August 12, 2011

The week and Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is one of my favorites.  This Shabbat is called Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, named after the beginning of our Haftarah.  I revel in the concept that we all need to feel comforted after this time of mourning.  It is similar to why we are obligated to comfort those who are mourning a loss not just during the week of shiva, but for an extended proscribed time after shiva.

However much I connect with the comforting aspect after Tisha B’Av, my favorite part of all is Tu B’Av.  As my wife Lauren can attest to, I am not a big fan of Valentines Day1   for a variety of reasons.  Nevertheless, I do believe it is important to show our love to one another.  So, the Jewish calendar presents that day for us on the 15th of Av (this year Tu B’Av is on Sunday night and Monday), only six days after we are at our greatest period of mourning on Tisha B’Av, and in modern day Israel this resembles what Americans know as Valentines Day.

There is a fascinating discussion in the Talmud on Taanit 26b which states:  “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said that there were no days as joyous for Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom HaKippurim, when the daughters of Israel went out in [simple] white garments that they had borrowed so as not to embarrass someone without a complete wardrobe…and they danced in the vineyards saying, ‘young man, lift your eyes and see—what will you choose for yourself? Do not gaze at beauty, but look to the family…’”

It is a strange text, to be honest. I have always had trouble thinking of Yom Kippur as an official Sadie Hawkins day in ancient Israel, though there certainly is a lot of socializing on the high holidays. It is also hard to imagine these young women explaining the Song of Song’s romantic descriptions of Solomon’s wedding as metaphors for the Sinai revelation and for the Temple’s inauguration. Obviously they did not have bridal magazines back then. When they tell the boys to look not for beauty but at the family, do they mean at the girl’s parents and “yichus” (probably), or perhaps are they instructing the boys to look with imagination at the future family that they might build with such a partner? (Proverbs 31:30)

Of course, the loveliest part of this text is the sense of social solidarity, with women exchanging clothes to dissuade their suitors from focusing on wealth and external glamour. Competition is a natural tendency in such settings, and this attempt to moderate it and to remind the young people of Judaism’s deeper values is noble.

Moshe puts this beautifully in the second aliyah of our parsha this week, Parashat Va’Etchanan in which he says that the Torah is our source of wisdom and goodness: “What great nation has rules and laws as righteous as this entire Torah that I place before you today?”  For me, the significance is that the rules become righteous when they draw on the entirety of Torah—including the ethics, the narratives and the struggles. In our Torah we see our forefathers (to steal a cliché) doing “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” all the while being no different from you and me but with a paradigm of how to carry out our lives properly.

So on this Sunday night and Monday make sure to remember to tell your loved ones how much you love them.  However, more importantly, we need to remember as we move into this Shabbat of Comfort followed by this day of love in our calendar that we need to find ways to love our Judaism together as a community and learn to love each other and our texts with a mutual respect.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

[1] Valentines day is named after one or more early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine, and it was established by the Pope Gelasisus I in 496 CE.  For some reason it was deleted from the General Roman Calendar of Saints by Pope Paul VI in 1969.  The day first became associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of country love flourished.