Putting down our burdens and choosing joy

6a0147e1be4964970b015433099c4f970c-500wiA few days ago we marked Tisha b'Av, the most sorrowful day on the Jewish calendar. And a few days from now, when the moon is full, we'll reach Tu b'Av, which was once one of the most joyful days of our year. According to Talmud, Tu B'Av was a day when women would go out into the fields and dance, choosing spouses from among the men who came to dance with them. They would wear white dresses, and everyone borrowed a white dress from a friend so that no one would be shamed by a dress which didn't reflect status or wealth. Talmud teaches that in those days, the two most joyful days of the year were Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av! I gave a sermon a few years ago about joy and Yom Kippur (Unexpected Joy). But now that we don't dance in the fields and pick spouses at this full moon, how might we think about Tu b'Av and joy?

Tradition teaches that on this date, the children of Israel were redeemed from wandering in the wilderness, which they had done since leaving slavery in Egypt. One interpretation holds that the generation which had known slavery was so scarred by their experience that they couldn't make the leap to freedom. Those who had been born into terrible circumstances couldn't let go of the trauma of their past. So God decreed that the generation which had known slavery would live out the remainder of their lives in the wilderness: free from the constriction of slavery, but not yet ascending to the place of promise, to the next level of their spiritual development. On Tu b'Av, the next generation became ready to take on leadership and enter into the promised land.

All of us carry an imprint of our early life experiences. Often we also carry the imprint of our parents' life experiences: their successes and their struggles, their yearnings and satisfactions and regrets. Sometimes we are like the generation which left slavery: caught in remembering where we came from, caught up in analyzing the past, and therefore unable to let go of that past and move forward. For us as for our mythic ancestors, Tu b'Av can be a day to shed our attachments to those old narratives and to take the first steps in a new chapter of our lives. What are the old stories (about yourself, about your family, about where you come from, about others) which you need to shed in order to walk unencumbered into the promised land of the future you yearn for?

Tu b'Av gives us an opportunity to find joy in letting go. Letting go of our old stories -- letting go of our old constrictions -- letting go of the things which once defined us but have become like weights holding us down. Sometimes the old stories and old traumas we carry with us are like a bag full of stones. What would it feel like to set that bag down, to thank those old stories for serving their purpose, and then to build a cairn of those stones and leave it there and walk away? What new territory of the heart and spirit might open up to us if we could let go of old resentments and calcified beliefs about who we are? Can we imagine the lightness of setting down that burden and walking unencumbered into the promise of milk and honey, sustenance and sweetness?



Tu B'Av, the end of being "grounded," and accessing God's love

ImagesToday is the fifteenth of the lunar month of Av. The beautiful moon is round and full. And in Jewish tradition, this date -- 15 Av, or Tu B'Av -- is a day of rejoicing.

The Gemara (Taanit 30b-31a) offers six reasons why Tu B'Av is a joyous day. Of those six reasons, here's the one which speaks most to me this year: when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for forty years, 15 Av was the day on which those who were destined to die in the wilderness finished dying. On this date, the intimacy with which the Holy One of Blessings spoke with Moshe was restored, and as a result, blessing flowed to the entire nation.

I can't speak to the historical veracity of that story, but on a spiritual level I find it very moving. It tells me that the relationship between God and the people was so badly strained by the incident with the scouts (where the scouts went into the Promised Land but returned with a fearful verdict instead of trusting in God), and by God's response to that incident (declaring that this whole generation which had known slavery would perish in the wilderness), that until the karmic consequences were complete, they couldn't really connect to each other.

It's like what happens when a child misbehaves, and the parent gets angry and declares a punishment, and then both parties feel distant from each other until the punishment is complete. A parent grounds a teenager, and during the period of the grounding, their connection isn't quite working. The parent knows the grounding was the right thing to do, but once the initial anger wears off, the parent suffers from the distance between them, too. And then the period of being grounded is over, and they can relate to each other in a different way again.

The "grounded" metaphor may seem a bit frivolous, but there's also a connection between this day and the actual ground. Here's a midrash:

R. Levi said: On every eve of the 9th of Av (during the 40 years when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness) Moses used to send a herald through the camp and announce: Go out to dig graves. They would go out and dig graves and sleep in them. In the morning he would send a herald and say: Separate the dead from the living.” They would arise and find their number diminished. In the last of the forty years, they did this but found themselves undiminished. They said; we must have made a mistake in counting. They did the same thing on the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth, but still no one died. When the moon was full, they said; it seems that the Holy One has annulled the decree from all of us, so they made the fifteenth a holiday. —Lamentations Rabbah, Prologue 13

This midrash takes place while the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. Each year, the people dug themselves graves and lay down in the graves, expecting to die. One year, they stayed there until the full moon, whereupon they realized that if God had not yet taken them, the "plague" of being condemned to die in the wilderness must be over and God must have forgiven them for the misdeeds of the scouts. So on this date, they emerged from the earth -- literally rising up from the ground in which they had lain all week. Today is a day of great rejoicing because it's the day on which our people realized we had been wholly forgiven.

On this date, says the Talmud, the last members of the generation who had known slavery died. The last connection to slavery and to constriction was released. And the punishment which God had declared was finished. As a result, God was newly able to speak with Moshe intimately again, and to pour blessings through Moshe into the whole people. I imagine God saying, "That was no fun for either one of us; I'm so glad that's over; let me shower you with love from now on!"

On this Tu B'Av, may we all find ourselves able to shed the last vestiges of whatever has been constricting us -- and may we find a new way to relate to God and to each other, steeped in abundant blessings and love.



For more on this: Happy Tu B'Av, 2011, a post which explores the custom of dancing in the vineyards in white dresses, Rabbi Jill Hammer's teaching that this day is a hinge between harvest and fruition, the feminist undertones of a sex-positive Jewish festival, and a teaching from Michael Strassfeld.

Image borrowed from Tu B'Av: the Love Connection.

Happy Tu b'Av!

On the Jewish calendar, today is a holiday of which many contemporary Jews are entirely unaware: Tu b'Av, the 15th of the month of Av, which was once a great festival. In the post The 15th of Av: Love and Rebirth, the folks at Chabad explain (drawing on the Shulchan Aruch) that beginning on this date one should increase one's study of Torah, since (in the northern hemisphere) nights are beginning to lengthen, and nights were made for study. (I can't help noticing that tonight is full moon -- maybe we're meant to do some studying by moonlight tonight?)

Once upon a time, on this date, the daughters of Jerusalem would go dance in the vineyards wearing white dresses, and "whoever did not have a wife would go there" to find himself a bride. (So we learn in Talmud -- this took place during the Second Temple period, before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.) Talmud also teaches, "Said Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel: There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur." (That's in Taanit 26b.)

Far-out, right? Once upon a time, our greatest festivals, our days of greatest joy, were the day of atonement and the full moon of the month of Av. Now 15 Av goes all but unnoticed (and I suspect it's a stretch for many of us to experience Yom Kippur as a day of joy -- though I hope to help with that this year!)

Why was Tu b'Av considered such a day of joy? I think the custom of courting in the vineyards probably had something to do with it. Talmud also offers a list of great events which happened on this day in our ancient history. (You can read about those at the Chabad website too, if you're so inclined: Why do we celebrate the 15th of Av?) In Israel today, some celebrate Tu b'Av as a kind of Jewish Valentine's Day; others celebrate through women's dance festivals like the one in the West Bank town of Shiloh. But in the rest of the Jewish world, these seem unlikely to catch on -- and the occurrences memorialized in Talmud may be difficult for us to relate to. How might we find, or make, meaning in Tu b'Av again?

Rabbi Jill Hammer at Tel Shemesh offers a beautiful meditation on this day: The Frut | 15 Av. Reb Jill writes:

Tu B'Av is an unlikely day of joy, coming as it does in a season of sadness. In its essence, Tu B'Av is a hinge between the time of mourning and the time of gladness, between the pathos of reaping and the celebration of harvest. It is a door opening from death back into life. Tu B'Av is a day of rebirth, when the cut-down stem yields the ripe, sweet fruit.

I love her idea of this day as a hinge in time: the hinge between mourning and celebration, the hinge between the long days of summer and the long nights of winter (perfect for curling up by the fire with the Good Book!), the hinge between the outward-focused energy of summertime and the more inward-focused energy of the season that is coming. (You can also find some suggestions for practice, connections with other traditions' late-summer rituals, and a ritual for Tu b'Av at Tel Shemesh.)

At the Jewish Women's Archive, Leah Berkenwald sees exciting feminist undertones in this sex-positive festival. As she writes in her post Embracing Tu b'Av, "Creating a holiday that celebrates love and sexuality from a progressive, feminist, and Jewish prospective?  Now that is a movement I can get behind!"

In his book The Jewish Holidays, Michael Strassfeld notes that Tu b'Av comes one week after Tisha b'Av, and sees today as the definitive end to our formal period of mourning. Today we shake off the last vestiges of whatever mourning consumed us last week. It is as though we are all mourners who have been sitting shiva together, and now we can feel released from those strictures and that sorrow. Even if we're not putting on white dresses and dancing in any vineyards today (though I envy any of you for whom that practice is actually possible!), we can try to experience today as a day of celebration, a day to shake off our sorrows and let our spirits dance.