Rabbi, I cannot bring myself to wrap myself in leather everyday. It just isn’t me.
Conversations about wrapping oneself in tefillin are commonplace for a female identifying rabbi such as myself to have with Jews. You see, close to 45 years ago, when I celebrated my bat mitzvah in Beer Sheva I began wearing a tallit and tefillin. This practice meant from an early age I was called upon to talk about these ritual garments and their meaning in my life, and listened to many Jews explain how hard it was for them to find meaning in this black leather. It was especially challenging for women, for whom the black leather seemed distant from their own sense of self as gentle, soft, caring, loving, none of which appears messaged in these straps at first glance.
This week, as we turn from commemoration of destruction on Tisha B’Av, to celebration of connection and love on Tu B’Av, is a wonderful moment to reflect on the mitzvot, the obligations of Jews to wrap themselves in a prayer shawl, and to bind themselves in phylacteries.
What is Tu B’Av?
We learn about the celebrations of Tu B’Av as a happy day early in our Jewish text, in Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8: “No days were as joyous for Israel as the 15 of Av. “ There is midrash told about young girls dancing out to the vineyards to find their beloved there. The carefree casual tone of Tu B’Av stands in stark contrast to the somberness of the three prior weeks of devastation and mourning.
Tu B’Av is like pressing the restart button on the summer. Coming on the heals of the sadness, “beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem,” it is the restart button we all need to take in a new fresh breathe of air.
It is also very empowering. No longer sitting passively waiting for life to be enacted upon them, on Tu B’Av Jews, and in particular female identifying Jews conditioned in their historic past to wait for things to happen to them, are beckoned to step up and step forward and take life into their own hands.
Tu B’Av is a joyful celebration of humans making, connecting and the sacred that is sparked when two come together as one.
What is the connection of Tu B’Av to wearing Tallit and Tefillin?
There are those who might have assumed that there is little to learn from a joyful and perhaps in the eyes of some, frivolous celebration of a “day of love” as it is today referenced across Israel, and the serious ritual of wrapping oneself in tallit and tefillin.
Yet for those seeking a deeper spiritual connection to God, who view ritual as one pathway to a sacred relationship, the connection can be a deeply passionate and compassionate one.
Seemingly aggressive ritual of black leather boxes and straps being associated with gentle kindness seems unusual but is that not what the nature if TubBav is here for? Does it not ask of us to be ready for and celebrate the element of surprise in life?
And at one and the same time is there not room to bend the perception of these black boxes? Is there nothing soft, comforting and loving about this large shawl which wraps us in a sweet embrace and these reminders on our arms and across our heads?
We are commanded to look and remember. All humans bear signs to witness their love and commitment. The physicality of these signs should not inform the intensity nor gentleness of this love.
What narrative might we birth this Tu B’Av?
There is a beautiful narrative (Rabbi Reiss Medwed on Tallit and Tefillin) shared by the group Interfaith Women Leaders of North America, describing this ritual as a parent embracing their newborn with unconditional love. The Tallit wrapping on as the Kaddosh Barukh Hu, the Holy One, might wrap each of us in a safe embrace of love and peace. The Tefillin nesting a newborn child in the crook of one’s arm, and bending down, as the black box on one’s head kisses the black box on one’s arm, expressing the unconditional love of parent and child to the possibilities and potential of unconditional love between Adonai and ourselves.
Like all expressions of love, care and compassion, this image too is fragile, the fringe all too ready to unravel. Like all relationships it requires careful cultivation, care, attention from both parties if it is to flourish.
The morning rituals of Tallit and Tefillin offer the starting point to that loving unconditional relationship. Tu B’Av offers an annual celebration to take stock, and nurture the relationship so it might blossom year round.
There are many forces which have the potential to disrupt this loving relationship; to get in the way of its full expression. In the coming year as many critical conversations about the Jewish freedom of religion continue in Israel; as Jews in the US continue to passionately empower themselves to publicly celebrate their Jewish identities across an ever-growing landscape of visible antisemitism, the time is ripe for all adult Jews to embrace the mitzvah of wrapping Tallit and Teffilin, as an expression of love, compassion and grace, with God and with one another.
Expressions of Love, Joy and Gratitude. As we celebrate Tu B’Av in a new and disruptive landscape both in Israel and in the US, my prayer for us, it that we ensure that the Jewish community continues to advocate for respectful space for all individuals to find their prayerful pathways with their ritual garments with love and compassion. Let us all seek out our relationships, with one another, and with the sacred, in freedom and harmony. May we continue to dance in the vineyards together!