26th Ellul- learning to forgive ourselves as God forgives

In the Talmud (Ta’anit 25b) we have the origin of the great confessional prayer of the Yamim Noraim, the Avinu Malkeinu.  “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos, the great teacher and pious scholar descended before the Ark in order to serve as prayer leader on a fast day because of a terrible and prolonged drought.  He recited 24 blessings but was not answered. Then his student, Rabbi Akiva descended before the Ark and simply said “Avinu Malkeinu, Ein lanu melech ele atah, Avinu Malkeinu lema’an’cha rachem Aleinu: (Our Father, our Ruler, we have no sovereign other than You. Our Father, our Ruler, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”

Immediately the rains fell. The Sages began whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not. A Divine Voice emerged and said: It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving. God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”

Rabbi Eliezer was known for his fierce temper, and indeed was excommunicated when his colleagues could no longer deal with his domineering and strict viewpoints – though interestingly both he and his learning were always held in great respect and he is one of the most quoted rabbis in Talmud. But he was not a person who found forgiveness easy to do, nor did he find it easy to let go of his anger – indeed the story of his wife Ima Shalom who supervised his prayers after the excommunication in order to prevent his anger overtaking the world is a powerful end to the story of the oven of Achnai, and a reminder that when someone is so certain of the rightness of their view that there is danger for us all.

But Akiva, the one who could forgive others, had a simple prayer answered;  a prayer that did not even mention the desperate need for rain, but asked God for mercy for God’s own sake.

This is the origin of Avinu Malkeinu – and also of the extraordinary – and powerfully resonant – last lines of the prayer.

Over the year many additions have been made to this prayer. Sephardi machzorim generally have 32 petitions, the Ashkenazi ones can go up to 44. Some requests are particular and some are universal, some ask directly for favours, others remind God of the vulnerability of the people. But the last lines are different, they special and are specially loved – so much so that we have changed the longstanding tradition of saying them quietly but instead lustily and happily remind God to be merciful as is God’s nature, because we have no good deeds to bring. All this to a joyful tune, quite different from the solemn and rather serious tune of the rest of the prayer.

The Dubner Maggid tells the story of the person who goes shopping, excitedly adding more and more items to their “buy” list. All the petitions are in effect  us saying “I’ll take that, and that, and give me that too please”  And then when we get to the till, we find we cannot pay for everything we have taken, and in embarrassment have to say to the cashier – can you help me? Can you give me some credit and I will try to pay you in the coming year.  As long as I have a good year – please add a good year to my basket…

The embarrassment referred to in the story of the Dubner Maggid is all but disappeared today. Instead we proudly and clearly stand before an open Ark and list our requests to God. The Avinu Malkeinu is in each of the services; it is one of the last prayers in Neilah, the evening of Yom Kippur. We have spent the day reflecting, we have spent the month before on Heshbon Nefesh, considering our previous behaviour. And on Yom Kippur we may fast and afflict our souls, but we also know that if we are more like Rabbi Akiva, able to forgive others, God will forgive us. Yom Kippur is the white fast for a reason – the colour is both the colour of mourning and the colour of joy. We can have both serious reflection and happy anticipation in our lives – and both are deserved.

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