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A video emerged this week of several foxes cavorting around the Old City of Jerusalem, and caused sensational headlines in the world press. Is the presence of foxes on the Temple Mount really a prophecy about the coming of the Messiah? Is that really the message? And if not, what does the fox say?
First of all, a technical correction. There were not "dozens of foxes." The video shows four, and they must have been cubs of a single family. The reason why I know that there could not have been dozens, and that the four foxes were a family, is that foxes are solitary creatures. In fact this is one of the ways in which we know that the Biblical term shu'al does not necessarily refer to a fox, but rather often refers to a jackal; for more details, see my Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. Still, for now, let us assume that the shu'al is a fox.
Now, let us look carefully at the famous story regarding Rabbi Akiva and the fox on the Temple Mount:
Once, Rabban Gamliel, R. Elazar b. Azaryha, R. Yehoshua and R. Akiva were ascending to Jerusalem. When they arrived at Mount Scopus, they rent their garments. When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox that emerged from the site of the Holy of Holies. They began weeping, and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: Why are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva said to them: Why are you weeping? They said to him: This is the place concerning which it is written: “And the non-priest who approaches shall die” (Numbers 1:51), and now "foxes walk in it" (Eicha 5:18) - shall we not weep?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: That is why I am laughing, as it is written: “And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to attest: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah” (Isaiah 8:2). Now what is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah prophesied during the First Temple period, and Zechariah prophesied during the Second Temple period! Rather, the verse established that fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on fulfillment of the prophecy of Uriah. In the prophecy of Uriah it is written: “Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field...” (Micah 3:12). (There is a rabbinic tradition that this was also prophesied by Uriah.) In the prophecy of Zechariah it is written: “There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 8:4). Until the prophecy of Uriah (with regard to the destruction) was fulfilled I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah will be fulfilled.
The Sages said to him, employing this formulation: Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.
Note that foxes are not part of either Zechariah's or Uriah's prophecy. Rather, there is a reference in Eicha to the desolation of Jerusalem, which mentions foxes walking through it. The Sages cite this when they too see a fox walking through the ruins of Jerusalem, since it is an example, an illustration, of the destruction. R Akiva says just as the destruction was prophesied by Uriah and came to be, so too Zechariah's prophecy, of the redemption, will come to be.
Seeing foxes today in Jerusalem is therefore just a case of observing the destruction, just as Rabbi Akiva did. The only prophecy that it demonstrates is that of the destruction, with which we do not have any doubts, because it already happened.
But here we get to the crucial point. Let's go back in time and think about how Rabbi Akiva's confident rejoicing would have appeared over most of history. What naive foolishness! The Jewish People have been decimated and spread over the four corners of the earth. They are an utterly downtrodden people. Jerusalem is desolate.
And yet look at the situation now! There is Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel! Millions of Jews have returned to the Land, from all over the world. Jerusalem is a city of beauty, and the country is thriving and prosperous. We take all this for granted, but for the last two thousand years, this was a virtually unimaginable fantasy.
Earlier this year I found myself sitting on a plane next to a British messianic Christian. Unlike American Christians, who are extremely friendly and positive to Jews, this person was as unpleasant as the youths who used to harass me on the streets of Manchester. He said to me, "How can you possibly not accept Jesus? How can you see the Jews as being loved by God? You've got no Temple, there's hardly any of you left - you've got nothing!" It was ironic that he was telling me this while sitting on an El-Al Dreamliner heading for the State of Israel.
To be sure, things are far from perfect. There are great dangers from the neighboring countries. There is great hostility from the world. And the spiritual state of the country is sadly lacking. But what we do have is so incredibly, marvelously better than what was!
The truth is that foxes are not actually necessarily a sign of desolation (which is another reason why I'm inclined to think that the shu'alim of Eicha are jackals). London, one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, is full of foxes. I regularly see foxes in my densely-populated suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh.
When we see foxes running around the Temple Mount, this deservedly does bring to mind the famous story with Rabbi Akiva. But instead of responding with theologically groundless proclamations of imminent miracles, the sentiment that we should feel is wondrous gratitude at how different things are now from Rabbi Akiva's time. Yes, we hope and pray that they will improve even more. But, like Rabbi Akiva, let us focus on the good!