Commentary on Parashat Vaetchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
While I did not know the term “earworm” at the time, certain songs from my mixtape era replay in my head at certain moments. Most recently, following a discussion about an upcoming “Summer of Love” Shabbat service, I can’t get these Victoria Williams lyrics out of my head; from an unfortunately named song, they seem appropriate for this 50th anniversary of the summer of love … from someone who wasn’t there. In the mid-1990s, she sang, “We were too late to be hippies, missed out on the love…”
As those words were hanging out there, up popped an alert on my phone, a story and photo essay about the riots in Newark, N.J. — 50 years ago this summer. It’s also the 50th anniversary of Israel’s Six-Day War, a time of serious reflection in the Israeli and American Jewish Diaspora community. For reasons geographic and systemic, it’s fair to say that plenty of people around back then missed out on the love, too.
The good news? It’s not too late to get in on the Summer of Love, 2017 style. Each year, in the dog days of summer, our text and our tradition point us towards love. Coming out of the intense mourning of Tisha B’Av, we find ourselves poised at the nexus of Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort and Shabbat Vaetchanan, this Shabbat on which we read the Torah’s commandment to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength. And just days from now, largely unnoticed outside of Israel, we’ll celebrate Tu B’Av—the “Jewish Valentine’s Day.” And, while the modern celebrations mirror our Hallmark holiday, Tu B’Av appears in rabbinic literature and beyond as a day of comfort and healing, a return to love after the pain and grief of Tisha B’Av — commemorating tragedies in Jewish history and considered to be the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.
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)
At first glance, it seems strange to put Tu B’Av, a seemingly frivolous day, with Yom Kippur, the holy of holy days. For the rabbis, though, the connection was clear, and even today, Tisha B’Av marks the beginning of the counting towards the High Holy Days; this Shabbat, Shabbat Nachamu, is the first of the 7 Shabbatot of consolation, that lead us to Rosh Hashanah.
My colleague, Rabbi Sharon Brous, spoke several years ago about what she called “Yom Kippur Love,” which she described as:
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.
And so, the question for us — the question of these days of consolation — is how do we get to that sort of love? How do we create it, cultivate it, and offer it?
The days leading up to Tisha B’Av are meant to be days of vulnerability, of uncertainty, of tension and of anxiety. We know that, and our tradition teaches, it takes a while to move out of that space; we do not wake up the next day suddenly feeling grounded and ready to move forward. Tu B’Av, according to another Midrash, 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. Maybe we are also ready to love. And that, I think, is how we inch toward Yom Kippur love. If Tisha B’Av breaks us down, communally, perhaps Tu B’Av begins to raise us up. 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? 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 in ahavat chinam, in baseless love.
I was deeply moved when Lin Manuel Miranda, of “Hamilton” fame, accepted his 2016 Tony Award with a sonnet composed that day, in the wake of a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
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: v’ahavta l’re-echa kamocha: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Then, there’s the one we will read this Shabbat: 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. You shall love: Neighbor, God, stranger. The words of the V’ahavta, taken from this week’s Torah portion, are recited not just once a year but daily. 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.
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 our neighbor, our God, and the stranger, perhaps we will be ready to love more deeply our spouse, our parents, our children and ourselves. Perhaps, if we can look at the world — or someone in it — with ahavat chinam tomorrow, then we might be ready, seven or so weeks from now, to stand before our neighbor, our God, and ourselves, ready for that Yom Kippur love.
(Portions of this piece were delivered at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, and appeared on Rabbi Laufer’s blog)
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronounced: yohm KIPP-er, also yohm kee-PORE, Origin: Hebrew, The Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and, with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.