Tisha b'Av and Tu b'Av / The Sterile Womb and the Fruitful Womb

By entering into the Torah…we are actually entering into God's preseence. Then His weeping and His voice, as it were, which laments our suffering, will be revealed, and all evil, like smoke, will just disappear. (Esh Kodesh, Parshat Mishpatim, February 14, 1942)

Included in the Tachanun prayer is the idea that Hashem suffers along with His people ("…for Your Name is proclaimed upon Your city and Your peeople…") The idea of God suffering with His people is present throughout Jewish thought and Jewish history.

In his commentary on Parshat Mishpatim (February 14th, 1942), the Rebbe of Piacezna highlights this concept as a profound paradox. He quotes the Midrash (Eicha Rabba, Intro. 24): "At the hour of the destruction of the Temple, God wept, saying, 'Oh! Woe unto Me, what have I done? I brought My Shechinah (Divine Presence) down to dwell below, for Israel's sake, and now I am retreating to My original position, to be the laughingstock of Gentiles, reviled among creatures.' At that moment the angel Metatron appeared, and falling upon his face he begged, 'Master of the Universe, allow me to cry, and then You need not cry.' God replied, 'If you do not leave Me to cry now, I will go somewhere you have no permission to enter, and I will cry there, as it is written (Jeremiah 13:17): 'For if you listen not, My soul will weep in concealment.'"

TheTalmud (Haggigah 15a), tells us that Elisha ben Abuya lost his faith when he saw the angel Metatron sitting instead of standing. ("He said: 'It is taught as a tradition that on high there is no sitting and no emulation, and no back, and no weariness. Perhaps - God forfend! - there are two divinities!'") In this teaching, Metatron is the manifestation of God's aspect of projected Power. Elisha ben Abuya, who is only able to experience God as all-Power, cannot fathom God as all-Nothing. He can only understand these two manifestations in terms of dichotomy, not as dialectic, and so he loses his faith.

When we understand the concept of God "sitting" to mean "sit and don't do" and the concept of God "standing" to mean "get up and do", Elisha ben Abuya's crisis becomes apparent. He was able to conceive of God as Power manifest in the world, but unable to conceive of God as Nothing - hidden, transcendent and unknowable.

In our dialectic scheme of thought, so poignantly conveyed by the Esh Kodesh, God is Power and also not-Power. Elisha ben Abuya was trapped within his conception of a 'purposeful God'.

Along with Elisha ben Abuya, we live in a world that goes down to go down, and goes up to go up. To learn how to go down to go up, we need to learn how to make the transition. This capacity to go down to go up - attributed to the Jewish people by the Esh Kodesh when he writes "the Jewish people are skilled at suffering" - is not a widespread skill. It is a skill modeled by the Esh Kodesh in the Warsaw Ghetto. In his commentary on Parshat Mishpatim, he explains that we can study Torah and experience the revelation of God's pain, because we see that the enemy is itself the concretization of the Torah: "A person who is elevated and united with the single voice of God in the Torah can hear the voice of the Torah from everywhere in the world…" even in hatred, evven in the evil words and deeds of the enemies of Israel.

When we are able to make this profound transition, we have a whole different relationship to events, and the devastation stops.

Translated into the terms of Tisha b'Av (regarding the injunctions against laundering and bathing), making this transition means we cannot understand God solely in terms of "cleanliness", nor can we say "cleanliness is next to Godliness", because, as a key part of our dialectic, God is also "dirty".

In fact, as with other Torah dialectic, the 'cleanliness' is inside the 'dirtiness', as is highlighted in the shocking story of the Pilegesh b'Giv'ah (Shoftim 19) when a man's inability to enter into a genuine and dynamic relationship with his wife leads to a tragedy that includes not only the death of his wife after being savagely abused, but also the near genocide of the Tribe of Benjamin. The genocide was averted and life regenerated through the festival of Tu b'Av, when women teach men how not to objectify and abuse them. Through the prism of this story from Tanach, the light of Tu b'Av and Mashiach can be seen to emerge from the darkness of Tisha b'Av. Here again, we encounter the concept of turning the empty void of the sterile womb into the fruitful womb.

This chapter from Shoftim begins, v'yihi b'yamim hahem, melech ein b'Israel ("In those days, there was no king in Israel"). The Talmud teaches that the phrase v'yihi b'yamim hahem/ "In those days" always introduces something very dark, because it turns the future into the past, thereby blocking out the present. This can be thought of as the "closed conserve" a state devoid of spontaneity, in which a person's responses become stuck in predictable patterns, and the person is unable to recognise or respond to actual situations. The second phrase, melech ein b'Israel, can translate as "Nothing was the king in Israel", drawing us back to the concept of God as 'Nothing' standing in dialectic tension with God as 'Power'. Connected with the trapped and labyrinthine connotations of the "closed conserve", however, the "nothing" becomes a sterile, toxic void.

The concept of God as 'Nothing' and our need to embrace it takes us back to the issue of embracing the Tree of Death - turning the sterile womb into the fruitful womb. Herein is the concept of Tu b'Av (a time dedicated to matchmaking and marriage) as a response to the darkness and devastation of Tisha b'Av - a response that was wonderfully exemplified after the Holocaust by the exponential birth rate in the Displaced Persons camps. (The DP camps are said to have had the highest birth rates in Jewish history. One DP camp averaged eighteen weddings per day.)

This response to darkness and devastation turns the sterile womb into the fruitful womb. It is the opposite of the response of Adam and Chava, who after their fall, separated and self-medicated with sterile fantasy, instead of bringing new life into the world. The 120 year separation of Adam and Chava, in which Adam retreated into masturbatory fantasies of Lilith, and Chava retreated into masturbatory fantasies of the snake, can be thought of as the world's first divorce, and as a euphemism for the situation in which the void does not become fruitful.

In this situation, when Chava 'made love' to the snake, the snake introduced venom into the void, thereby producing sterility. Instead of working for their benefit, the empty void of Adam and Chava became a wall of bitterness and masturbation. This is known as 'giving birth to nothingness'. It is the "empty hole in which there is no water" (Genesis 37:24) - the pit into which Joseph was thrown by his brothers, which is the sterile, toxic nothingness implied in the opening verse of Shoftim 19.

This - one of the closing chapters of Nevi'im/Prophets - recounts the story of a Levite man who took for himself a Pilegesh/concubine-wife.

The history of the concubine-wife in Torah begins with Lilith (the mythical first wife of Adam, with whom Adam chose to 'masturbate' instead of procreating with Chava), and continues with Lemech (father of Noah) who, the Midrash teaches, had two wives, one for sex, and the other for procreation. It is also the sin of Er and Onan - the first two husbands of Tamar. This compartmentalizing of women and their uses was one of the major causes of the Flood - which, according to the Midrash, consisted of "boiling semen". This image is picked up in the Gemara (Gittin), which tells of Onkelos (who in addition to translating the Torah into Aramaic, was also the grand-nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus) asking various people in the World-to-Come for advice on whether he should convert to Judaism. When he came to Balaam (who tempted the Jewish men with Middianite women - Numbers 25:1), he found him 'boiling in a vat of boiling semen'.

According to this reading of Torah, war and strife are caused by men's testosterone, and so the fundamental tikkun/repair needed to bring the age of Mashiach (the age of peace) is the tikkun of Adam and Chava - meaning we need to repair the way men look at women.

The ultimate p'gam/blemish is when men totally compartmentalize and separate sex and procreation. (In contemporary society, we often see how men of standing and influence can become oblivious to their own behavior and the incumbent risks and damage when they are overpowered by a desire for sex for sex's sake. The craving for one moment of release from the burden of reality can overwhelm all other goals and values, and a person loses the power of objective thinking). Its opposite, and its healing, is in the story of Tamar and Yehuda, when Yehuda sees the value of Tamar's neshamah/soul (Genesis 38:26), and in the story of Bathsheva going in to have sex with David in her ninth month of pregnancy (Sanhedrin 70b).

In the story of the Pilegesh b'Giv'ah, the Midrash teaches that the Levite man's concubine runs away with a lover, who ultimately rejects her, leaving her totally vulnerable and forced to return to the house of her father, who had settled for her becoming a concubine and sold her off for the 'bride-price' because he did not believe she would ever find a real husband. (This theme of father-pimp is an on-going theme in Torah, dating back to the story of Yaakov and Dinah, and Cosbi and the King of Midian).

In our story, the concubine's husband goes after her, to save face by bringing her back. He felt humiliated because he had lost his 'sex-wife', and so he was prepared to cajole her into returning to him. When he arrived, his father-in-law, the concubine's father "greeted him gladly" (Shoftim 19:3), and plied him with food and drink for six days. The Midrash says that six times, the Levite man tried to leave, and each time his father-in-law detained him, literally stuffing him with food and wine. With this 'stuffing', they were stuffing sensitivity, stuffing perception, totally drowning sensibility in an ocean of food and alcohol and oblivion. Instead of life, they opted for the sterility of the 'empty hole'.

Finally (Ibid 9), the man prepares to take his concubine and his other possessions, and leave, and still his father-in-law detains him, saying, "spend the night here, and your hearts will be at ease." This description of addiction to ease and convenience introduces the idea of sterility as the complacent heart, the closed heart, the closed womb, symbolized by the closed letter heh. The concubine's father-in-law was trying to numb all feeling, in order to maintain the status quo, even though his daughter had run off with a lover because she felt so degraded as a concubine. She was a woman who hated her situation, but when she tried and failed to escape, she was left in limbo with these two men whose sole goal was to return to the status quo.

The Levite man finally leaves the house of his father-in-law, but because he has tarried so long, he leaves in the evening, which in those days was a dangerous time to travel. The Tanach lists the company as it arrives in Jebus (Jerusalem) (Ibid 10) in the following order: 'his attendant, a pair of laden donkeys, and his concubine'. Not only is the concubine considered property, she is also listed last in the order of possessions.

The Levite man decided to continue past Jebus, which was a town of Gentiles, and stop for the night in Gibeah, whose inhabitants, from the Tribe of Benjamin, were considered more trustworthy. After waiting in the town square for some time, an old man finally invited them to his home, where the Levite man was again entertained and distracted with food and drink. The text (Ibid 22) here says, "as they were making their hearts good…" The "good heart" is an ironic buzz word for blocking the heh - here manifest as the numbness that sets in with excess of food and drink.

From here, follows a re-telling of the story of Lot, in which the depraved men of the town of Gibeah pound on the door and demand the old man's guest "so that we may know (sodomize) him". The owner of the house, begging them not to commit such a wrongful act, said "Here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. Let me bring them to you. Molest them, do what you like with them; but don't do that outrageous thing with this man." When the rabble refused to listen, "the man seized his concubine and thrust her out to them. They raped her and abused her all night long until morning; and they sent her away when dawn broke."

Although it is not widely read, this is the darkest place in the entire Torah.

The story continues (Ibid 26) "Toward morning the woman arrived and collapsed at the entrance of the man's house where her master was staying. When her master arose in the morning, he opened the doors, and left to go on his way, and behold, his concubine-wife was fallen at the entrance of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 'Get up!' he said to her, "let us go." But there was no answer."

The image of the hands of the concubine-wife gripping the threshold is extremely powerful, as is the narrative device of not actually saying that the woman is dead. The man, through his consumption of so much food and alcohol, is so de-sensitized, dissociated, and unable to confront reality that is he talking to a dead woman.

"So the man placed her on the donkey and set out for home. When he came home, he picked up a knife, and took hold of his concubine and cut her limb by limb into twelve parts. He sent them throughout the territory of Israel. And everyone who saw it cried out, "Never has such a thing happened or been seen from the day the Israelites came out of a thing happened or been seen from the day the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt to this day!"

This incitement and its response marks the beginning of a genocidal war (Shoftim 20) that all but destroys the Tribe of Benjamin. When the people of the town of Gibeah will not turn over the murderers, the other tribes wage war on Benjamin, sustaining huge casualties, and almost annihilating the Benjaminites altogether.

After this war the other tribes swore not to inter-marry with the Tribe of Benjamin (Ibid 21:1). The Jewish nation may well have perished in this bitter, sterile womb, if not for the festival of Tu b'Av which serves as an antidote. Tu b'Av marks the moment when the people saw what they were doing, and relented, realizing that in order to survive, they had to change the whole dynamic. This new dynamic - found in learning to make the transition from going down to go down to going down to go up - was the profound institution of Tu'b'Av, when the ban against inter-marriage between the tribes was lifted. The Gemara (Ta'anith 31a) goes on to say, 'It is the day on which the tribe of Benjamin was permitted to re-enter the congregation of Israel.' On Tu b'Av, the roles of men and women are reversed, and the women teach the men to see the essence instead of the externals. All the women exchange clothing, so that their outward appearance is no longer what defines them, and they take the men by their hair, saying "raise your eyes". With a quote from Isaiah (15:8), the closing lines of Ta'anit imply that this fixing of the relationship between men and women is the tikkun for the Mashiach:

And it shall be said in that day: Ls, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is the Lord for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.

Parsha Page