Today is Tu b’Av, the ancient Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s Day; at the close of the 2nd century the Mishnah had already surrounded it with a romantic halo:
- There were no better days in Israel than Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur when the daughters of Jerusalem went out in borrowed white clothes, so as not to put to shame those who couldn’t afford them, and danced in the vineyards…
They teased the boys, saying: ‘don’t just look for beauty; think of family, ‘Grace is false and beauty vain; it’s the God-fearing girl who deserves praise’. I’m not sure that quote has ever been used in a Valentine’s card.
I won’t write about love and passion; it’s a wonderful subject, but it also hurts a lot of people (and I immediately think of favourite lines by Boris Pasternak: ‘She was as near and dear to him in every feature / As the sea is close to the shore in every breaker.’)
I’m going to pay homage to the word which partners ‘love’ in the Jewish marriage blessings, re’u - companionship. Virtually everyone wants companionship; very few dispute the Bible’s assumption that ‘It isn’t good to be alone’. The relationship may be romantic, but often it’s ‘just friends’: someone to pick up the phone to, someone to text, someone to go for a walk with, someone who’ll listen when you need to pour out your heart, or merely spill out your irritations. (And no, he or she may be ‘man’s best friend’, but the dog doesn’t count. A dog lacks that capacity which is the hallmark of a truly true friend, the ability to say with a due balance of tact and firmness, ‘You may be mistaken’.)
As a rabbi I encounter the need for three kinds of companionship which aren’t quite the run of the mill. They’re all essentially spiritual. There’s the need for one’s heart’s doubts and fears to be heard by someone who won’t criticise, or even necessarily comment; who won’t make comparisons, or say ‘the same thing happened to me’, or proffer unsolicited advice; but will merely, simply, listen. Except that ‘hear’ and ‘listen’ suggest something too loud, too articulate, when what seeks to be acknowledged usually lies in the gaps between the words, like the ‘fine silence’ which had a so much deeper effect on the prophet Elijah than thunder and earthquakes, that he covered his face with his mantle because he knew he was known.
People want God’s companionship. It’s not in our gift. We can all only aspire to be modest signposts, not towards any place, or page in the liturgy, but to a way of being, a wider and more inclusive awareness. People don’t necessarily expect anything specific from God; we just want God to be there, to be close to us, without signs or wonders, like in that wonderful reassurance in the 23rdPsalm, ‘I shall fear no evil for Thou art with me’, or as in the Yizkor Memorial Service: when my time comes to leave the earth, be Thou with me.
We also need each other’s companionship in the widest human solidarity, especially when we face persecution or disaster. My grandparents were given shelter when they came as refugees by a devout Christian family near Hemel Hempstead. As Jews we have often been forced to wait anxiously at the dangerous border between acceptance and persecution. Today the Christian communities in the Middle East need our prayers and support as they face the violent enmity of ISIS.
Humanity always calls out for companionship across the boundaries of nationality and faith; none of us are invulnerable before the basic needs for food, shelter and safety. It’s what Isaiah meant when he pleaded with his contemporaries ‘not to hide from your own flesh’.