A Water from the Well blog post, Tu b'Av: A Tikkun* for Tisha B'Av
Written by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
This Shabbat is special for many reasons. It is Tu b’Av, a lesser-known Jewish holiday that celebrates love. Traditionally, it was a day for betrothals. In modern times, weddings are often performed on this day, the first full moon after the Tisha b’Av. It is also a special Shabbat in the calendar called Shabbat Nachamu, when we read the first haftarah of consolation that begins with the words: Nachamu Nachamu Ami, yomar Eloheichem, Comfort oh comfort my people, says God. And this Shabbat is also a personal anniversary for me and my husband. I would like to dedicate this teaching to my husband, Steve in honor of our 15th wedding anniversary. Comfort oh comfort, he has been for me.
Six days after Tisha b’Av, our day of collective grief, we receive a day of joy and love. It is a day for shiduchim/matchmaking and dancing in the vineyards. The Mishna (Taanit 4:8) states the following about Tu b’Av:
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: There were no days of joy in Israel greater than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame anyone who had none. All these garments required immersion. The daughters of Jerusalem would come out and dance in the vineyards. What would they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and consider who you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set your eyes on the family.
The Talmud relates that the young women would go out into the fields to dance and young men would follow them in hopes of finding a bride. This statement brings up several questions. What does it mean that Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur were the most joyous days for the Jewish people? How is Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and afflicting oneself, considered a joyous day? What is the connection between Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur? And what is the connection between Tisha b’Av, a day of national mourning we experienced just last week, and Tu b’Av, a day of celebration?
According to Hazal, the Rabbis of our tradition, the very first Tisha b’Av was the day that the meraglim/spies returned from touring the Promised Land. It was on that day that the people lost their connection with God, fell into fear and mistrust, and were punished never to enter the Promised Land, but doomed to die in the wilderness. God gave up on this generation that longed for Egypt, built a golden calf, and could not move forward to receive the gift awaiting them.
Throughout the ages, Tisha b’Av has been observed as a day of supreme sorrow and collective grief pertaining to the many tragedies that took place at this time of year. The destruction of the two Temples and the expulsion from Spain exemplify the recurring theme of rupture between God and the people. In contradistinction, the very first Yom Kippur is the day when God forgave the people for the sin of golden calf. Yom Kippur is the day when the relationship between God and the people was healed and restored.
Forgiveness ushers in the heights of joy. To be forgiven, to be given a second chance, brings great relief and restoration to the heart. Yom Kippur becomes a day of renewed hope and healing through the quality of forgiveness. It stands in stark contrast to Tisha b’Av. On Yom Kippur it is as if God re-marries the people.
And so, in practice, it became the custom to betroth young men and women on Yom Kippur as well as Tu b’Av. But what about Tu b’Av, this day, today? What was especially joyful about it and why were betrothals in the vineyard the way to celebrate?
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Taanit 4:7) relates that after 40 years in the wilderness, it was on the full moon of Tu b’Av that the Israelites discovered that their wanderings had ended and they were finally going to enter the Promised Land. No longer would their family and community members die in the wilderness. God’s forgiveness was now complete. Tu b’Av was declared a holiday, a day to celebrate love and forgiveness, a day to arrange marriages to celebrate a new future.
Tu b’Av comes six days after Tisha b’Av. After everything has been shattered, we reconnect in the human realm. We remember that we are loved and that we have the capacity to love; that we can forgive, and we can be forgiven.
On a personal level, as in a marriage or any long-term relationship, there are times when the connection we feel with our partners may get frayed, when we are not our best selves, and miscommunication can turn to frustration and anger. But when we mutually forgive and are forgiven for our human failings, our imperfections, and when we accept that forgiveness, really take in that we are forgivable, then love can flow anew, and tears of sorrow become tears of relief and joy. Then, Tisha b’Av becomes Tu b’Av in our hearts.
Our Jewish calendar presents us with cycles of transformation, always moving from one state to another. For such is life, an endless process of transformations. And in this place, where we find ourselves this week, six days after our most sorrowful day, our calendar reveals the profound connection between sorrow and joy, each with its own tears, each connected to the other. Kahlil Gibran, a Sufi poet, describes our condition with these words:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
And so we flow on. This Shabbat and tomorrow we shall read the first haftarah of nechemtah/of comfort, as we begin to cycle back into connection. From Tisha b’Av to Tu b’Av and on toward a new year, the call to teshuvah holds out the promise of forgiveness and transformation. Our tradition teaches that the transformation from sorrow to joy, from destruction to rebuilding, from death to life is woven through the cycles of time. Therefore, take comfort, comfort my people! Nachamu Nachamu Ami…you have another chance.