It was the summer of 2019, and I was sitting with Matt and Victoria, a lovely couple who had attended my High Holiday services, asked to officiate in their upcoming wedding. “Of course!”, I said, excited to be part of the joy of building a Jewish home. “When is the wedding?” I asked. It is in a year from now, June of 2020. I was a bit surprised. I had rarely scheduled events a full year in advance. Either way, I happily agreed. After all, what can come up between now and a year from now that would not allow me to officiate at the wedding? I figured, no matter where the wedding would be I should be able to properly plan for and participate in the wedding of this most amazing couple.
Several months later, the world as we know it has changed.
COVID-19 had hit the world with its full force, making New York one of the hardest hit cities. Airplanes were grounded, lives were altered, and certainty was scarce. A half a million New Yorkers have left the city on short notice; many people did not know where they would be a week from now, let alone a month or a year. In April, with a great deal of uncertainty in the air, I called Victoria and Matt and asked them if they wanted to proceed with their wedding plans. They told me they did.
On June 17th, a beautiful and sunny day, the exact day they had planned their wedding more than a year earlier, Matt and Victoria got married. In a picturesque, quaint, and joyous ceremony, they committed to one another and built a home of love and care. While I was not able to officiate the wedding due to unforeseeable COVID-19 travel restrictions, my friend Rabbi Eli Kohl was able to officiate. Tears of excitement came to my eyes, watching the ceremony online, like many of their friends and relatives.
Victoria and Matt’s determination to move forward with their plans to get married on the same day they had always intended to have inspired and intrigued me. I asked them to share with me why they chose to do it, here is what they shared with me:
“Continuing with our date was a hard decision for multiple reasons. At first, we were sad we wouldn’t have a big glitzy party like many of our friends who got married in years prior had. Then we realized that having a wedding this year meant getting married without my father physically present to walk me down an aisle, and I struggled with that idea.… we love each other beyond what anyone can imagine and waiting another day would have been impossible. I would have married him that day no matter what, even if it had to be just us two over zoom in a room.
However, our wedding day was beyond what we could imagine. It was all about us, our love, and our close and immediate family surrounding us – even my father and cousins from Israel on Skype over a big screen. It was a beautiful ceremony outdoors, and friends and family from around the world reached out to us in different ways to show their love and support.
Getting married was the best decision we made. Our love and dedication to one another only continue to grow, and though we have to wait, all we talk about is growing our Jewish family and passing down traditions. However, one of the most important values we will be passing down to our children is love & perseverance. It is because of our love and trust for one another that we persevere, me to go to medical school, and Matt to start his own business. It is because of our deep love for one another that we wanted to get married this summer 2020, pandemic or not. Our marriage and our Jewish family is not that one day in 2020, it began that day.”
Matt then shared his perspective:
“When planning a large wedding the bride and groom can easily get lost in the countless details that go with such an event, it can be stressful and overwhelming and take away from the beauty of the day. The consequence of this is what often gets overlooked is the act of marriage itself. In our scaled-down version with our immediate family in attendance and friends on YouTube live, the focus was squarely on Victoria, and I’s love and commitment towards one another, nothing else. Who knows what the future will hold and when the weddings we are accustomed to attending will come back but for us we had the wedding we had always wanted. And more.”
While events in the year of 2020 give so many reasons to be pessimistic about the world’s future, these two wonderful people took that in the opposite direction. Fully aware of what was happening around them, they have chosen love. Victoria and Matt have chosen to build a beautiful Jewish home, focusing on the blessings of the future; inspired by the gifts in their lives, rather than the challenges much of the world was facing.
But was it the right thing to do? Should they have ignored everything that was going on around them? Should they have perhaps waited unit there was a happier and more predictable world? The answer can be found in one of the most meaningful Jewish days of the year: Tu Be’ Av, the 15th of the month of Av.
Just six days after the saddest day in the Jewish calendar—the 9th of Av, Tisha Be’ Av—comes the happiest day in our calendar. The rabbis teach in the Mishna (Taanit chapter 4) shares the following account:
“Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: 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.… The daughters of Jerusalem come out and dance in the vineyards.
What a beautiful sight.
The young women and men would go out to the vineyards surrounding Jerusalem, all dressed in white. Not only did everyone make sure they were dressed well for the event, but they made sure their festive clothing was all borrowed—even for those from the wealthiest families—in order not to embarrass those who could not afford fancy clothing. Meeting in the vineyards surrounding Jerusalem, young Jews would find their match and continue to wed and build a Jewish home. This celebration, though geared to a specific demographic and age group, was celebrated by the entire community.
While this social event was indeed an incredibly joyous opportunity for many young people, what about is was worth memorializing for generations? Why was it instituted as a uniquely happy day marked by millions of Jews around the world, more than two thousand years later?
The proximity of the saddest day of the Jewish year and the happiest day in the Jewish year makes it clear that the rabbis were making a point.
Even as we rise from mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and our sacred city being decimated, we remember were our hearts should be at. The events of this month remind us that for every Tisha Be’ Av, there is a Tu Be’ Av, what keeps as through a world with so many challenges, is love and optimism. It is the power of construction over the power of destruction.
One of the most famous customs associated with a Jewish wedding is the breaking of a glass at the end of the Chuppah, whereupon, we declare, “If I forget you, O, Jerusalem, let me forget my right hand” (Psalm 137). The rabbis had made the memory of Jerusalem part and parcel of the Jewish wedding ceremony—more than any other Jewish ceremony. While the official reason given is so that we remember any joy is incomplete, so long as the Temple and Jerusalem have not been rebuilt, it is a two-way street. At a wedding, we are not only injecting our greatest celebration with the sobriety of mourning Jerusalem; we are also injecting our mourning of Jerusalem, with the spirit of the wedding. We are reminding ourselves that the pain, spiritual alienation, exile, and persecution we have experienced upon the destruction of Jerusalem, is mitigated and rehabilitated through the joy of a Jewish wedding.
The Talmud (Brachot 6b) factors this into the mitzvah there is to bring joy to a Chatan and Kalllah (bride and a groom) stating that if a person causes the bride and groom to rejoice in their wedding, it is “as if one rebuilt one of Jerusalem’s ruins, as it is stated later in the same verse(Jeremiah 33:11): “For I will restore the captivity of the land as it was in the beginning.” (Talmud Brachot, 6b)
The bond between a world in retreat, and the beauty of marriage reflected by the myriad of remembrances of Jerusalem at a Jewish wedding, is also reflected in the Jewish calendar. We mark the 15th of Av in immediate juxtaposition to the 9th of Av to show that the great power of rebuilding is not found in a military or even construction company; it is found in love and comradery.
I am reminded of a story I heard from Rabbi Aaron Levi, a renowned Israeli speaker whose eloquence inspires many. His grandmother survived the Holocaust and endured a great deal of suffering. “Grandma, how come you never try to take revenge of the Germans?” he once asked her. She looked at him and said something that encapsulates the power of a generation and said: “winners, my dear, do not take revenge. I have children, grandchildren, and a life that I love. That is my revenge.”
This answer was inspired by generations of Jews who knew that the best response to the destruction of Tisha Be’ Av is the beauty and harmony of Tu Be’ Av.
This explains what took place in a mysterious conversation between a distinguished Roman matriarch and Rabbi Yossi. It was the generation of destruction. Jews were being taken to Rome in the tens of thousands. The humiliation, denigration, and suffering were part of everyday life. At this point, the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 68:4) reports this exchange between a Roman noble and a Jewish sage:
“She [the noble] asked Rabbi Yossi, “In how many days did God create the world?” “In six,” he answered.
“And since then,” she asked, “what has God been doing?”
“Matching couples for marriage,” responded R. Yossi.
“That’s it!” she said dismissively. “Even I can do that. I have many slaves, both male and female. In no time at all, I can match them for marriage.” To which Rabbi Yossi countered, “Though this may be an easy thing for you to do, for God, it is as difficult as splitting the Sea of Reeds.”
Whereupon, she took her leave. The next day the aristocrat lined up a thousand male and a thousand female slaves and paired them off before nightfall. The morning after, her estate resembled a battlefield. One slave had his head bashed in, another had lost an eye, while a third hobbled because of a broken leg. No one seemed to want his or her assigned mate. Quickly, she summoned Rabbi Yossi and acknowledged. “Your God is unique, and your Torah is true, pleasing and praiseworthy. You spoke wisely.”
While the simple interpretation of the story speaks volumes on the power of Providence, love, and affection, it also carries metaphoric power.
The Roman noble thought that brute power, chance, and arbitrarily might have the power to foster love and affection. Just as the bond between the Jewish people, the land, and the God of Israel, have been formed, they can be re-formed by chance and power. The response she saw was the power of connection. Love is a choice and cannot be imposed.
As we celebrate the day of Tu Be’ Av, let us remember the power of love and rebuilding. Tu Be’ Av is not just a day of celebration for those seeking a perspective match, it is the framing of a national mindset. On Tu Be’ Av we remember that the answer to destruction is not revenge; it is building. We are reminded that, like Matt and Victoria, no matter what is going on in this world, we must move forward with hope, optimism, and love. Happy Tu Be’ Av!