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On Tu B’Av, Embrace Thy Neighbor

Sure, Tu B’Av is a time for romance. But in today’s divisive climate, the holiday also provides us with an opportunity to feel hopeful, and to sing together.

Paula Jacobs
August 17, 2016

Tu B’Av, or Jewish Valentine’s Day, is a festival of love that “dates back to ancient Israel when the daughters of Jerusalem danced in the vineyards looking for a mate,” according to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:8). In Israel, Tu B’Av is a busy day, filled with summer weddings, musical performances, and romantic escapes. If you’re in America, however, the day may go unnoticed unless you’re checking the calendar for Jewish singles events.

But the 15th of Av (Tu B’Av begins on Aug. 18 at sundown) is far more than a summer love fest. In Jewish tradition, Tu B’Av is also a day of comfort, healing, and redemption.

According to rabbinic literature written in the period after the Second Temple was destroyed, despair was transformed into hope on Tu B’Av; the punishment of the generation of the desert was lifted and the years of wandering came to an end. Instead of digging their own graves as they had for 40 years in anticipation of their own deaths, the Israelites could finally hope to enter the Land of Israel, according to a well-known midrash (Eicha Rabba, Prologue 33).

In the aftermath of mindless tragedies in Orlando, Dallas, Tel Aviv, and Nice, I believe Tu B’Av can provide us with a sort of antidote for the pain and despair of this summer’s global violence, racial strife, and religious hatred that’s been fueled by fear-mongering political rhetoric. These days we crave comfort and consolation and not just romantic love (with due respect to the Beatles, “All You Need Is Love”).

Tu B’Av also sets the stage for Jewish unity and elimination of the barriers that divide us as a people. It was the day the tribes of Israel were permitted to marry outside their tribe and the tribe of Benjamin was no longer ostracized, as explained the Talmud (Taanit 30b). That’s a powerful message today, given the ongoing polarization in the Jewish community on matters such as the Diaspora and Israel. The specter of the Iran deal lurks in the background, Israel remains the elephant in the room, and many LGBT Jews, Jews of color, and the intermarried couples still feel unwelcome in some circles.

Tu B’Av falls during the seven weeks of consolation between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah. What could be a more perfect time to begin the difficult process of healing and recovery from our grief and open wounds?

It’s up to each of us to reclaim Tu B’Av for our times. Whether it’s simply hugging a friend or relative, helping a neighbor, reaching out to the marginalized, or repairing a broken friendship, we can make this somewhat obscure holiday truly matter. As for me, I plan to tend the vegetables that my community’s interfaith garden is growing for a local food pantry.

As individuals and as a community, we have the power to transform Tu b’Av into a day of hope: Let’s not dig our own graves by stubbornly maintaining those divisive barriers. Instead, let’s reach across the aisle, talk with those with whom we disagree, and listen respectfully to their perspectives, whether it’s about Israel, American politics, Iran, or social and religious issues.

Imagine our voices rising together in harmony and singing “Nachamu Ami” (“Comfort, oh comfort, My People”) the beautiful verses from Isaiah 40, the haftarah portion for Shabbat Nachamu which immediately follows Tu b’Av. Imagine Jewish communities all across America singing these verses, using the melodies of Neshama Carlebach or the Israeli musician Aharon Razel. Finally, imagine chanting these words of comfort up until Rosh Hashanah for a year of hope, renewal, and redemption. Imagine, just imagine.

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.