The Fox that wandered into the shul

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 June 2021

There is a famous story of Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva, that they were walking in the ruins of Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.

According to the Talmud, when they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox coming out from the Holy of Holies.  Three of the rabbis wept at the sight, seeing it as a moment of tragedy.

But Rabbi Akiva laughed. For him, it was a sign that restoration would happen, that things would thereafter get better.

This morning, somehow, a young vixen got lost in the Alyth building, and was found wandering in the Beit Tefillah.
A part of me feels like the three rabbis. A part of me weeps. On a normal Shabbat, the building would be full of people, of noise – it would be impossible for a fox to accidentally wander in. The experience emphasised the continuing sense of dislocation, of loss, the emptiness of this space.

But there is also a part of me that laughs. That, with Rabbi Akiva, sees this as a sign that surely our return must be imminent.

Over the last year, I have often drawn a parallel between our current experience and the religious lives of the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple. The scale and horror of the loss do not compare, nor do we have the same theological understanding of our moment.  But there is a deep similarity in the sense of dislocation from physical space that we are experiencing.

And a similarity, too, in how we respond.  Just as the rabbis insisted on continuing with their religious lives, while acknowledging their sense of ‘exile’, so we have continued to come together in prayer, while also keeping aspects of our services different, to acknowledge our absence from our physical home.  The liturgical equivalent of the corner of a room that the rabbis left unplastered.

And just like the rabbis, we retain our hope that restoration will come soon, that we will be able to return in full to life as it was.

The story in the Talmud ends with the words ““Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!”  May we find comfort, this Shabbat morning, in the fox that wandered into the shul.