פרשת ואתחנן - Parashat Vaethanan
On Tu B'Av, Equality and Social Justice
Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
Tu B'Av, colloquially known as the Festival of Love, bore special content according to our Rabbis. It was one of the two best days of the year, and is compared to the holiest day, Yom Kippur. Or as the Mishnah says in chapter 4 Mishnah 8 of Taanit:
אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, לֹא הָיוּ יָמִים טוֹבִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּאָב וּכְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים, שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין, שֶׁלֹּא לְבַיֵּשׁ אֶת מִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ.
כָּל הַכֵּלִים (=הבגדים) טְעוּנִין טְבִילָה. וּבְנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת וְחוֹלוֹת בַּכְּרָמִים. וּמֶה הָיוּ אוֹמְרוֹת, בָּחוּר, שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה, מָה אַתָּה בוֹרֵר לָךְ. אַל תִּתֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַּנּוֹי, תֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַּמִּשְׁפָּחָה.
Rabban Shimon son of Gamliel said: "Israel did not have better days than the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement, in which the girls of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothes, so as not to shame those who did not have them.
All the clothes required Tevillah – a purifying dip – and the girls of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what did they say? "Young man, look up and see whom do you choose. Do not dwell on the beauty, dwell on the family".
What is Tu B'Av all about, and why is it equal in value to Yom Kippur? Our Rabbis give six reasons for the special events that took place on the fifteenth of Av, among which were:
The joy associated with Tu B'Av stems from the empowerment of equality as a value, or as the Mishnah says:
שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין, שֶׁלֹּא לְבַיֵּשׁ אֶת מִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ
In which the girls of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothes, so as not to shame those who did not have them
On that day, the social strata structure disintegrated. No one took pride in what they owned, and no one was ashamed of what she didn’t have. Even the elite members of society removed their ravishing garments and wore borrowed clothes. That was probably the reason why all the clothes required Tevillah – a purifying dip. Maimonides explicitly writes the following explanation in his commentary on the Mishnah: "All the clothes required a purifying dip because they would mingle with one another and undoubtedly, among all those masses, were impure women, as well as impure men". This key event on Tu B'Av was held in the presence of the entire nation, and everyone mingled with one another, the impure and the pure, without condescension or alienation. It was a huge display of love, in which members of every sector and party participated.
That was also the reason behind the dance. It was performed in a circle, where no classes or strata can be discerned. Every point in the circle is equally far from the center, and thus Tu B'Av was in fact a Jewish celebration of social equality.
Moreover, the miracles performed on that day were associated with connecting the various parts of society to one another: tribes were allowed to intermarry, Benjamin was allowed back into the congregation and the Israelites were allowed to returned to the uniting Jerusalem - עִיר שֶׁחֻבְּרָה לָּהּ יַחְדָּו – the city that is compact together, the city that makes, according to Midrash Tehillim on chapter 122, all Bnei Israel friends.
As a society we must demand social equality and justice for all Jews. Is that not the prophets' pre-condition for having the Temple rebuilt?
לָמָּה לִּי רֹב זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה' שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי: ... הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה: ... וְאָשִׁיבָה שֹׁפְטַיִךְ כְּבָרִאשֹׁנָה וְיֹעֲצַיִךְ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה אַחֲרֵי כֵן יִקָּרֵא לָךְ עִיר הַצֶּדֶק קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה: צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה (ישעיהו א')
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? Says Hashem: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, lambs or goats. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the orphan, plead for the widow. … And I will restore your judges as they first were, and your counselors as they were at the beginning: afterward you shall be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and its converts with righteousness. (Isaiah 1).
The demand for social equality and justice has its spiritual roots in the words of the prophets. Symbolically, this demand was made by the Israeli public in the summer of 5771, between the 9th and 15th of Av – a time of mourning for wrongdoings and joy over rectification. Israeli society is in the midst of a process of moral and spiritual awakening after years of slumber, of a loss of ideals and identity.
Tu B'Av is the holiday on which we must leave our comfortable recliners at home and meet Israeli society on the street. All we have to do is listen. Listen to the voices emerging from Israeli society and calling for social equality and justice, talk to the people on the streets and absorb the rectifying atmosphere, as it says in the Book of Deuteronomy:שָׁמֹעַ בֵּין אֲחֵיכֶם וּשְׁפַטְתֶּם צֶדֶק - Hear the causes between your brethren and judge righteously. Is that not the root of joy associated with Tu B'Av – the holiday of equality on which the entire nation leaves its home to intermingle with one another? Is that not the true root of rectification following the destruction of the Temple –
צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה - Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and its converts with righteousness?
Happy Festival of Love to you all!
Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth is the rabbi of Ohel Ari congregation in Ra'anana, and is the CEO and founder of Beit Hillel - Tolerant Rabbinical Leadership.