Tu b’Av: an especially joyful festival to be reclaimed

The three weeks that lead from the 17th Tammuz (breaching of the walls of Jerusalem)  to the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) are traditionally a period of mourning, known as bein hametzarim – in the narrow straits. So it is all the more surprising that just one week after Tisha b’Av comes an especially joyful festival – the full moon of Av brings us Tu b’Av – when we are told:

Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel said: Never were there any more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments – borrowed ones, however, in order not to cause shame to those who had none of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus the maidens went out and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose; (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)

The rabbis of the Gemara are perplexed – ““On the 15th of Av and on the Day of Atonement,” etc. It is right that the Day of Atonement should be a day of rejoicing, because that is a day of forgiveness, and on that day the 2nd tablets of the Law were given to Moses; but why should the 15th of Av be a day of rejoicing?”

And so begins a fascinating rabbinic journey into what is behind the celebration of the fifteenth (Tu) of’Av :

Said R. Yehudah in the name of Samuel: “On that day it was permitted to the members of the different tribes to intermarry.” Whence is this deduced? Because it is written [Num 36: 6]: “This is the thing which the Eternal has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad,” they claim that “this is the thing” implies the decree was only for that generation, but for later generations the decree doesn’t apply.

  1. Joseph in the name of R. Nachman said: On that day the members of the tribe of Benjamin were permitted to intermarry with the other tribes, as it is written [Judges 21. 1]: “Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying: Not any one of us shall give his daughter unto Benjamin for wife.”

Rabba bar bar Hana said in the name of R. Johanan: On that day the last of those who were destined to die in the desert died, and the destiny was thus fulfilled;

Ulla said: “On that day the guards appointed by Jeroboam to prevent the Israelites from coming to Jerusalem were abolished by Hosea the son of Elah, and he said: ‘Let them go wherever they choose.'”

  1. Matnah said: “On that day permission was given to bury the dead who were killed in battle at the city of Beitar”

Rabba and R, Joseph both said: On that day they ceased to cut wood for the altar, as we have learned in a Baraita: R. Eliezer the Great said: “From the fifteenth day of Av the heat of the sun was lessened and the timber was no longer dry, so they ceased to cut wood for the altar.”

There is a golden rule in rabbinic exposition – the more explanations given for something, the less likely it is that anyone knows what the explanation actually is. Clearly a celebration on the 15th of Av, which coincided with the beginning of the grape harvest, is part of the custom and practise of the Jews by the time of the Talmud, but its origin is already lost in the mists of time.

Let’s look briefly at the Talmudic explanations before looking at the festival itself.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is told in the book of Numbers- a rare piece of case law in that book and a powerful piece of text about women confronting Moses in order to attain fairness under the law. Zelophehad is dead, he had 5 daughters and no sons, and according to the rules of inheritance at that time, the girls would be left without anything. They approach Moses and argue their case, including the fact that their father will be forgotten in his tribe. Moses has to ask God about the merits of the case, and God tells him that the case of these daughters is valid; they should indeed inherit from their father. Later a problem arises, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh – which the family of Zelophehad belong to – also bring a petition to Moses. Should daughters inherit when there is no son, and then marry into another tribe, the inheritance and land that would normally stay within the tribe will be given to the tribe that the woman marries into.

So the law is amended – such women who inherit land from their fathers must marry only within their own tribe – a limiting phenomenon that itself causes problems. So Rabbi Yehuda quotes Samuel by saying that tribes may now intermarry freely – and the date of this decision was the fifteenth of Av on the last year before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel.

The second explanation in the gemara is from a much darker story found at the end of the book of Judges, where a woman staying overnight in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, was gang raped until she died. The other tribes went to war against the Benjaminites who would not give up the criminals for justice, and a ban was proclaimed which meant no one could marry into that tribe. This ban was eventually lifted on the fifteenth of Av. One assumes that this idea comes from the commonality of Tu b’Av to the statement in the Book of Judges ““And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come out of the vineyards, and let every man catch  his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.” (21:21)

The third explanation – This comes from a midrash found in the Jerusalem Talmud amongst other texts, which say that the generation who were to die in the desert because of their connection to the sin of the Golden Calf expected to die on Tisha b’Av. This would cause a problem – if there were to be so many deaths on one day, then who would be able to dig the graves and bury the people? So Moses sent out a decree: On Tisha b’Av everyone must dig their own grave and sleep in it. Those who would die would die, and the survivors would simply have to fill in the graves with the bodies already in them. But many did not die who felt that they too were destined for this fate, and so they continued to sleep in the graves they had dug for themselves until they saw the full moon of Av and realised that Tisha b’Av was well and truly behind them. They would live!

The fourth explanation: King Jeroboam (c900BCE) had challenged Rehoboam the son of Solomon, because of his authoritarian rule, and took the ten Northern tribes with him to his capital Shechem. He built two temples as rivals to the one in Jerusalem (Bethel and Dan) and banned his people from going to worship in Jerusalem.  Fifty years later, the last King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, rescinded the ban – on Tu b’Av – and the joy that ensued is encoded in the festival.

The fifth explanation also involves graves, in this case the ones slaughtered in the rebellion against Rome led by the false messiah Shimon bar Kochba in 135. The massacre of the Jews by the Romans was estimated by one Roman historian as being at least 580 thousand dead and many more taken captive into slavery in other parts of the empire. The majority of the Jewish population was exiled from the land and the land given a new name by the Romans – Syria Palestina – to try to sever the connection between the land and the Jews. Tisha b’Av saw the final destruction of Temple and hopes, and the fortress of Beitar was breached and its inhabitants murdered and left unburied. So Rav Matnah’s explanation for Tu b’Av is that 6 days after the tragedy (some stories say a year and six days), the Romans finally permitted the burial of the slaughtered Jews – on Tu b’Av.

After such dramatic explanations the final one in the list is more prosaic, but also most likely to be the case. Simply that the full moon of Av is around the summer equinox, the days are beginning to shorten and one might be less sure of enough dry weather for the wood cut down for the Temple sacrifices to be sufficiently prepared for its use, and any wood cut down later would be liable to smoke unpleasantly. This explanation is bolstered by the fact that we know of customs in the near East whereby the end of the season for cutting wood is marked by celebration including dancing and music.

So having established that Tu b’Av was being celebrated in Mishnaic times, that the young women would go out into the vines wearing white dresses they had borrowed so as not to be identified by their clothing, that they danced and sang and that clearly a shidduch market was in full swing on that date – the young men would chase them and choose their brides – the rabbinic tradition tried to explain the event using stories of rape, graves, massacre, orphaned women claiming economic rights and hence losing the right to marry outside of their tribe, civil war and rebellion against both internally among the Jewish people and also against an oppressive occupying power. One has to wonder why.

I am reminded of a recent “tweet” that asks why a prominent politician is tweeting terrible racism, and suggests that the deflection is to stop people paying attention to something worse – the statutory rape of underage girls.  Here the rabbinic tradition has a clear story of strong young single women in public space, helping each other with their clothing and “seductively” dancing and singing among the grape vines, with their symbolism of wine and wealth and fertility. So immediately there is a deflection – Beitar! Bnot Zelophehad! Possibly the darkest story in bible of a young concubine gang raped and murdered, whose fate was to be cut into twelve pieces each of which was sent to one of the tribes of Israel! Sin and death and lying in the grave! Rebellion and Massacre!

It seems to me that the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnah, c50-200CE) were fine with the celebrations of Tu b’Av and the fact of young girls out on a summer evening enjoying their bodies, their strength and their music, but the Amoraim (the rabbis of the Gemara c200-500CE) were decidedly not. So Tu b’Av became a date more often ignored than celebrated. The single attention was liturgical – Tachanun (the penitential section of prayers of supplication and confession) are not said on Tu b’Av. Only since the modern State of Israel has been established has Tu b’Av been celebrated – it has become a kind of Jewish “Valentine’s Day”, a day for love, for weddings, for romance. The 19th century Haskalah poet Judah Leib Gordon wrote about its celebration in the newly planted vineyards and certainly for the more secular Israelis this is a Jewish festival to take to their hearts.

It’s worth noting the framing of the Mishnah where Tu b’Av is recorded. It is mentioned in the same breath as the most solemn day in the calendar – Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the white fast. On this day people traditionally wear kittels – the white shrouds they will be buried in. The day is a day of joy as well as penitence, because when we have truly repented, God will forgive us. We leave the day lightened by our activities and return more able to continue with living our lives.

There are real similarities between the two festivals, albeit one is a day out of time “as if dead” and the other a day of sensuous delight. Each reminds us of the importance of living our lives as fully and as well as we can. Each reminds us about living” in the now”, each helps us create our future selves.

So – let’s reclaim Tu b’Av, the full moon that follows three weeks of mourning,  that takes place 6 days after the blackest day in the calendar. Let’s remind ourselves that life must continue, joy must be part of our living, that relationships with others matter and that the future is ours to create

Parashat Behar: the obligation to look after each other sooner rather than later

Again and again in sidra Behar we are told some variation of the scenario: “if your brother becomes poor so that he has to sell his possessions or himself, then his kinsman (go’el) shall come and redeem that which he has sold”. In other words, when someone experiences financial difficulty such that they have to sell their possessions or even enter bonded labour, their family or extended community are expected to provide a safety net, helping them recover their ability to maintain themselves. And if they do not, then time will come to his rescue, and the Jubilee will release him from his debts and return to him his economic means of survival.

Perhaps the most powerful formulation of the statement is that found in Leviticus 25:35-36 “ V’chi yamuch achi’cha, umattah yado imach, v’che’che’zakta bo, ger v’toshav v’chai imach. If your brother becomes poor and his means fail in comparison to yours, then you shall uphold him, as a stranger and a settler shall he live with you. Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God, so that your brother may live with you”.

Two ideas spring out from these texts which read together become an unmistakable chorus of social concern – the first is the repetition of the word ‘imach – with you. The second the imperative ‘v’che’che’zakta bo’ and you will uphold, or strengthen him.

The bible is legislating here for a society of mutual responsibility. From its point of view we are all in relationship with each other, obligated to ensure the continued existence of each other, and unable to say “what happens to someone else is none of my business”; or else ”there are structures and systems to help these people, I need not get involved”.   Instead, we are described as being ‘achim’ – siblings, and we live amongst each other in an interdependent symbiotic world. We have the responsibility to pay attention to how others are managing in the world, to compare their resources with our own, and to support them when it seems that they will otherwise be unable to cope. Rashi tells us that this verse also teaches that we should help others as soon as they show signs of being unable to manage, a comment based on the Tannaitic midrash the Sifra which says:

“In other words, don’t allow him to fall unto utter poverty. The mitzvah may be explained with the analogy of a donkey which is carrying a heavy load. While the donkey continues to stand under the load, it is a relatively easy task to grab him and to steady him so that he is able to remain upright. But if he falls over, then even 5 people do not have the strength to raise him up again” (Sifra Behar 109b).

I love this analogy, because it works in such fine contra-distinction to the sibling analogy. Calling someone else your ‘brother’ and seeing them as an integral part of your own world requires one kind of world view – the slightly saintly sort that says “we are all children of the same God, we are all of equal value and worth, we must help each other out”. It is a beautiful ideology and one that I aspire to consistently holding, but I confess that sometimes it is almost too hard to see the spark of the divine in the soul of some people.

But the Midrash appeals to a different part of us – the pragmatic part that says “think of how difficult it would be to help someone if they reached real poverty – think of how many resources we would need to provide, of how inefficient it would be to have them in some sort of revolving door of social or medical care”. Better to help them BEFORE they start to sink to the point they won’t find it easy to rise from, better to help them NOW so that they won’t need so much more help later….

It is, I suppose, the ultimate political argument. It appeals to our pockets rather more than to our souls, to our selfishness rather than to our altruism. And it provides for members of society who are in need, earlier rather than later.

It seems to me that we ought to take more note of the wisdom of these texts. Clearly a society where some are allowed to subsist in abject poverty is not a healthy society, nor one which would be able to continue for very long – once an underclass is created, it undermines the very foundation of the society of which it is no longer a part. We all know that, and in various ways we try, as a society, to provide a system of checks and balances, of material benefits and of inducements to become self-sufficient. But there are many people who fall between the various services and who are not helped in any way. Asylum seekers find themselves unable to work, and unable to live on the restricted funds they are given. Mentally ill people frequently are helped to the point where they are beginning to get better, only to be then left to their own devices until their illness spirals downward to a point where they need radical assistance once more. Single parents unable to cope with the isolation, young people who have never, ever held down a job, the list could go on and on.

We struggle with all this, complain that we are already heavily taxed and what more can we do? We might toss a coin or donate to a charity working with vulnerable groups of people, but essentially we get on with our own lives, feeling regret when faced with such misery and pain, but otherwise pushing most social problems into the back of our minds. There is a limit to the responsibility we feel for the other, and we assume the State will take on the role of provider, while we tell ourselves that charity begins at home.

But bible challenges our comfortable complacency. Again and again we are told about our brother who becomes less and less able to sustain himself, and about our responsibility towards the one who is amongst and of us. How it is so important that each person have the rights and the resources to run their own lives that even if there is no one who can redeem their debts, they should be able to live as a hired servant in someone else’s household until the jubilee year itself will set them free.   But it is that one little phrase “ve’che’che’zakta bo” – you will uphold him – and its ancient interpretation – you will help him BEFORE he gets to the point where his life seems to be hopeless to him – that seems to me to be the essence of the matter. It is a way of ensuring that no one enters into the realms of degradation, that no one loses their basic right to self-determination, their claim to humanity, no one should become so poor or so hopeless that returning to take their part in society is just too big a task.

We all see people who seem to have fallen into a trap so enormous and so energy sapping that they don’t ever seem able to see a way out of it. Vulnerable people treated in hospital and then left unsupported when they go home, often too early in terms of their rehabilitation and the recovery of their confidence in their own ability to live independently. People who would like to train for a profession or trade, but who will lose the small financial support they are receiving if they do so. Our systems often maintain people at the lowest levels of society, and this is because we have seen only one part of the text, we have created boundaries around how much we are prepared to care and have delegated the responsibility to others, paying them to deal with it.

We have recently read the golden rule of torah – the command to love our neighbour as ourself – and one commentary on this rule always catches me – ‘you never say about yourself that you have loved yourself enough, that you need do no more for yourself but have fulfilled your obligation to yourself. In the same way you should love others”

It is an ideal for us to aspire to. Mostly we try to do about enough, but there are limits to our giving, to our patience, to our sense of connection and obligation. This is where the ingenious interpretation of the Sifra comes in. Yes it says, there are limits, and the calculation we must make is this one – which will be the most efficient way of caring for someone? Caring just enough so as to keep them in the revolving door of needing support? Or caring more than that, to help them change direction BEFORE things get too hard, to look after them until they are not simply not-ill, but actively able to live their own lives and support themselves properly? It may take more resources in the immediate term, but ultimately it is by far the most efficient way to create a healthy and harmonious society.

In the days before the State took on the role of provider of care for the vulnerable, bible created a structure where the nearest relatives would help those in need – and failing that there would be an amnesty of the debt – the jubilee. The expectation was that everyone would be able to own their own means of production. That they could sell first possessions, then land, then their own bonded labour. It was a system that allowed dignity and honour even for the poorest person. You might say that it was way ahead of its time. But the biggest innovation – and the one most relevant to us today is the timing of the rescuing of the vulnerable people. If they got to the point where they had to sell possessions, one redeemed the possessions to put them back to where they were. If they had to sell land, the land was to be bought back and given to them, if they were to sell themselves, even then they could be redeemed and given the freedom to work for themselves. The bible didn’t wait till people were at rock bottom but required intervention as soon as need became apparent. It is a lesson that if we were to put into practise today, would not only would create a more efficient and caring society, but would prevent a great deal of misery.

Today we have a new Government in the UK. I hope and pray they will strengthen and uphold all the people who live in our society, so that all may have the dignity of having enough and none may have to reach the hopelessness of despair before a helping hand is offered to them.

image of poverty statistics uk 2015 from fabian society http://www.fabians.org.uk

Korach: the ultimate individualist

Now Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohat, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliav, and On, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuben, took men;  and they rose up in face of Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown;  and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them: ‘You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is among them; why then lift you up yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal?’ (Numbers 16:1-3)

 What is Korach saying in accusation to Moses and Aaron? The biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz notes the construction of the grammar of Korach’s statement which doesn’t say that the community (a single, collective unit) IS holy, but that “all of the congregation ARE holy, every one of them” – in other words Korach sees a group of individuals, he does not see a sharing and mutual entity. And so this careless slip in his language gives him away – Korach is not interested in the Israelite people becoming a holy nation, he is seeking a reward for personal ambition.

  We live in a world where it sometimes seems that each is out for themselves, at the expense of the rest of society. It is all too easy to demonise those we see as ‘other’, and often we are assisted in this by the rhetoric of those who should know better – leading to a rise in xenophobic rants, in attacks on other religions or ethnic groups as well as on those who are vulnerable economically and dependent upon the State for their maintenance.

 When we allow ourselves to separate from the community, when we allow society to fragment and individual’s desires to outweigh the good to society, we are on dangerous ground. Korach and his followers were, doing exactly this. They believed that the holiness of the individuals was of greater worth than the holiness of the community.

 Our modern post enlightenment world which so insistently values personal autonomy above the best outcome for society, has led us to a problematic place. Politicians have lost their reputations with the public, as have many other professions who are seen as greedy or corrupt or at least morally negligent. Those who give back to society are not as valued as those who make money and the desire for celebrity is becoming for many an end in itself. 

Yet still we doggedly read our biblical texts – “Rav Lachem – you have taken on too much for yourself” is the accusation that flies both ways between Moses and Korach. It may be true of them both, hubris meant that both lost touch with reality with terrible consequences for both men, and it may be true of us also. We take on too much for our own selves, forgetting the value of community and the importance of an integrated society, diverse and inclusive. The story of Korach and his focus on the individual is helpful for us to get our own morality back into a better balance.