Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Israel had no days as festive as the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, when the maidens of Jerusalem would go out dressed in white garments – that were borrowed, so as not to embarrass anyone who was poor – and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man, raise your eyes and see what you choose for yourself.” (Taanit 26b, B. Talmud)
Tu b’Av, the 15th of the Hebrew month Av, begins tomorrow night. In modern Israel the date is celebrated as a kind of Jewish Valentine’s Day, with cards and gift-giving, but the Israeli rabbinate has attached no liturgical significance to the day, and in most of the Jewish diaspora the holiday is all but unknown.
That needs to change.
It’s not that we need Jewish single women to dress in white and dance in the vineyards, where they’ll be joined by Jewish single men who’ve reprioritized their superficial values… Actually, that’s not a bad idea.
What really needs to happen, however, is that we all seize the magnificent, spiritual opportunity of Tu b’Av.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel placed this holiday on a par with Yom Kippur, edging out Rosh Hashanah, Pesach, Sukkot, etc. for the top spot.
So, why have we lost the plot?
Tu b’Av is about marriage, and so is Yom Kippur. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, God married the Jewish people when Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur.
Under Jewish law, however, marriage is accomplished in two stages, kiddushin and nissu’in. The event at Mt. Sinai was kiddushin, or betrothal. Our marriage is valid and binding, the partners committed, but the “ultimate consummation of our union awaits the rebuilding of our eternal home in the age of the Messiah.”
Meanwhile, we are one bride with many souls. The Rebbe compares the souls of the Jewish people to the three categories of maidens listed in the Talmud with respect to Tu B’Av:
What would the beautiful ones among them say? “Look for beauty, for a woman is for beauty.”
What would those of prestigious lineage say? “Look for family, for a woman is for children.”
What would the ugly ones say? “Acquire us for the sake of Heaven, on condition that you adorn us with jewels.” (Talmud, Taanit 31a).
The beautiful souls are those who feel a spontaneous love for God, needing no further motivation to fulfill His commandments.
The souls of good lineage are those who love God as a matter of nurture. They’ve inherited the practice from their ancestors, and fulfill the commandments because it’s the right thing to do.
And the ugly souls are those who don’t yet recognize their connection to God. They will get swept along with the rest of the tribe, to be adorned by a love that will spring forth when God’s presence is revealed in the days of the Messiah.
I would like to take the Rebbe’s metaphor one step further.
If marriage is a two-way street, then perhaps God possesses the same qualities we do: beauty, lineage, ugliness. Tu b’Av is a time to awaken our souls toward all three of our Bridegroom’s aspects.
God’s beauty is the easiest to understand. It gets pointed out, and even photographed, all the time. Babies, galaxies, orchids, peacocks, waterfalls, the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon, and so on.
We admire God’s creation constantly. Tu b’Av is a time to fall in love with the Creator of all that beauty.
God’s “prestigious lineage” refers to the once-hidden beauty that was revealed for our sake, i.e. Torah. Part of the Torah was revealed at Mt. Sinai at our kiddushin, the greatest wedding gift of all time.
The other part has been continuously revealed ever since, through our study and inquiry of Torah. Our Sages gave us the tools, our hearts give us the will, and our minds give us the ability to learn a little more every day about our Bridegroom.
In every word of Torah – be it law, example, or story – we find a window into the Divine. Our job is to look. If we’ve been lax in Torah study all year, Tu b’Av is the time to find a book that inspires us. Or a teacher that elevates us. Or best of all, a partner with whom we can learn together. (Need a Torah study partner? Find one here.)
And what of God’s “ugliness?” Ah, here we come to the heart of the matter. We can never know God in all of His Godliness. Like characters in a dream, we are incapable of knowing the Dreamer.
We can, however, look around within the dream and realize that everything we see contains an aspect of the Dreamer.
In 60 seconds we could name 60 ugly things – the stuff that repulses us, the stuff we avoid. Whatever God may be, we tell ourselves, we know He is not in those things.
God is in the ugliest things. Our whole world exists within God, and there is nothing but God. A place of ugliness, a place of tragedy, a place of terror, a place of horror, a place of unspeakable events… those are merely the places where God is most hidden.
Finding God in those places takes faith. And work.
We cannot wait until High Holidays to begin that work, or even Elul (the month before Rosh HaShanah, when we typically begin to prepare for the High Holidays). We need to begin now.
We may never understand why certain tragedies occur, but we need to have faith that God has a plan. Tu b’Av is a time to start loving God for those tragedies rather than in spite of them.
The Holocaust comes to mind. Wars. Diseases. Natural disasters. I work to find God in these events by reminding myself that we have eternal souls, and within eternity there is enough time to balance out the suffering of this world.
I have no way of knowing if I am right, but this is the kind of mindset that awakens my heart toward our Bridegroom.
And I have no doubt that awakening our love for God will awaken our love for each other, because humans are among the most precious of God’s creations.
May this Tu b’Av fill all of our hearts with love toward the One who gave us hearts, and may those who seek an earthly spouse find one!
Images: Chuppa by David Lisbona, Dancing Girls on Tu b’Av 1921 from WikiMedia