Judaism is a ‘love life’ religion; it says a big ‘yes’ to life.
In my head, these words sing in German: ‘Ja zum Leben.’ This is because, during a time when I found every day a struggle and almost everything frightening, my aunt Etti, three times removed but close as close, would buy me an Israeli yoghurt called Leben and instruct me before I ate it to say the name in German: Leben, life, yes to life.
Moon-watchers out with their dogs, or simply enjoying the cool after over-hot days, will have noted how beautifully it has shone these last evenings and know that tonight is the full moon. It heralds Tu Be’Av, the festival of the fifteenth of the month of Menachem Av, Av the Consoler. It’s the ancient Jewish forerunner of Valentine’s Day:
There were no days so good in Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, when the girls went out to dance in the vineyards in borrowed white dresses (so as not to put to shame those who didn’t have). Whoever wasn’t married would go there. ‘Look,’ the girls would say… (Talmud, Ta’anit 30b-31a)
What follows is not egalitarian, definitely sexist, and certainly not PC. But it’s decisively an affirmation of life, future and fun. Significantly, the date is just six days after Tishah Be’Av, the bleak fast commemorating exile and destruction. The message is ‘Never give up’. More than that, it’s ‘Life is important, life can be good.’
The rabbis want to know why the 15th Av is so special. They come up with some remarkably odd reasons: it’s the date by when the last of the generation doomed to wander in the desert without reaching the Promised Land had died. Alternatively, it’s when the Romans allowed the dead of Betar, the last Jewish stronghold of the Bar Kochba revolt, to be buried.
Admittedly, they also offer somewhat less unromantic explanations. But what are they trying to say? I believe it is this: whatever tribulations we have been through, we have to carry on with life. We mustn’t forget the past, but we must also embrace the future. Maybe that’s why, almost two millennia later, the birth rate among Jewish survivors in the Displaced Persons camps in Germany was extraordinarily high.
It strikes me how deeply Tu be’Av speaks to our reality today. Covid is not over in the UK, certainly not in other parts of the world. But life is calling us to step forward, carefully, with due concern for others and ourselves. Life beckons, with all its joys and challenges. Life is precious, all the more so because we’ve learnt to take its opportunities less for granted.
Etti’s youngest brother Gabi, may he live to the legendary age of 120, used to remind me that ‘life is made up of the little things.’ How can we appreciate everyday blessings? How can we share small acts of kindness and generosity, which maybe aren’t so small after all?
I’ve been bottling red- and blackcurrants these last days. By my side have been my father, much missed, who taught me the skill, and his aunt Sophie who wrote to her mother in the summer of 1938 that she’d been preserving blueberries, – and blackcurrants too. She perished in Auschwitz. Nevertheless she was in my kitchen, because love from the past feeds the present and travels on into the future.
I listened last night to a webinar by Rewilding Scotland. No, said one of the presenters, I don’t just want “sustainable”. I’m working for a re-forested, re-meadowed, re-invigorated, beautiful land for my children.
I hope we can embrace the future like that.
Tu Be’Av marks the turn-around, from destruction to creation.