his cell.”

When the guard heard that, he immediately entered the cell of the Chassid, and said,

“I’ll show you. I am getting rid of the pail in your cell!”…

The Baal Shem Tov uses an analogy of a spiral staircase. In Yiddish a spiral staircase is called “shvindel trep,” literally: Swindling steps. Why? Because when you climb a regular vertical staircase, you see the destination and you see yourself getting closer to it as you climb the stairs. A spiral staircase “swindles” you, because as you get closer to the destination you have to turn completely around, in a 360 degree turn, to the point when cannot see the apex. Indeed, just before you reach the top, you must turn completely around for the last time. When you’re still far from the destination you may be able to see it, but just before reaching your destination you have your back to it.

The challenge is to know how to see it through.

Rabbi Akiva, a man who paid many prices, a man who discovered his soul at age forty, was able to see the big picture. He was never swindled by the apparent dips and downs in life. Therefore he was able to laugh when others cried.

And his vision helps us all see better. It comforts us and helps us smile.

Ironic isn’t it that good times can allow us to be trapped in the small picture. Sadder moments leave us no choice but to recognize the bigger picture.

But after all is said and done, we have been promised that the worst is over and the best is yet to come. We have had more than our share of troughs, and are ready for the ultimate crest.

Are we ready?


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Barry Goodlife
5 years ago

Re: “Can you swim?”

Thank you for your pre-9 Av words of chizzuk.

You say that Time is not linear, but a spiral. But then, several times, you refer only to its circularity.
Can you explain more clearly why/how, in your view, Time is a spiral and not just circular?

[By the way, the German term for spiral steps comes from a root which means ‘giddy’ or ‘dizzy’. It is only in the 17th century that the word becomes the source for the ‘modern’ term, swindle/ swindler.]

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