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Tisha b'Av to Tu b'Av: Lifting the Veil of Death

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

As we prepare for Tisha b'Av, honoring the reality and scale of grief in our lives my nefesh/body-soul is also leaping to the next holy day. This Tisha b’Av, the devastation of the pandemic waking up echoes of ancient destruction, terror, persecution, exiles and pogroms throughout Jewish history. Our next holy day, Tu b’Av, is much less familiar, but vitally connected with this one. In the modern Jewish world, especially in Israel, we usually celebrate it as something akin to a Jewish Valentine's Day. There are good reasons for that, but today I want to mention a different lens for an ancient tradition, connecting Tisha b'Av and Tu b'Av.

There is a Midrash which teaches that each of the 40 years wondering in the desert, there were many miracles. One of them was that while people got sick, no one died, except on one day of the year. That day was Tisha b'Av (Rabbi Dimi bar Yossef, based on Rabbi Nachman, in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Ta'anit, 4). The Israelites understood this pattern and so began to prepare, digging a mass grave into which all climbed in fearing, though not knowing, who would wake up. Those born free in the desert would always wake. However, those born in slavery, who overcame their Egyptian overlords, but could not overcome the enslavement of their own fears, reverted to the universal worship of things, of gold, and bowed down to a giant Golden Calf, those who struggled to have faith in a God they could not see, more and more of those would die each year.

Setting aside the question of miracles on one hand and punishment on the other, I want to point us to the emotional experience underneath each ancient Tisha b'Av. Let us look at the terror, the not knowing, the digging of the graves, and the climbing out to see the faces of loved ones dead. Our holy day of Tu b'Av commemorates a year when everyone climbed in, prepared to die on Tisha b'Av, but all awoke alive together. Not sure of what to do, they stayed in their for six more days, and then, on the full moon, on Tu b'Av, all arose and knew that this trial had finally come to an end.

Tu b'Av, therefore commemorates the potential of the end of plagues, the possibility of stepping beyond the cemetery, the lifting of unending fear tugging at our souls without end. Tu b'Av is the potential for new life and renewed breath. Because of this, Jewish tradition calls it’s renewal of life, along with Yom Kippur, the most joyous day of the calendar year (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Ta'anit, 10).

Can you feel resonances of the weight of Tisha b'Av and the potential for Tu b'Av in your lives and the lives of your friends, family, and clients, this year? This year more of us than usual feel like we’re in a grave, have loved ones near death, and do not know who will wake up. Whether it's from COVID or another life threatening illness, from the loss of a job and all stability, from depression or political instability, or many other things. Tu b'Av reminds us that one day, this too shall pass. It is like an oasis in the desert, while often uncertain and sometimes just a mirage, a place of respite and surety that one day soon we will dance, we will hug, we will sing, and we will learn to fall in love with life anew.



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