The hoariest of hoary Jewish jokes describes the plot of the Jewish holiday as, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” The point could be challenged regarding most of our national celebrations, but for this Sunday night’s holiday, Tu b’Av [the 15th of Av], out-running our enemies actually seems to define the day.
The gemara (Taanit 30b-31a) lists seven reasons to celebrate Tu b’Av, and three of them offer the underwhelming applause line, “We didn’t die!”:
• HaShem informed the Jews who had listened to the Spies that they would perish in the desert, over a period of 40 years. Annually, a segment of that population passed away on Tishah b'Av, until the year finally came when the full moon shone on Tu b’Av and yet no one had passed on. Their failure to expire is our cue to strike up the band. (See Tosafot Taanit 30b for more on this.)
• After a woman was tortured and murdered in the territory of Binyamin, the Jewish national army took up their weapons against that tribe. The war decimated Binyamin, and it was followed by a decree lest any woman from outside Binyamin marry any of their males. The tribe teetered on the brink of extermination, until the decree was revoked on Tu b’Av – another trigger for joy and celebration. (See Shoftim 19-21 for additional information.)
• Approximately sixty years after the Second Temple was destroyed, our ancestors revolted against Roman tyranny. The Romans crushed their revolt and demolished the mighty fortress at Betar, murdering thousands. For years thereafter, Roman authorities refused to allow the Jews to bury their dead fighters; Tu b’Av was the day when we were able to bury the dead of the Betar revolt. We held funerals for the miraculously preserved remains of our heroes, and this, too, is cause for an annual national festival.
Normal nations celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, revolutions – would anyone other than a Jew institute a holiday to celebrate that his ancestors stopped dying, that a tribe didn’t plummet from the precipice of extermination, that murdered soldiers were interred? How could the Talmud (Taanit 30b) identify this as the “best day on the calendar,” above Pesach, above Shavuot, even above Succot with its title of “Zman Simchateinu - the time of our joy?”
The answer may be that “best day” does not necessarily equal “happiest day.” We celebrate many happy days, including the aforementioned Shalosh Regalim, but Tu b’Av is not a day of joy. Tu b’Av is a good day, the best day – because on Tu b’Av we hit rock bottom.
The greatness of hitting rock bottom may be best explained through a comment by Rav Chaim Vital, as cited in Rav Dovid Eibeschutz’s Arvei Nachal (Behar, Derush 2): “שמי שידע שיעור המדריגות וישער איך ירידת המדריגות בכל יום ויום תרד פלאים, יוכל לידע מתי קץ הגאולה, כי כאשר שחה לעפר נפשנו דבקה לארץ בטננו אז קומה עזרתה לנו (ע' תהלים מד, כו - כז) כי כאשר תפול כל כך עד סוף שאין מקום עוד ליפול יותר, אז היא הגאולה של בעתה (סנהדרין צח. עה"פ ישעיה ס כב), כמו שאמר הכתוב (עמוס ה, ב) נפלה ולא תוסיף, ר"ל כאשר נפלה כל כך עד שלא תוסיף עוד ליפול דהיינו נפילה לארץ שהיא סופה דכל דרגין, אז קום בתולת ישראל. - One who knows the measure of the levels [to the bottom], and who can measure our shocking daily descent, can know when the moment of redemption will arrive. After our soul will descend to the dust and our belly will stick to the ground, then G-d will rise and help us, for when the nation falls until there is no more room to fall, then will come the redemption described by G-d as coming ‘at its proper time.’ It is written (Amos 5:2), ‘She has fallen, and she will not continue,’ meaning that when the Jewish nation has fallen so far that she cannot fall further, meaning she has fallen to the ground, the end of all levels, then [G-d will say], ‘Rise, betulah of Israel.’”
In other words: Hitting rock bottom is a positive experience because we are promised that it will be followed by redemption.
This is why the punishment for the Golden Calf is considered worse than the punishment for the Spies – because the punishment for the Golden Calf is postponed for an undefined future (Shemot 32:34), while the punishment for the Spies ends after forty years. This is also why the Talmud (Sotah 9a) takes comfort in the Divine malediction, “I will finish My arrows upon them,” for even though G-d will launch many arrows at us, there will be a finish and conclusion, and yet we will survive and be redeemed.
On Tu b’Av we recognize that the punishment for the sin of the Spies is over. On Tu b’Av we recognize that the threat to the tribe of Binyamin has passed. On Tu b’Av we recognize the conclusion of Roman aggression. There is no joy in these bitter recognitions, but there is the empowering, invigorating, rejuvenating hope that from these depths we will ascend and emerge.
R’ Menachem Meiri saw this message of hope, too, in the abrupt talmudic transition from discussing Tishah b'Av to discussing Tu b’Av: “ לבאר שאין להתיאש לרוב הצרות אבל כל אשר יענו אותנו כן נרבה בהיות ד' אתנו בלכתנו בדרכיו To show that we should not lose hope under the strain of our troubles. However much they oppress us, so we will multiply, as long as HaShem will be with us, as we follow His path."
We are taught (Nedarim 39b) that G-d created the possibility of teshuvah, of return to G-d, even before creating this universe. Teshuvah is more fundamental than the fundamental elements of our world, more natural than nature itself. This is true even after the dramatic descent of Tishah b'Av, and it is the theme of the best day on our calendar.
When Moshe ascended Mount Sinai, he entered a cloud which the Torah describes as “Arafel,” utter darkness. Moshe entered this Arafel, because, “Asher Sham ha’Elokim,” “that’s where HaShem is.” When the Jews go through the three weeks of mourning, when we endure a Tishah b'Av, we are in the Arafel, we are in the darkness – but so is HaShem. And the 15th of Av promises that having hit bottom, we will always emerge, with HaShem, from that Arafel.