As we walked down the street on Thursday, my kids broke into excited shrieks. “Balloons,” they yelled, and off they went.
“Naturally,” smiled the young man decorating the restaurant next door. “Tonight is Tu B’Av, the festival of love.”
(And what says “love” better than red and white balloons?)
Ironically, the story behind Tu B’Av is as unromantic as it gets.
After some members of the Tribe of Benjamin committed a terrible atrocity (gang raping a woman to death), their fellow Benjaminites refused to deliver them to be executed. Appalled, the other tribes declared war against the Tribe of Benjamin, and vowed never to wed their daughters into that tribe. After several defeats, the confederated tribes won and killed all but 600 Benjamin men.
Once the dust settled and tempers cooled, the Israelites realized that their vow practically guaranteed the extinction of a whole tribe. They sought a way to wed their daughters to the Benjaminites and preserve the tribe without breaking their promise. Tu B’Av, a day when maidens traditionally danced in the vineyards, supplied them with the perfect solution: The Benjaminites were invited to abduct brides from among the dancers, thus procuring wives without the consent of any non-Benjamin man.
We commemorate The Plan for the Conservation of the Tribe of Benjamin by celebrating romance with balloons and stuffed teddy bears. But frankly, where is the romance in abduction?
That said, Tu B’Av is worthy of commemoration.
Romantic or not, the Tu B’Av story demonstrated an incredibly powerful commitment to the nation of Israel as a whole. By seeking compromises and refusing to lose any of the nation’s distinct components, the Israelites proved that they placed peoplehood over principles, and connections over divides.
Can we say the same about ourselves? Sometimes, when we argue over the right way to be Jewish/Israeli/righteous/religious, it seems like the answer is no.
When Israel’s Orthodox establishment denigrates Reform Judaism and bars non-Orthodox Jews from using state-funded resources (like mikvehs) for their rituals, it alienates large segments of the Jewish People.
When non-Orthodox Jews call for the eradication of said establishment and dismiss it as medieval, unenlightened, and plain primitive, they alienate large groups that see the Orthodox institutions as their representatives.
When Israelis belittle Diaspora Jews as somehow less Jewish, they push them far, far away.
When right-wing Israelis call their leftist compatriots “traitors,” and try to silence them, and when left-wing Israelis question the integrity and morality of the political right by painting it as a war-mongering, vicious camp by definition, they alienate each other too.
In all these cases, righteous indignation leads to alienation. Our need to push our separate “right” agendas overrides the need to maintain our partnership with other Jewish groups.
The ninth of Av reminds us what happens when we let “being right” override “being smart.” The baseless hatred we lament isn’t a hypothetical concept. It refers, first and foremost, to the actual political reality that led to the disintegration of Jerusalem’s society from within, in the years leading to the rebellion against Rome and the destruction of the Second Temple.
Competing Jewish sects debated religious and political questions, and believed that their “rightness” justified violence against each other: killing opponents and burning their supplies (incidentally, one of these massacres took place on the fifteenth of Av in the years leading to the Temple’s destruction). By the time the Romans made it to Jerusalem, the infighting made it ripe for the picking.
The fifteenth of Av supplies us with a counter-example to Tisha B’av’s depressing message. It shows that placing peoplehood over divisions is possible. The tribes could say “good riddance” and let the Tribe of Benjamin disappear, especially after losing many of their own men in the war against it. But they didn’t. The joint journey of the entire Jewish People meant more to them than the events that divided the nation, and they were willing to compromise over their vows to maintain it.
So really, Tu B’av is the holiday of love. But it’s the pragmatic kind of love that thrives on compromise and partnership, the kind of love any long standing couple comes to recognize as abiding and true, and not the romantic kind of love that sparkles within a balloon-cum-champagne dinner for two (yummy and fun though they are)
(Because “sweetheart why don’t you rest now, Ill take care of the kids” says “love” far more eloquently than red and white balloons.)
This is the kind of love that our joint journey desperately needs. No matter how strongly we disagree, the other groups within our people are our partners in this crazy national venture. And it wouldn’t be our national venture if we were to succeed in pushing them out.
Perhaps the appropriate way to celebrate this festival is to look our opponents in the eye, be they Reform or Conservative or Orthodox, Israeli or Diaspora-based, left wing or right wing or anything in between, and say, “You are our partners.”
Let us pop the bubbles (balloons?) of our righteous self-assurance, and see that, though very different, we’re still standing side by side.