A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 8.6.2020

Yesterday, we celebrated the minor Jewish holiday of Tu b’Av – “the 15th of the month of Av.”  Tu b’Av is celebrated in Israel as a kind of Valentine’s Day, based upon a passage from the Mishna (Ta’anit 4:8).  On this day of great joy, “…the daughters of Jerusalem would come out and dance in the vineyards. What would they say? ’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 the family.’ ”  The Mishna tells us “the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame anyone who had none.” It was a day for lovers, for love and marriage.

This passage immediately follows one that describes Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.  As I mentioned last week on Tisha b’Av, the sages tell us that the tragedy of the destruction of the second temple was caused by sin’at chinam – baseless hatred.  The juxtaposition of these two days on the Jewish calendar, further emphasized by their proximity to one another (only 6 days apart) is striking.  Doom and destruction are the result of baseless hatred.  But a day of joy and love is intimately wrapped up in a ritual connected with the idea of deliberately “not shaming” anyone.  The Talmud describes in detail just how ritualized this practice was: “The daughter of the king borrows [white garments] from the daughter of the High Priest; the daughter of the High Priest from the daughter of the deputy High Priest; the daughter of the deputy High Priest from the daughter of the priest anointed for war; the daughter of the priest anointed for war borrows from the daughter of a common priest…” and so on, down the line, until the common folk borrow from one another.

The juxtaposition, though, is deeper than simply “baseless hatred” on the one hand and “love” on the other.  As my dear friend Joe Karten observed, “baseless hatred” literally means that the parties involved have no base – each is so far removed from the humanity of the other that they share no common space – there is nothing beneath them to ground what should be their natural connection to one another.  The remarkable act of chesed / kindness described in the Tu b’Av ritual is the antidote, the remedy, maybe even the vaccine! against that “baselessness.”  The daughters of Jerusalem created a ritual of equalization that lovingly nudged everyone onto common ground so that they could be evaluated not on the condition of their clothes, tattered or pristine – the external distractions – but on the things that really mattered.  They said it themselves: “Do not set your eyes on beauty but set your eyes on the family.”

Now that Tisha b’Av has passed, we turn our eyes toward the High Holy Days.  The mishna that I quote above tells us that there was one other day of the year that, like Tu b’Av, was equated with immense joy and elation, and on which the daughters of Jerusalem would again go out and perform the same ritual: Yom Kippur.  We don’t generally associate that day with joy, but we can understand the sentiment; on that day, all of our wrongdoings are purged – our sins, as the liturgy says, are “whitened like snow and like wool.”  In the Torah, the elaborate Yom Kippur ritual involving the two goats – one for sacrifice and the other for Azazel – was the annual acme of the cultic system whose ultimate aim was to bring us as close as possible to God (see Leviticus 16).  I can’t help but see the story of the daughters of Jerusalem in borrowed garments as another expression of that idea: by coming closer to one another – by being sensitive to the feelings and the needs of others, by expressing genuine caring for one another, we bring joy and elation to God’s heart, cementing our bond with the divine.

I will be trying to keep the image of the daughters of Jerusalem in my mind over the coming weeks.  I can think of no better kavana / intention to direct my heart in the march toward the Days of Awe.  Let me know if you need to borrow a white garment…

Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine