Parashat Vaethanan 5771 (on tragedy and love)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

In the Book of Eicha that we read last Monday night, we heard:

בִּלָּה בְשָׂרִי וְעוֹרִי שִׁבַּר עַצְמוֹתָי 

[God] has worn away my flesh and skin; has broken my bones (Lamentations 3:4)

By Tuesday night, at the end of Tisha b’Av, my flesh wasn’t quite worn away after 25 hours of fasting, but I was feeling hungry, tired, a bit headachey. Even after breaking the fast, I was still pretty groggy. And a couple of prohibitions even remained in place until noon on Wednesday, because, we are taught, the Temple was still burning.

The story of Tisha b’Av is one of punishment from God, of estrangement from God. After that day has passed, how do are we to recover from this rupture in the relationship between God and ourselves?

Eicha has an answer to this –

כִּי לֹא יִזְנַח לְעוֹלָם אֲדֹנָי  

God does not reject forever (Lamentations 3:31)

Be patient. Put up with the bad things, and eventually God will forgive us and make life bearable again.

I’m not convinced that will work – and certainly not quickly enough, because in a couple of days it will be Tu b’Av, one of the happiest days in the year, according to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:9), when the daughters of Jerulsalem wear white dresses and go out and sing and dance in the vineyards, exhorting the watching young men to choose them… though, not because of their beauty!

In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet uses the phrase “kol sason ve kol simha, kol hatan ve kol kalah” – voices of joy and happiness, voices of the groom and bride – four times. The first three are prophesying the Babylonian conquest when the first Temple was destroyed –  these voices will no longer be heard! (7:34, 16:9, 25:10) Only the last mention becomes our wedding song – again shall these voices be heard (33:10-11). How can we make this transition – from desolation to celebration – in a mere 6 days?

In the Mishna (Taanit 4:6), a list is given of the tragic events that happened on Tisha b’Av. These include: God’s decree not to let the generation who went out of Egypt enter the land of Israel; the destruction of the two Temples; and the fall of Betar, the last Jewish stronghold in the Bar Kochba revolt. When we then look at the Talmud’s list of the things that happened on Tu b’Av (BT Taanit 30b-31a), we see the following items included on that list: The end of the plague that killed most of the generation who went out of Egypt; people being again allowed to travel to the Temple after the reign of one of the wicked Kings of Judah; and permission being given to bury the dead of Betar following the defeat.

So for each of the tragedies of Tisha b’Av, Tu b’Av commemorates a tikkun – an antidote. The teaching here seems to be that Tu b’Av itself brings the antidote to Tisha b’Av. How might this be the case?

Tu b’Av is best known as the Jewish holiday of Love. And perhaps the most famous reference to Love in Jewish sources is familiar to us from the beginning of the Shema, and also found in our parasha:

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ

and you shall love God (Deuteronomy 6:5)

But, what does it mean to love God?

Academic scholars explain the use of “love” here through parallel Ancient Near East texts that spell out the conditions of a treaty between a powerful king and a less powerful ruler under his protection – the less powerful party is meant to – though actions, not just feelings – show fealty to the more powerful party. Though the choice of this word ahava – love – indicates that there should also be an emotional aspect – Jefferey Tigay suggests a translation of “You shall act lovingly towards God”. (JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy)

The traditional mode of serving God in Judaism is through performing mitzvot – and what’s the difference between saying “no” to a cheeseburger “lovingly” or otherwise?

An answer is given in the midrash, actually on the first verse in the next paragraph of the Shema (Sifre Devarim piska 41 / Ekev 11):

שמא תאמר הרי למדתי תורה בשביל שאהיה עשיר ובשביל שאקרא רבי ובשביל שאקבל שכר בעולם הבא

Maybe you’ll say – I teach Torah so that I’ll get rich, or so that I’ll be called “Rabbi”, or so that I’ll earn a reward in the World-to-Come.

תלמוד לומר: לאהבה את ה’ אלהיכם

That’s why the Torah teaches – loving God

כל מה שאתם עושים לא תעשו אלא מאהבה

everything that you do, do it only out of love.

The explanation, according to this midrash is that you might choose to perform mitzvot because you’ll get some tangible benefit – either in this world or the next, but you should be doing them purely out of love.

Serving God me-ahava, out of love, is contrasted in other texts (BT Sotah 31a), not exactly with serving God lekabel sakhar – to get a reward, but with serving God me-yirah – out of fear.  Though there are attempts to resolve these two postures (various commentaries on Mishna Avot 1:3) these are essentially different ways of relating to God.

The me-yirah approach is seeing our relationship with God as mediated by hashgacha – Providence. If we act the way God wants, we get rewarded; if we do not, we get punished. And this is certainly present in our parasha too. Here, there is an immanent God who responds to our behaviour, and in the simplest treatment of this, we can directly feel that response in the world. This is the perspective of Tisha b’Av and the book of Lamentations. We sinned, we failed to follow God’s commands, and God punished us with the Babylonian conquest and destruction of the Temple. Another, perhaps more palatable, presentation of this is that by being aware of what is happening in the world around us, we can find inspiration to improve our actions and thereby our relationship with God.

But then there is the Tu b’Av perspective – me-ahava: we “act lovingly” towards God. This is unconditional love, not predicated on having our actions reciprocated. No matter if the wicked prosper and the good suffer, we love God. No matter that the Temples are destroyed and we are cast into exile, we love God. We love the transcendent God who created the Universe, and we do not read messages from God into the tiny part of the Universe that we experience and that makes us happy or sad in this moment. Our love of God supersedes our experience of the world.

And on this shabbat, shabbat nahamu, the first haftarah of consolation we learn that, before God, “all the nations are as dust on a balance” (Jeremiah 40:15). God is above the conquests of Empires. And so we are reassured that we still do have that possibility of a relationship with God based on love.

There are times when the “me-yira” approach can be appealing, connecting our lives in the world to our relationship with God. But after the trauma of Tisha b’Av, if we are to reconnect with God enough to again celebrate weddings, perhaps we must turn to the mode of “me-ahava”.

On the verse “you shall love God…” Saadia Gaon comments simply: “you shall love God with ahava shelema – a “full” or “whole” love. (ad loc.) On this Shabbat Nahamu, and on Tu b’Av, may the brokenness of Tisha b’Av be remedied by wholehearted love.

Shabbat Shalom