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Cantor's Comments - Parshat Ekev                                          August 8, 2020 - 18 Av 5780

08/07/2020 08:05:47 AM


Hello everyone and welcome to another video d’var Torah.  It’s hard to believe that we’re already into August, more than halfway through summer.  For some of us who have barely taken a day off since the pandemic started, it feels like we’re just not going to get a summer at all this year.  Meanwhile, some others are thinking to themselves that what may have started off as a nice stay-cation, has becoming a daily struggle to avoid going stir-crazy.  But no matter which perspective you may be coming from, one thing that we can certainly all agree on is that time seems to be getting away from us, and it’s getting harder and harder to even keep track of what day of the week it is, let alone remember to acknowledge a little mini-holiday that snuck by us this year.  This past Wednesday was Tu B’Av, one of the lesser known Jewish holidays that has always been thought of as the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day.  It is a day to celebrate romance, and make that special person in our lives feel a little more loved and appreciated than they already do.  But even though this video may be reaching some of you a little bit after-the-fact, I thought it would be nice, and hopefully make us feel a little bit more grounded and normal to acknowledge the holiday, and learn a little bit about it, and as it so happens, the story of Tu B’Av is quite mind-blowing as it raises a lot of good questions, and even helps us engage in discussion about some important social issues in our modern world.


The earliest historical mention of Tu B’Av in rabbinic literature comes from the Mishnah in which the great sage, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel claims that “there were no days of joy in Israel greater than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.  On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame anyone who had none… they would come out and dance in the vineyards, and what would they say?  Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself…  But remember, Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised”.  It sounds so wholesome and beautiful, and I would even say Disney-esque, as we imagine a scene of young girls dancing in a vineyard dressed in white, one maiden with long dark hair catches the eyes of a dashingly handsome young man.  She turns and blushes, as he works up the courage to approach her.


Even though this is our earliest reference to the holiday, it doesn’t exactly mention how the holiday of Tu B’Av began, which would be nice to know considering that it’s not mentioned in the Torah anywhere.  For this, an important clue is found in the Talmud, masechet Ta’anit, 30b, which says about Tu B’Av that it was a special day because it was the day when “the tribes of Israel were permitted to mingle with each other”, by which the Talmud really means that it was a day when men were permitted to marry women from other tribes.  But, as far as we can tell from our understanding of Jewish law, there was never in all of Jewish history a religious prohibition against an Israelite from one tribe marrying an Israelite from another tribe.  So why does it seem that this may have been some kind of important rule back in those days?  There is one story from the Tanach which could be hiding the answer, and if it is the origin story of Tu B’Av, it is hiding it for very good reason.  In the book of Judges, or Shoftim, chapters 19 to 21 we learn of a horrific incident which sparked a civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of the Israelite nation.  A man from the tribe of Ephraim was traveling with his concubine through the Benjaminite town of Giv’ah.  In the town he found a fellow tribesman of Ephraim to stay with, which infuriated the men of the town who are described in the text as “v’nei-vli’ya’al” – “a depraved lot”, who were accustomed to taking advantage of, and even raping, defenseless strangers who travelled through their town.  The text describes them pounding on the door and demanding that the man from Ephraim give himself over to the mob to be raped.  Fearing for his life, the man offered up his concubine to the mob, whom they raped and killed along with the daughter of the man who took him in.  As the Israelite nation gathered its forces to punish the town of Giv’ah for its depravity, the tribe of Benjamin came to Giv’ah’s defense.  Seeing this, the Israelites vowed never to allow their daughters to marry a Benjaminite, and in the civil war that ensued, Giv’ah was destroyed and the tribe of Benjamin was decimated.


After the dust had settled and some time passed, the population of the tribe of Benjamin continued to dwindle, and Israelites felt badly that an entire tribe of Israel would be lost if they were unable to take enough wives to replenish their numbers.  But, being bound by their oath, they could not allow their daughters to marry Benjaminites.  And so, the Israelites came up with an astonishing solution. 


“Vayomru, hiney chag Adonai b’Shilo” – “And the Israelites said to the men of Benjamin “Behold, there is a feast of the Lord being held right now in the city of Shilo” – “l’chu va’aravtem bak’ramim” – “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards there”.  “Ur’item v’hiney im yetz’u v’not Shilo lachul bam’cholot, vi’tzatem min hakramim, vachataftem lachem ish ishto mib’not Shilo, vahalachtem eretz Binyamin.” – “As soon as you see the girls of Shiloh coming out to join in the dances, come out from the vineyards; let each of you seize a wife from among the girls of Shiloh, and be off for the land of Benjamin.” – “V’hayah ki yavo’u avotam oh acheihem lariv eileynu, v’amarnu aleyhem chanunu otam, ki lo lakachnu ish ishto bamilchama, ki lo atem n’tatem lahem ka’et te’shamu” – “And if their fathers or brothers come to us to complain, we shall say to them, ‘Be generous to them for our sake!  We could not provide any of them with a wife on account of the war, and you would have incurred guilt on account of your oath if you yourselves had given them wives.” (Judges 21:19-22)


And there you go, a cheery solution to a difficult problem.  *awkward pause* - nope not going there, but we can at least be somewhat comforted that the text itself actually does, in a strange way, acknowledge the awkwardness of this solution, as the story ends with a heavily implied shoulder shrug, “Bayamim hahem, ein Melech b’Yisrael, ish hayashar b’einav ya’aseh” – “In those days there was no king in Israel; and everyone did as he pleased”.


Today, obviously, Tu B’Av is not celebrated with mass kidnappings, and unsurprisingly, this sordid Me Too moment in Jewish history has been all but white-washed from general Jewish learning.  You can even look up Tu B’Av on any of the usual internet sites that offer insights and explanations about the various Jewish holidays, and you won’t find it, apart, maybe, from a vague comment that suggests looking it up in the book of Judges for yourself.  


But just because its origin story may have been less than palatable, perhaps, especially given that there is no relationship between the origin story of the holiday and the way it is commemorated in the modern era, perhaps there’s another way to look at and appreciate the holiday of Tu B’Av.


In the story from the book of Judges, it is clear that some annual holiday for God was already being celebrated in the city of Shiloh, one which the Benjaminites were able to take advantage of  when the young women were expected to come out into the vineyards and dance.  What sort of holiday were they celebrating?  In some Jewish communities, Tu B’Av is celebrated with extra time given to Torah study, particularly on the theme of love—not only romantic, but also fraternal love and the love between God and the Jewish people.  Tu B’Av always falls shortly after the summer solstice when the days begin to get shorter, and the tradition of studying Torah on Tu B’Av is a gesture that demonstrates how we use our precious extra hours of daylight as an opportunity to engage in what most enriches Jewish life—more Torah study.  Moreover, the theme of love is chosen because it is the most accessible starting point on the path to Tshuva, repentance.  The end of summer reminds us that the High Holidays are on the horizon.  It is at this time when we begin the long process of spiritual introspection as we prepare to humble ourselves before God for our misdeeds.  It can be an arduous, uncomfortable and even frightening process, but love is what can help us begin.  It is because of the love that we have for the special people in our lives that we feel compelled to account for the wrongs we may have committed against them so that we can make that love stronger.  The same, of course, is true for our relationship with God.  In that way, a celebration of love on Tu B’Av may be perhaps even more authentically understood as a celebration of taking the first steps of Tshuvah which is recognizing and appreciating all of the good things we have in our lives and remembering that if we seek to keep those things, we have to do the hard work that makes us worthy of them.


Shabbat Shalom, and happy belated Tu B’Av.



Sun, May 28 2023 8 Sivan 5783