The Gemara tells us that when the invading Roman armies finally conquered the Beis HaMikdash and entered the Heichal, they found the Cherubim embracing one another. They took the Cherubim out into the street and scornfully announced, “The Jewish people, whose blessings and curses are known to be potent, focus their thoughts on such things!” The Jews were then disdained by the nations, as the verse states, “All her admirers disdained her, for they saw her disgrace.”
It is amazing that the Roman soldiers found the Cherubim embracing at the time of the Beis HaMikdash’s destruction, since the Gemara tells us that when Bnei Yisrael obeyed Hashem’s will, the Cherubim faced one another to display the affection between Hashem and His nation; but when we disobeyed His will, the Cherubim turned apart. When Hashem’s disfavor with us had reached such a terrible extreme that He was forced to destroy the Beis HaMikdash and exile us from our land, one would expect to find the Cherubim turning apart. Yet not only did they face one another, they actually embraced in the supreme display of affection.
The Bnei Yissaschar writes in the name of the Maggid of Mezhritch that precisely at the time of the Beis HaMikdash’s destruction, Hashem’s love for His children was strongest. Before a husband leaves his family for an extended trip, he is obligated to show them an extra measure of affection. Similarly, Hashem showed us the greatest level of affection, before hiding His countenance from us for many centuries to come. Accordingly, the Bnei Yissaschar explains the Midrash which states the Moshiach is born on Tisha B’Av itself.
We can further understand this in light of the verse, which states:
וידעת עם לבבך כי כאשר ייסר איש את בנו ה' אלקיך מייסרך
- “Know in your hearts, that just as a father admonishes his son, so, too, does Hashem your G‑d admonish you.”
When a father finds it necessary to punish his child, his heart breaks with the anguish of seeing his beloved child suffer. His love for his son is then aroused to its greatest height. The same is true when Hashem is forced to punish us. When harsh decrees befall the Jewish people and Hashem’s heavy hand of judgment falls upon us, it is precisely then that He is closest to us, and His love for us is most pronounced.
For this reason, Tzaddikim throughout the generations have found these times most conducive to drawing close to Hashem, as the Maggid of Mezritch zt”l explained the verse: “All her pursuers have caught up with her, in the narrow places (bein hameitzarim).” The Maggid explained this to mean that all who pursue holiness can find it most easily during the three weeks of “Bein HaMeitzarim,” between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av.
Rebbe Akiva benefited from the harsh decrees of the Romans to fulfill his heart’s desire to sacrifice his life in sanctification of Hashem’s Name. Thereby, he delivered his soul to the highest reaches of Heaven and enjoyed the greatest possible level of closeness to Hashem. Rav Yosef Karo (author of Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch) was visited by an angelic teacher, whom he asked to intercede on his behalf so that he might also merit to die in sanctification of Hashem’s Name. He realized that in times of harsh decrees, when the attribute of strict judgment is evident, the greatest opportunity exists to draw close to Hashem.
The Birthpangs of Redemption
The Gemara states in Maseches Makkos:
שוב פעם אחת היו עולין לירושלים... כיון שהגיעו להר הבית ראו שועל שיצא מבית קדשי הקדשים התחילו הן בוכין ורבי עקיבא מצחק.
אמרו לו מפני "מה אתה מצחק"?
אמר להם ?מפני מה אתם בוכים?"
אמרו לו "מקום שכתוב בו 'והזר הקרב יומת' ועכשיו שועלים הלכו בו ולא נבכה"?
אמר להן "לכך אני מצחק ... באוריה כתיב 'לכן בגללכם ציון שדה תחרש' בזכריה כתיב 'עוד ישבו זקנים וזקנות ברחובות ירושלים', עד שלא נתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה מתיירא הייתי שלא תתקיים נבואתו של זכריה עכשיו שנתקיימה נבואתו של אוריה בידוע שנבואתו של זכריה מתקיימת."
בלשון הזה אמרו לו "עקיבא ניחמתנו עקיבא ניחמתו."
Rabban Gamliel, Rebbe Elazar ben Azarya, Rebbe Yehoshua and Rebbe Akiva ascended to Yerushalayim. When they arrived at Har HaBayis (the TempleMount), they saw a fox coming out of the place where the Kodesh Kodashim once stood. The Sages began to cry, but Rebbe Akiva laughed.
“Why are you laughing?” they asked him.
“Why are you crying?” he responded.
“The place of which it is written, ‘The foreigner who enters shall die,’ is now frequented by foxes. Should we not cry?”
“For this very reason I laugh,” he explained … “Uriah prophesized, ‘Thus, Tzion will be plowed like a field,’ whereas Zecharia prophesized, ‘Old men and women will yet sit in the streets of Yerushalayim.’ Now that the prophecy of Uriah has been fulfilled, I am certain that Zecharia’s prophecy will also be fulfilled.”
“Akiva, you have consoled us,” they said.
Most simply, when Rebbe Akiva saw the fulfillment of Uriah’s prophecy, he realized that the time had come for Zechariah’s prophecy to also be fulfilled. However, the Maharal offered a different interpretation of Rebbe Akiva’s consolation. He explains that Hashem created a balance in the world between light and darkness, joy and sorrow, exile and redemption. The more bitter and painful the exile, the more joyous and radiant will be the redemption. Since the First Beis HaMikdash followed a four-hundred-year exile, its glory was far greater than the Second Beis HaMikdash, which followed only a seventy year exile. Accordingly, we can imagine that the Third Beis HaMikdash, which we now await, will be supremely glorious, considering the harsh exile of almost two thousand years that we currently endure.
By recognizing that the joy we will one day experience is commensurate to the suffering we now endure, we can find consolation in our hardships. “For this very reason I laugh,” Rebbe Akiva told his peers. The same pain and disgrace they felt when they saw the fox wandering among the ruins of the Beis HaMikdash, led Rebbe Akiva to the greatest joy, since he saw it as a sign of the joy and glory that would surely follow.
The Midrash states:
"אל תשמחו אויבי לי כי נפלתי קמתי, כי ישבתי בחשך ה' אור לי" - לולי נפלתי לא קמתי לולי ישבתי בחשך לא היה ה' אור לי.
“Let not my enemies gloat over me. Though I have fallen, I shall rise. Though I sit in darkness, Hashem is my light” – Had I not fallen, I could never have stood. Had I not sat in darkness, Hashem would not have been my light.
Only a person who has fallen into the dark pit of exile can rise up to experience the joyous light of redemption. Perhaps for this reason we conclude the Tisha B’Av service with the kinna of “Alei Tzion,” which compares the suffering of the exile to birthpangs. As we recite this kinna, we rise up from the floor in recognition that the pain we now suffer will be followed by the greatest joy imaginable. With this we are consoled, just as a woman in labor is consoled in her terrible pain by the recognition that it will be followed by the joy of a newborn child.