Friday, August 4, 2017

From Tisha B'av to Tu B'Av

The Jewish calendar can often feel like an emotional see-saw. On the night we end grieving fallen Israeli soldiers on Yom HaZikaron, we are expected to turn on a dime and begin celebrating Israel’s independence with Yom Ha’atzmaut. On the heels of the spiritually taxing Yom Kippur, we are to begin immediately building our sukkah, our dwelling place for the festival of our happiness.  So too, with the month of Av.  On the 9th of Av (Tisha B’av), we are to mourn every calamity that has befallen the Jewish people, from the destruction of the temples all the way to the Holocaust. Less than a week later, we are to celebrate the 15th of Av (Tu B’av), the Jewish holiday of love when mourning is forbidden and we celebrate amorous relations. Why this constant back and forth? And what can we learn from the communal, ritualized ups and downs of Jewish life?

For one thing, it teaches us that our sadness is not for naught. We learn in our tradition, “those who sow in tears, reap in joy.” (Psalm 126:5) There is a connection between our emotional labor, and the growing pains that accompany it, and the growth and satisfaction that comes as a result. When we do the work of teshuva, or repentance for our sins, we can rejoice in renewed intimacy with God and our better selves. When we give thanks and acknowledge the sacrifice of others, we can offer fuller gratitude for our independence. Without reflection and repair of broken relationships, our joy will always be poorer and diminished. When we do the work of teshuva, the love we show for others and our God is all the more luminous and nourishing.
It also teaches us that there is always a way back.  In contemporary secular culture, we are quick to shame and exile without any mechanism for return to the community. Judaism does not allow for permanent scarlet letters or banishment without end.  Rather, the genius of religious faith is that there are not only mechanisms for punishment, but there is also always a path back to God and community. In this respect, secular society has a lot to learn from our communal religious past. Without hope for future communion, punishment remains nothing other than pain and cruelty. It is only when there is a path provided back to friendship, love, and joy, that punishment and pain can have educational value.  Let us take that message with us as we move from the 9th of Av to the 15th of Av and prepare for the coming Days of Awe.