BASELESS LOVE: A Tu B’Av Drash
Shabbat Nachamu, 5766
August 19, 2016/16 Av 5776
Love: Is all around.
Love: Is a many splendored thing.
Love: is a burning thing.
Love: is a battlefield.
All you need is love.
One of my favorite rainy-day activities at camp was the sing-down. The judge would call out a word, and we’d have some amount of time to write down every song we could think of that included that word—whoever was left standing, who came up with a song no one else had, was the winner for that round. Rain was a popular one. Sunshine. Moon. But, the longest round, every time, was love.
If you are not subscribed to as much Jewish media as I am, you may have missed that today, Friday, was Tu B’Av—the 15th day of the month of Av—sometimes called a Jewish Valentine’s Day. In Israel, Tu B’Av is a busy day, filled with summer weddings, musical performances, and romantic escapes. Here in America, it goes largely unnoticed, other than a glut of blog posts that seem to have flooded my inbox. But as with most Jewish traditions, it goes much further back than any legend about a murderous St. Valentine, and, I would argue, the roots of Tu B’Av go much deeper than a sappy love song or romantic getaway. Coming on the heels of Tisha B’Av, our day of great sorrow, Tu B’Av appears in rabbinic literature and beyond as a day of comfort and healing, and one of importance.
The most well-known text about Tu B’Av appears in the Talmud, which boldly states that:
There never were in Israel greater days of joy than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem used to walk out in white garments which they borrowed in order not to put to shame any one who had none …
The daughters of Jerusalem came out and danced in the vineyards exclaiming at the same time, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty but set your eyes on [good] family.” As it says, “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that fears the lord, she shall be praised.” (Ta’anit 26b)
It is clearly the origin story of Tu B’Av as a holiday of love, of joy, and of celebration. But I want to suggest that beyond that, our rabbis were bringing us on a journey from Tisha B’Av to Yom Kippur, from grief to love to wholeness—a journey we are asked to take year after year after year.
My colleague, Rabbi Sharon Brous, spoke several years ago about what she called “Yom Kippur Love.” Using a classic rabbinic contrast between Purim and Yom Kippur, she wrote:
So what does it mean to fall in love, Yom Kippur style? Purim style love is how it usually works in our culture. We get all dressed up and show the 2% of us that doesn’t necessarily reflect the best of who we are, but instead reveals who we think the other person wants to see. Then we buckle in and hope he doesn’t run away when he one day catches a glimpse of the rest of you.
Yom Kippur love is love that starts from a place of deep honesty and vulnerability. Yom Kippur love says: I’m giving you access to my fears, my hopes, to me. I will let you see the best and also the worst of me. I will let you see my soul – and I want to see yours. Show me your scars – I promise not to run.
But, how do we get to that kind of love? How do we get to this space of vulnerability, of honesty? Leaving Purim aside, I want to return to the connection between Tu B’Av and this Yom Kippur Love. In another midrash, the rabbis connect Tisha B’Av, which we commemorated just last weekend, with this day of joy and dancing:
Rabbi Abin and Rabbi Yochanan said: “It was the day when the grave-digging ceased for those who died in the wilderness.”
Rabbi Levi said: On every eve of the 9th of Av, Moses used to send a herald throughout the camp and announce, “Go out to dig graves”; and they used to go out and dig graves in which they slept. The following day he sent out a herald to announce, “Arise and separate the dead from the living.” They would then stand up and find themselves in round figures: 15,000 short of 600,000.
In the last of the 40 years, they acted similarly and found themselves in undiminished numerical strength. They said, “It appears that we erred in our calculation”; so they acted similarly on the nights of the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th of Av. When the moon was full they said, “It seems that the Holy One, blessed be He, has annulled that decree from us all”; so they proceeded to make [the 15th] a holiday.
The days leading up to Tisha B’Av, in our liturgy and tradition, are meant to be days of vulnerability, of uncertainty, of tension and anxiety. And, our midrash seems to say, it takes a while to move out of that space—we do not wake up the next day suddenly feeling grounded, feeling secure, feeling safe—feeling ready to move forward. And so, we move into the weeks of consolation, and we move into Tu B’Av. And Tu B’Av, according to these rabbis, is the day we say that we are ready to move forward, that we are ready to begin healing, that we are ready to begin growing---and maybe, that we are ready to love. And that, I think, is how we begin to get to Yom Kippur love. If Tisha B’Av breaks us down, communally, perhaps Tu B’Av begins to raise us up—it says to us that we can move forward, that we can survive, that we can love. And we need that assurance, we need both the shattering and the rebuilding—to be able to stand both broken and whole come Yom Kippur.
The work of the month of Elul is clearly laid out for us; it is the work of cheshbon hanefesh, of an accounting of our souls, our actions, of taking stock of who we are now and who we want to be next year. But what do we do until then? What is our response to Tisha B’Av, our celebration of Tu B’Av, our preparation for Elul and Rosh HaShanah, our prelude to Yom Kippur? Let it be love. If the cause of Tisha B’Av, according to the sages, is sinat chinam—baseless hatred, what would it look like to live our lives—or at least the rest of the month—in ahavat chinam, in baseless love.
It’s not a lyric from Hamilton, but I was deeply moved when my fellow Hunter alum, Lin Manuel Miranda, accepted his Tony with a sonnet composed that day, in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Blending his love for his wife Vanessa, Alexander Hamilton’s love for Eliza, and the pain and grief, particularly in the GLBT community, he said:
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they're finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
The Torah gives us three separate obligations to love. One, quoted by Rabbi Hillel as the essence, the unifying principle, of Judaism, is one we read on Yom Kippur afternoon: v’ahavta l’re-echa kamocha: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Secondly, the one we will read tomorrow morning, v’ahavta et Adonai elohecha—you shall love Adonai your God. And, just a few chapters later: V’ahavtem et ha-ger: you, all of you, shall love the stranger. Not your partner. Not your parents. Not your children. Neighbor, God, stranger.
We are commanded, then, first individually and then community, those with whom the relationship is not as natural, not as immediate, not as obvious. We are commanded, to love people—and a Being—we may never meet, never know, never touch. We are commanded to love not just those with whom we share hopes and dreams, not those with whom we share the joys and challenges of everyday life—but, in fact, those who can seem most distant, most different, most Divine.
Last summer, after the murder of Shira Banki at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, a digital graphic began to appear in the feeds of various friends. A rainbow flag, with the command to love: V’ahavta l’re-eicha kamocha: Love your neighbor as yourself. Only, there were 3 words added. V’ahavta l’rei-echa im hu lo kamocha: Love your neighbor if he is not like yourself. Ahavat chinam—baseless love. Love based not on prior relationship, or on expectations.
This Tu B’Av, just last night, the Reform Movement launched Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection andParticipation. This weekend, clergy and lay leaders are in North Carolina, beginning to register voters in Raleigh and Durham. Efforts will continue through Election Day, getting out the vote, and protecting voters rights—particularly voters of color—when they arrive at the polls on election day. We are doing this in partnership with the NAACP, and in particular with the Rev. Dr. William Barber, who has bravely led the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina for over 3 years. It was Rev. Dr. Barber who lit up the stage at the Democratic National Convention, teaching and preaching that: “We are being called to be the moral defibrillator of our time. We must shock this nation with the power of love.”
Ahavat chinam—baseless love, but love that is action and visible and meaningful. Maybe it’s as little as giving up a seat on the subway, buying coffee for the person behind you at Starbucks, or something as simple as looking up from our phones and smiling at someone we see walking down Columbus. Maybe it is donating to one of the organizations on theground in Baton Rouge, or doing work with Syrian refugees. Maybe it is committing—right here and now—to being a shelter volunteer right here at CRS. Maybe ahavat chinam, this baseless love, is small love—it is the daily acts that change the way we can interact with each other.
Tu B’Av is not meant to be transformative, but it is meant to be preparatory. And if we can figure out how to love—in small ways—our neighbor, our God, the stranger—perhaps we will be ready to more deeply love our spouse, our parents, our children, ourselves. Perhaps, if we can look at the world—or someone in it—with ahavat chinam tomorrow, then we might be ready, 7 or so weeks from now, to stand before our neighbor, our God, and ourselves, ready for that Yom Kippur love.
Ken Yehi Ratzon—may it be God’s will. But first, may it be ours.