Tu B’Av is here, the moment we fully turn away from mourning exile, away from Tisha B’Av, and turn toward imagining a world full of love. Sometimes Tu B’Av is called Judaism’s “festival of love”.
“Tu” means fifteen, that is, the 15th of the month, which is always the full moon. As the full moon after Tisha B’Av in the heat of summer, it is the moment when the sun and the moon are both at their strongest (more on the Kabbalistic meaning of that in a minute).
Tu B’Av always comes close when we read the second parshah (Torah portion) of Deuteronomy, Va’etchanan.
I find it wondrous and wonderful that this parshah always comes before or adjacent to Tu B’Av. Va’etchanan includes the root for love, Aleph Heh Bet, five times, including the most famous instance in the whole Torah, the first paragraph of the Shma (the “V’ahavta” – meaning “and you will love YHVH your God”). And after so much love in Va’etchanan, there is even more in the parshah that follows, Eikev. Eikev includes the root for love eight times. No other Torah portion includes more love than these two.
As a festival of love, Tu B’Av has echoes of a Jewish Beltane (the spring Celtic dancing and fertility ritual that takes place in the fields). As the Talmud reports, unmarried women would go out into the fields to dance, and unmarried men would follow after them to find a match (Mishnah Taanit 4:8). It was also the moment when the woodcutters finished harvesting wood for the Temple altar for the entire coming year (Taanit 30b). In other words, it’s a time when we imagine igniting new fires out of the ashes.
From a Kabbalistic perspective, Tu B’Av is a moment when the divine feminine and divine masculine, represented by the full light of the moon of Av and full heat of the sun of midsummer, are prepared for union. (Note: feminine and masculine are not the same as male and female — according to Kabbalah, everything and every individual that exists necessarily includes both masculine and feminine – and both are necessary for there to be a “divine image”.)
As with every full moon, the sun and moon stand at opposite ends of the heavens (from our earthly perspective). Symbolically, astronomically, it makes sense to think of it as a moment that can stand for fertility or love, or both.
The love in Va’etchanan, it should be noted, is not about romantic love. It’s all about God loving us and our loving God. But the mystics, Sufis, and Chasidim know well that romantic love can lead us to love of the divine.
Eikev, the parshah with the most love of any Torah portion, adds a new element not found in Va’etchanan: loving the stranger, and it mentions this twice — once saying that God loves the stranger, and once telling us to love the stranger. A midrashic understanding of this fact might be: love that is real, divine, and connected to truth, will always expand to include the stranger, or more generally, will always be impelled to become more inclusive.
I am in love with how Tu B’Av syncs up with love in the parshah! It’s is right up there with two other coincidences that I love (puns intended). One is that the word “Eikhah”, which is the Hebrew title of Lamentations, the book we read on Tisha B’Av, appears in Devarim (the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy), the parshah we read right before or on Tisha B’Av (as we did last week). And the other is that Joseph always ends up in the dungeon before the darkest night of the year, which is the Shabbat of Chanukah. (It’s the darkest because the new moon close to winter solstice is darker than winter solstice, which is simply the longest night.)
There are other parshiyot (Torah portions) with a lot of love, but not necessarily good love: Toldot in Genesis, mentions love five times, all of them relating to the rivalry between Esav and Yaakov; and Vayeitsei, also in Genesis, mentions love four times, describing the ongoing jealousy and rivalry between Rachel and Leah.
On the positive side of things, in Nitsavim, the portion read before Yom Kippur close to the end of the Torah, love appears three times, all three about our loving God (but not about God loving us); and in Kedoshim (the seventh parshah in Leviticus), love appears twice, commanding us to love the neighbor and the stranger as ourselves. None of these examples outshines Va’etchanan and Eikev.
Here are some other tidbits you can find when you up love in a Biblical lexicon: The first time love appears is in the Akeidah (in God’s command to sacrifice the son Abraham loves). The second time, and the only time in Genesis that is purely positive, is when the Torah tells us that Yitzhak loves Rivkah. Love also appears in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15, which talk about a slave who loves his master; and love appears four times on Ki Teitzei in Deuteronomy — but three of them are about the loved wife vs. the hated wife. We also get just one verse about love in Re’eh, which describes God testing our love.
So in this week and next week’s portions, so close to Tu B’Av, we hear the most about love in any sense, and also the most about love that is uplifting.
I feel like a wide-eyed kid when I get excited about this kind of stuff — and I’m so grateful I can still feel that way about Torah.
Happy Tu B’Av, and may we all find shalom and nechemta (comfort) this Shabbat Nachamu, the shabbat of Va’etchanan!