Yesterday I said goodbye to love. Well sort of. I bade adieu the man behind the personal nom de guerre “my love”: to the fire in my chest, the humus on my falafel, the Chardonnay to my Brie, my vice, my spirit. I kissed off to an unassuming base, the phantom of my dreams, the face I awoke to, the soul I hungered for, the man who was my yesterday and I hoped to call my tomorrow.
Together we delved into Talmudic pages, we made decadent biblical jokes, we examined Borat clips, we sang off tune, we pretended to cook, we cut watermelon, we cut prices at Mahane Yehuda, we laughed until we broke wind, we broke glasses, we shed tears, we shed light, we played ball, and we played with silence. Together we were homeless in Jerusalem, homeless in Tel Aviv, and homeless in Gush Etzion. Together we got into ideological fights, Hermeneutical fights, food fights, and precarious Styrofoam sword fights. We were just very adamant on fulfilling the biblical command on becoming “one flesh” (Genesis, 2:24).
We were almost there until the eve of Jewish Valentine’s Day—Tu B’Av –when the Israeli army ripped him right out of my startled hands (don’t worry this isn’t a political rant about occupation, or an apartheid state, but a tale of love and hopeful darkness). He must don the olive uniform, and I must return to America.
Duty called, and our love now holds on the other line, stuck listening to a muffled rendition of a Vivaldi season, perhaps Spring or Summer, which to my heart just sounds like the cacophonous crescendo of Winter.
My Tu B’Av tale might seem gloomy, like an ironic way to spend the Jewish holiday of love, the day Talmudically dubbed “most joyous” on the calendar next to Yom Kippur, but in fact my heartbreak fits like signature cutaway gloves on Karl Lagerfeld’s famous fingers (Taanit, 30b).
It does not take a rabbi to realize that Tu B’Av is not in celebration of your fairy tale/Hallmark/ Hugh Grant flick kind of love: there are no knights, no princesses, no magic kisses, no charming accents, no greeting cards, no fluorescent candies, and definitely no happily ever afters to commemorate.
In the first and second temple era, Tu B’Av was a day for the single to mingle. Legend has it the single ladies, all dressed in white, would frolic in the vineyards, with young men trailing behind looking for “the one.” Sounds romantic, right?
Well the origin of this tradition is far from it. It all started with an episode in the Book of Judges retelling callous inhospitality by the Tribe of Benjamin, in which a concubine who was offered to consort with instead of her Levite owner, was raped to death by a wild mob. The Levite then butchered her corpse into twelve pieces which he sent as souvenirs to each tribe of Israel, inciting a civil war, that almost wiped out the entire tribe of Benjamin. Eventually Israel reconsiders the oath to keep their daughters from the Benjaminites, so they slaughter the men of Jabesh-gilead, in hopes of giving the Jabeshian girls to Benjamin. The Benjaminites go ahead and kidnap the virgins from the annual field festival to take ‘as wives’. According to the Talmud, the ancient all white party was set for the 15th of Av because it marks the day Benjaminites were allowed back onto the marriage market.
Yet why pick the 15th of Av for Jewtines day? Why are we celebrating the pulverization of a concubine, a civil war, near obliteration of a tribe, and the snatching of unsuspecting maidens?
Tu B’Av is an ode to the lasting commitment, not the haphazard work of a fat baby’s arrow.
Tu B’Av not only touches on the sexy passions between man and women, but also on the ability of tribes to put the survival of a brother above differences, going as far as trusting a current enemy with their own daughters. On the 15th of Av, we celebrate our ability to put responsibility towards a sibling, a parent, or a partner, ahead of being the right one.
Perhaps the sages chose this salacious date because real love that develops character, that expands horizons, that propels transcendence of the self, and the real love that awakens an awareness of something much greater than ‘I’, in reality, isn’t so sweet. Such a love, does not involve an armed baby and florid roses; it doesn’t grow from heart shaped chocolates, and cheesy greeting cards but from blood stained letters, tears of a toy soldier, lifelong commitments, resilient relationships, and highly invested bonds endeavoring to beat an ocean. Real love is messy, confusing, smelly, and really, truly hurts. Call me a masochist, but this is my kind of love.
Don’t take my word for it, such leanings are echoed in a Talmudic sage’s own rendering of his romantic experience:
“When love was strong we could have made our bed on a sword, now that it has grown weak, a bed of sixty cubits isn’t big enough for us” (Sanhedrein, 7a).
Though in awe, and a bit envious of this miracle –which seems to be the closest historical account of becoming “one flesh”— I can’t help but wonder if this couple is actually comfortable with their sleeping arrangement. Probably not, and the Talmud seems to be hinting that at the climax of love, at the penetrating point of unity in which two bodies can fit onto the tiny tip of a warrior’s slender blade, the couple lies in a throbbing pain which reminds them that they are alive, and in Shakespearean, French-movie, heart stopping love.The Talmud had plenty of other symbols of narrowness to choose from, but the conscious choice of a weapon reveals the blatant centrality of pain in a healthy relationship.
So speaking from my own experience, Tu B’Av and the Talmud, to check if you’ve really fallen in love, just look for some bruises to prove it.