As we prepare for Tisha b'Av, honoring the reality and scale of grief in our lives, from the destruction of the ancient Temple, the multiple exiles, and pogroms throughout Jewish history, to the devastation of the pandemic this year, my nefesh/body-soul is also leaping to the next holy day. This is a day even less familiar in the Jewish year, called Tu b'Av (literally just "the 15th of the month of Av"). In the modern Jewish world, in Israel, this is something like a Jewish Valentine's Day. There are good reasons for that, but today I want to mention a different lens for this very ancient tradition, connecting Tisha b'Av and Tu b'Av.
There is a Midrash which teaches that each year in the desert, there were many miracles. People got sick, but 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).People knew, and so they prepared, digging a mass grave into which all climbed in preparing, not knowing, who would wake up. Those born free in the desert would always wake. However, those born in slavery, who fought through their fear of Egyptian overlords, but when push came to shove and they felt alone at the base of Mt. Sinai, without Moses or a whisper from G-d for 40 days, reverted to their old 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 them 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, the terror, the not knowing, the digging of the graves, and the climbing out to see less and less faces. Tu b'Av commemorates a year when everyone climbed in, prepared to die on Tisha b'Av, but EVERYONE awoke the next day. Not sure of what to do, they stayed for 6 more days, and then, on the full moon, on Tu b'Av, all arose and knew that this curse and ritual had finally come to the end.
Tu b'Av, therefore commemorates the potential of the end of plagues, the lifting of veils which carry the weight of coffins, lifting the fear of not knowing and not waking up. Tu b'Av is the potential for new life, for new breath, for new life. Jewish tradition calls it along with Yom Kippur, the most joyous day of the calendar year, because with it new life and new breath becomes possible (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? Some of us do feel like we're in a grave, and do indeed not know who will not wake up tomorrow. Whether it's from COVID, from depression, from fear, from the loss of a job and all stability, from the death of a loved one, or many other things. Tu b'Av reminds us that one day, this too shall pass. It teaches just that this can happen any time, that we will not know to expect it, but one day we will dance, we will hug, we will sing, and we will learn to fall in love with life anew.