Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, “There never were days of joy for Israel like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the maidens of Israel would go out in white dresses that had been borrowed, so as not to embarrass anyone who didn’t have her own.” And Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel, “The fifteenth of Av was the day on which the tribes were allowed to come together” (1). What is so special about this that Tu b’Av should be made into such a great holiday? What’s more, [since this day is not mentioned in the Torah,] what is the divine source in the worlds above for this holiday?
Further on in the Gemara we may find a hint. For Ulla Bira’ah said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar: “In the days to come the Holy One of Blessing will hold a dance for the righteous and will sit in their midst in the Garden of Eden, and every one of them will point a finger towards G!d, as it is said, And it shall be said in that day: Lo, this is our G!d, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is the L!RD for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation (2). What is this dance that the Holy One of Blessing will hold for the righteous? These words clearly hint at something deeper.
Now the world of souls is the world in which those who do G!d’s will receive their reward. The sages teach that everyone will have a canopy to rest under in the World to Come, each according to the good deeds done in this world. When one sees that another’s canopy is finer, because he did more for G!d in this world and so attained a higher rung of service, then he will burn from shame that he did not achieve more (3). Thus, they have not yet attained total bliss, because they see that there are higher rungs than their own. But the Creator, in His great goodness and mercy, and for the sake of His own righteousness, wants no one kept away, so He will purify and refine our souls so that in the future we may all attain total equality and bliss, and no one will be higher or lower than another, and we will all be close to the holy source of all sources.
In this world it is impossible to comprehend G!d’s essence; rather, only through G!d’s ways do we come to understand the Creator; but in the time to come the souls of the righteous will be so purified as to understand the Creator’s self. This, then, is the meaning of the prophecy, “In that time one will say to Jacob and to Israel, ‘What has G!d done?'” (4) — the holy angels themselves will ask us about G!d, because we will be higher even than the angels.
Now we can understand the words of Rabbi Eleazer, “In the days to come the Holy One of Blessing will hold a dance for the righteous and will sit in their midst in the Garden of Eden.” The word used here for dance, machol, also means “circle” (5). In a circle, every point is equally close to the center, and likewise every righteous soul will be equally close to the holy source of all sources. “And every one of them will point with his finger towards G!d [and say] Lo, this is our G!d, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is the L!rd for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation,” for we will know the Creator Himself.
This is what is hinted at by “the fifteenth of Av,” which can also be read “the fifteenth [letter] of the alef-bet,” the Hebrew alphabet (6). The fifteenth letter of the alef-bet is samech, which is written like a circle, and it is called “The World of Wisdom,” “The World to Come,” “The World of Freedom,” “The Heavenly Mother,” to Whom we return completely, and so it is also called “The World of Return.” Now we can also understand the saying of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, that on Tu b’Av “the maidens of Israel would go out in white dresses that had been borrowed, so as not to embarrass anyone who didn’t have her own,” for our souls will go out in radiant white garments that we have borrowed from the goodness and mercy of the Creator, so that each of us can be equally close and dwell in equal bliss. And this too explains the meaning of the words of Shmuel, “The fifteenth of Av was the day on which the tribes were allowed to come together”: for in the time to come, no longer will we burn with shame at being lower than another. Instead we will all come together in the brilliant splendor of G!d’s presence.
1) Taanit 26b and 30b; The maidens would go out to dance together and invite prospective husbands to come choose a wife; likewise, “come together” is taken to mean for marriage. While the Ohev Yisroel does not mention it explicitly, courtship and marriage make a perfect background for this teaching. 2) Taanit 31a; Isaiah 25:9 3) Bava Batra 75a, based on Isaiah 4:5, “And G!d will create over the whole site of Mt. Zion, and over its assemblies, a cloud by day and smoke and the light of a flaming fire by night, for over every glory there shall be a canopy.” 4) Numbers 23:23; The usual translation is “Now it will be said of Jacob and of Israel, ‘See what has G!d done!’,” but the translation here is actually closer to the text. 5) cf. Eruvin 3b 6) Av is spelled alef-bet, so it can be read as “alphabet.”
This does away with the notion that G!d is at all interested in “grading us” on our performance in life. The laws of cause and effect, which apply spiritually as well as physically, mean that some of us, by living right, will naturally be drawn closer to G!d, in this world and the next. This is not the endgame, though, because G!d isn’t interested in grades, G!d just wants us all to be at the end-0f-the-year party, as close as we can be to our Source.
A story is told of the Apter Rav, known as the Ohev Yisroel (which means “Lover of Israel”), and how he emulated G!d in this way. Once a man came to him and tearfully confessed a sin, and the Ohev Yisroel laughed. When the man proceeded to tell, in great detail, all the penance he had done and what more he planned to do to atone for his sin, the Ohev Yisroel laughed again, louder and longer, until the man was struck speechless. Then the tzaddik’s laughter broke something inside him, and he realized how silly he was to go to such lengths to atone, and instead he returned to G!d on the spot. Afterwards the rebbe told his hasidim that, in a previous life some two-thousand years before, he had been the High Priest in the Holy Temple. Before he became the High Priest, however, he had been a simple Kohen, assisting with the sacrifices. In doing this he saw how the sin-offerings brought a person to repentance, for at each step of the way — buying the animal, walking it through Jerusalem to the Temple, presenting it to the priests, and then the High Priest — he would think on and speak about his sin, and this would turn him back to G!d in full repentance.
Now this man who had just come to the Apter Rav had also been there, in a previous incarnation; he was a pure and pious person, but very stern with himself and others, and he kept himself apart from his fellows. Once the man committed a grievous sin and had to bring a sacrifice. “So when this man entered the Temple hall with his sacrifice,” the Ohev Yisroel told, “I took pity on him, for he looked so broken and sad. I cried with him and comforted him until he began to turn back to G!d, but when he came to the High Priest he did not complete a full return to G!d, and so his sacrifice was not fully accepted. So he had to come before me again, this time as a different man. But this time I loved him more.”
For another teaching on the same Talmudic text, from a fellow disciple of Elimelech of Lizhensk, click here.