By Rabbi Jeremy Gerber
Last Friday, July 27, you might have noticed a very special — albeit little-known — festival on the Jewish calendar. Tu B’Av, literally “The 15th of Av,” falls just six days after Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the year and, believe it or not, is the Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s Day, dedicated to love and romance.
Tu B’Av can be traced as far back as the Mishnah (compiled around 200 B.C.E.), when Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel stated: “There were no happier days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av … when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards. What were they saying? ‘Young man, consider whom you choose [to be your wife]’” (Ta’anit, Chapter 4). Yup, that’s right: Tu B’Av was the ancient equivalent of JDate and Tinder.
I mention all of this because I want to talk with you about love. Not just because of this ancient and, more recently, resurgent Day of Romance, but because it’s also a prevalent theme in this week’s Torah portion.
In our parshah alone, love is mentioned six different times; twice God loves us (Deuteronomy 7:13 and 10:15), and four times we are expected to love God in return (10:12, 11:1, 11:13 and 11:22). Moses is in the middle of delivering his swan song to the people, and he reminds them of everything God has done for them — often undeserved and frequently reciprocated with complaints, whining and even rebellion. Yet Moses continues to implore the people to love God.
So let’s delve a little deeper into this concept of love. Love is a tremendously powerful emotion — as Hollywood surely reminds us on a regular basis — and it is particularly appropriate in this context of divine-human relations.
What do we know about love? Well, for starters, it isn’t concerned about convenience or pragmatism. If you fall in love, you have no control over it, and you can’t switch love on or off when you feel like it. So, too, our Jewish faith tells us God exists and is in a relationship with us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Furthermore, Moses reminds us that it perseveres, no matter what happens on either side; it endures despite our worshipping idols and despite God’s allowing atrocities to occur. Love isn’t about perfection either. We acknowledge that God doesn’t always get it right, and we certainly hope that God accepts our flaws and idiosyncrasies. As we look ahead to the High Holiday season, accepting imperfections certainly seems relevant and timely.
Love does also allow for (kindly worded) criticism. Sometimes God needs to hear our anger, our frustration and our disappointment. But it goes both ways. God also has a right to chastise us in return, especially when we ignore vulnerable members of our society, like refugees, or exploit our planet for monetary gain. This relationship is truly a two-way street.
But isn’t that what love means between people as well? Hollywood confuses us with Disney-fied myths about picture-perfect, happily-ever-after love, which is actually harming us by distorting our expectations. We love even when we’re upset. When a spouse, family member or friend hurts us, we don’t simply walk away. We stay and we fight. We communicate (ideally), we process and we work through tough issues. Hopefully, on the other end, we may even discover that our relationship is stronger for having endured our conflicts. Has this been true in your life?
Deep down, we all know that it’s worth it. Despite the complexity, the heartache and the steep learning curves, love is always worth it; whether we’re talking about bonds between family members, romantic partners or even encounters with the divine.
There are no objectively right or wrong ways to express love. Blessing one’s children at Friday night dinner, reciting Kaddish after a loved one has died, participating in community-wide social action projects, visiting the sick or giving a rose and a greeting card on Valen … um, I mean Tu B’Av, these are all expressions of love. The key is to find something that resonates with you, and — perhaps more crucially — is meaningful and impactful for the recipient(s).
We need to talk about love. We don’t express or display it enough, and we don’t let love guide our actions or policies as much as we should. I hope we can all truly hear the Torah’s message of love, and truly seek ways to bring it into our lives and into our world. You don’t have to wait for Tu B’Av or Valentine’s Day; today works just fine, too.
Rabbi Jeremy Gerber is the rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford. He is an active member of the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County, as well as a founding member of FUSE, an interfaith networking group in Delaware County. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.