It is Tu b’Av! The ancient, obscure Jewish celebration of love!
Tu b’Av wasn’t such a big deal until modern times and the Tu b’Av of today is not at all like the one of ancient times. In Israel, you’ll find shiny red hearts and garland, special date night menus, flowers and gift giving. The American Valentine’s Day is much to blame, but nonetheless, why turn down an opportunity to explore and adore love when it comes to you? Hence, our modern observance of Tu b’Av.
But, what sort of “love” are we really supposed to be celebrating? And how? The first mention of this special date is in the Mishnah where Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says:
“There are no happier days for the people of Israel than Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Israel go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards.”
The dancing, in this case, was to find and lock down a mate.
But that’s not what grabs me the most in the passage. It’s this very odd pairing of Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur. Sure, there’s the natural connection of white clothing and the “purity” messaging that white clothes convey. That “purity” hits differently on Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, for sure. White is also an equalizing color. Back in the day, when dyes and trims were expensive, the more you had, the richer you were. Dressing in all white hides class and distinction, equalizing the dating scene as well as the community coming to repent.
But the Talmud seems to think the link between Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur runs deeper than that.
Tu b’Av, for obvious reasons, is a day of joy. Yet how can we describe Yom Kippur in such a way?
The Gemara asks the same questions and answers the following: “Yom Kippur is a day of joy because it has the elements of pardon and forgiveness, and moreover, it is the day on which the last pair of tablets were given.”
There’s more about love in this answer than it first appears. The rabbis’ say that God forgave the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf on Yom Kippur. This is significant, as the golden calf, an act of idolatry, is considered adultery in God’s eyes. Yet the covenantal love between God and the people was so secure that the rift was repaired.
The text solidifies this by stating “it is the day on which the last pair of tablets were given.” The tablets of course are the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments and the Torah in general are considered the ketubah, the marriage contract between God and the Jewish people. Just like Tu b’Av is a day for match making, Yom Kippur is the day in which the sacred relationship between God and the Jewish people is repaired and reaffirmed.
So when the rabbis say that Yom Kippur is a day of joy because it is a day of pardon and forgiveness, their lesson is that granting forgiveness is one of the ultimate gestures of love. Every Yom Kippur, it is like we are the young people dancing in the vineyards. We come with our defenses down. We come humbled and ready to recount the ways we let God and each other down in the last year. Yes, as much as we dole out guilt there in the vineyards, what we really distribute is forgiveness. As we do that, we regenerate the love in our relationships - yes, with God, but moreseo with each other.
So if Tu b’Av can cast this light on Yom Kippur, let’s explore the reverse. What can Yom Kippur bring to Tu b’Av that moves it past Hallmark and romantic frills?
Well, evidently, the theme of forgiveness continues in the rabbis’ exposition of Tu b’Av’s significance.
They posit that “the fifteenth of Av was the day on which the sin of the spies was forgiven and the deaths of the first generation of Israelites in the wilderness ceased.” The background here: when scouts are sent into the Promised Land, they come back full of doubt, essentially spurning God and rejecting God’s loving gift. As punishment, that first generation of Israelites will never get to enter the Promised Land. Only their children are granted that honor.
So Tu b’Av, according to the rabbis, was the day it started over. It was the day that optimism re-emerged, and yes, forgiveness.
In these waning hours of the holiday, it is worth asking how this Tu B’av can still be a day of pardon and forgiveness for us. Right now we’re sort of in Tu b’Av Neilah.
As the sun sets, can you muster some compassion for a loved one who disappointed you this week? Perhaps a colleague that could have supported you better?
At the very least, please, please, use this as an opportunity to find some forgiveness for yourself. In some ways it is the hardest, because it begins with accepting a covenant with yourself - that even with your vulnerabilities, your doubts and your deficits - you are deserving of love.
On this “happiest day” for the Jewish people, let us find love at every level - a partnership with God, partnership with each other, and, at the heart of it all, appreciation for one’s self. Welcome to the vineyard of forgiveness. Perhaps stay a while, because Elul, the time when we draw even closer to God, is just two weeks away.
Ken Yhi Ratzon.