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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Mordechai Lipskier

Lessons from a fox

Tisha B'av

There’s something enigmatic about Rebi Akiva and foxes.

After the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, Rebi Akiva and his colleagues were ascending to Yerushalayim and saw a fox emerging from the Kodesh HaKodashim. His colleagues wept; a place of such holiness that only the kohen gadol was allowed to enter, and now a fox?! But Rebi Akiva laughed. And he explained: Now that the prophecy of the horrific destruction has been fulfilled, we can be certain that the prophecy of the future redemption will also be fulfilled. “There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem.” When his colleagues heard this they said, “Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.”

Years later, Rebi Akiva was asked why he risked his life to teach Torah in defiance of the Romans’ decree. He answered with a parable: A fox was walking along the riverbank and saw schools of fish swimming hastily. “What are you running away from?” he asked them. “From the nets that people cast upon us.” The fox offered the fish to come join him on dry land, where they would be safe from fishermen’s nets. The fish scoffed at him, “If we fear for our existence even in our source of life, how much more so if we leave our source of life.” Rebi Akiva said that the same is true with abandoning our source of life, the Torah.

The fox represents secular wisdom. It can be clever, useful, and even true at times. But it’s not holy. It’s not Torah. The “fox” tries to entice us to embrace its understanding of life and to doubt the Torah’s, but as Rebi Akiva stated, we know what’s really good for us.

When Rebi Akiva and his colleagues saw the fox walking on the very place that once housed the luchos and the Torah, they recognized a devastating reality of galus: Where there is no Torah, there is space for secular wisdom to run wild, R”l!

At a recent graduation, a revered teacher gave an impassioned speech about how lucky we are to have Torah as our guide. He ended with a clever quote that helped convey his point. The quote was from Benjamin Franklin.

The quote may or may not be in line with Torah, but that’s not the point. To this Rabbi’s students, he’s the Kodesh HaKodashim. And rightfully so, because he’s their source of Torah. And precisely because of this, when he makes such a prominent mention of a secular source, it’s similar to allowing a fox to trample over the Kodesh HaKodashim. The mouth that should be sharing Torah is instead sharing the fox’s wisdom.

A[1] rabbi once shared his Rosh Hashanah sermon with the Rebbe asking for feedback. Pointing to the prominence which this rabbi gave to Emerson in his sermon, the Rebbe made clear that it was wrong to include him. Even if what he said was true, it was not the time and place to share it. People came to shul on Rosh Hashanah to hear their rabbi share words of Torah.

Rebi Akiva didn’t deny the horrors his contemporaries saw, but he comforted them by letting them know that it wouldn’t last forever. He saw that there would come a time when Torah would permeate not only the batei medrashos and Jewish homes, but even the streets. Everyone, even secular minds, will recognize the supremacy and holiness in Torah.

Moreover, Rebi Akiva’s response was a call to action. By doing our part in studying Torah and disseminating it, we’ll actually begin the process of bringing Torah back to its proper place of honor.[2] May it happen quickly!

Gut Shabbos,

Rabbi Mordechai Lipskier

[1] Sichah of parshas Shemini 5739 (1979).

[2] Sichah of parshas Eikev 5734 (1974).


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