Judaism: Vaetchanan and Tu B'Av
Parashat Va-et’chanan contains the Shema, Judaism’s single most central declaration: “Shema Yisra’el – Hear O Israel: HaShem is our G-d; HaShem is One. And you shall love HaShem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of Britain 1913-1946) makes an extremely astute observation: “This is the first instance in human history that the love of G-d was demanded in any religion. The love of G-d is the distinctive mark of His true worshippers. The worshipper, as he declares the Unity of G-d, thereby lovingly and unconditionally surrenders his mind and heart to G-d’s holy will. Such spiritual surrender is called kabalat ol malchut shamayim, ‘taking on oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven’” (Commentary to Deuteronomy 6:5).
It is, of course, no coincidence that, as Rabbi Hertz notes, the Blessing immediately before the Shema of the Morning Service both begins and ends with the word “ahavah”, love. And the Blessing immediately before the Shema of the Evening Service begins with the phrase “ahavat olam”, everlasting love (quoting Jeremiah 31:3), and concludes with the inspiring words, “Blessed are You, HaShem, Who loves His nation Israel”.
Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Va-et’chanan always falls on the first Shabbat after the 9th of Av – either the 11th, 13th, 15th, or 16th of Av.
Shabbat Va-et’chanan is known as Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of Consolation – for the Haftarah which begins “Nachamu, nachamu ammi – comfort ye, comfort ye, My people, says your G-d” (Isaiah 40:1). This Haftarah is not directly connected with the theme of the Parashah; rather, it is the appropriate reading for the immediate aftermath of the ninth of Av (see Tosafot, Megillah 31b s.v. Rosh Chodesh; Rambam’s Commentary to the Mishnah, Megillah 3:7; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 13:19).
This Shabbat, the first after the 9th of Av, is also the Shabbat nearest to Tu be-Av (the 15th of Av) – which fact, curiously, is very rarely mentioned.
Tu be-Av has great significance: “Israel never had better days than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur: on those days, the Jerusalemite girls would go out dressed in borrowed white clothes, so as not to embarrass anyone who did not have such clothes… And the Jerusalemite girls would dance through the vineyards, singing: Young men, raise your eyes and see – whom do you choose? Do not pay heed to physical beauty, look rather at the family. ‘Grace is false and beauty is worthless; a woman who fears HaShem – she is praiseworthy. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and her own deeds will praise her in the gates’ (Proverbs 30:30-31)” (Mishnah, Ta’anit 4:8).
To understand the relevance of Tu be-Av, we have to go back to the sin of the spies and its aftermath. On the 9th of Av in the second year after the Exodus, ten of the twelve spies delivered their evil report about the Land of Israel, the people lost heart, and G-d condemned them to live and die in the desert for forty years. “In this desert will your corpses fall..., none of you will come to the Land…other than Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. Your little children…will know the Land that you despised, though you will fall as corpses in this desert. But your sons will be nomads in the desert for forty years, and they will bear your faithlessness until the last of your corpses in the desert. For the number of days that you traversed the Land – forty days – one day each year, one day each year; you will bear your iniquities for forty years, and you will know what it is to defy Me!” (Numbers 14:26-34).
The “one day each year” that was set aside for people to die was the ninth of Av. (The Hebrew phrase yom le-shanah, yom le-shanah is usually rendered “a day for a year, a day for a year”. Our rendering here – “one day each year, one day each year” – is a more literal translation, and is more consistent with the traditional understanding. See the Kli Yakar, ad loc, and compare Hagigah 5b; Sifrei, Deuteronomy 2; Tosafot, Sotah 11a.)
Midrash Eichah graphically describes how that date was marked each year by that generation: “Every eve of the 9th of Av, the proclamation went forth: Go out and dig. And on the morrow they would lie in their graves. On the 10th of Av, the proclamation went forth: Separate the living from the dead.
And in the fortieth year, when the 10th [of Av] came, they saw that no one had died, and they thought that they might have miscalculated the date. So they remained in their graves until the 15th of Av, which [is unmistakeable because it] is when the moon is full. And then they made a tremendous celebration, because they knew that the decree [of dying in the desert] had finally been revoked”.
Particularly in our post-Shoah consciousness, this imagery of Jews digging their own graves, lying in them, and waiting for death has particularly gruesome connotations. Such was the consequence of the sin of the generation of the spies.
And this annual gloomy horror finally finished on Tu be-Av; this was the day on which the Jews knew that the punishment of the spies had finally expired. It was the day when Israel was reconciled with G-d.
Tu be-Av was also the day on which Jews from different tribes could intermarry. While in the desert, Jews were allowed to marry only within their respective tribes, a decree which no longer applied as soon as they entered the Land of Israel; but on Tu be-Av each year, this decree was suspended (Ta’anit 30b, Bava Batra 121a and Rashi ad. loc.).
So Tu be-Av is the day on which Israel are conciliated both with their G-d and with each other.
After the destruction comes the rebuilding, after the argument comes the loving reconciliation. So it is beautifully appropriate that immediately after the 9th of Av – G-d’s greatest fury against His nation – comes Tu be-Av – the greatest reconciliation. And on the first Shabbat after the 9th of Av, the Shabbat closest to Tu be-Av, we read the Torah portion, “…and you shall love HaShem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…”.
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Spain, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt, 1135-1204) defines how the Jew is supposed to love G-d: “What kind of love is it appropriate to love G-d with? – A tremendous and overwhelmingly powerful love, so great that his soul becomes bound up with love of G-d; and ultimately he should become constantly obsessed by it, like one who is lovesick, who can never rest his mind from the woman whom he loves, who is obsessed with her constantly, whether sitting or standing or eating and drinking. And love for G-d should be even greater than such love in the hearts of those who love Him, constantly obsessed with love for Him, as we have been commanded, ‘…you shall love HaShem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might’” (Laws of Repentance 10:3).
This model of love between man and woman as a paradigm for the love that the Jew should feel towards G-d is a persistent theme in Judaism. Countless Midrashim present Israel as bride and G-d as groom, wedded in love. Indeed, King Solomon wrote the Song of Songs, one of the greatest erotic love poems in history, as a paradigm of the love between G-d and Israel.
And by contrast, the prophet Jeremiah began Lamentations by weeping over Jerusalem: “The city great with people has become like a widow!” (Lamentations 1:1) – that is, like a woman whose husband has been taken away.
For three weeks, from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, we mourned the destruction of Jerusalem and of national independence. The Haftarot for those three Shabbatot are called the “t’lat de-pur’anuta”, the three Haftarot of castigation – those gloomy and terrifying prophecies taken from the first chapters of Jeremiah and Isaiah, warning of impending destruction as a result of sin.
The Haftarah for Parashat Va-et’chanan is the first of the “sheva de-nechemata” – the seven Haftarot of consolation, all taken from the last 27 chapters of Isaiah – glorious, majestic prophecies of the wonderful times that await us in the future redemption.
These seven Haftarot of consolation begin with Parashat Va-et’chanan – the closest Shabbat to Tu be-Av, and finish with the final Shabbat of the year – the Shabbat immediately before Rosh ha-Shanah, ushering in the Ten Days of Repentance, the time that G-d and Israel draw closer together than ever in love.