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Most Hebrew months have one character or theme. The character of the month of Adar, for example is one of happiness during which the joyous holiday of Purim falls out. The upcoming month of Elul carries the theme of spiritual closeness as we begin approaching the High Holiday season. However, the great Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) wrote that the month of Av, the Hebrew month in which we now find ourselves, has two characters – one sad and one happy.
The first part of the month, containing the Nine Days of mourning leading up to the ninth of the month, namely Tisha B’av – commemorating the destruction of the Temple – is sad. The character though of the second part of the month, beginning with the 15th day – called Tu B’av – is happy. Tu B’av is a minor festival celebrating a number of happy incidents in Jewish history and was celebrated as a sort of Jewish Valentine’s Day in which young Jewish men and women gathered to meet. There is a tradition that on Tu B’av the single women of Jerusalem, dressed in white garments, went out to dance in the vineyards. As the Talmud relates: “there were no holy days as happy for the Jews as Tu B’av and Yom Kippur” (Ta’anit 30b).
This distinction between the first part of the month of Av and the second, suggests Rabbi Levi, is hinted in the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph and Bet. The first letter Aleph which stands for the Hebrew word Arur – cursed – refers to the first and sad part of the month and the second letter Bet stands for bracha or blessing, referring to the second and joyous part of the month. This distinction is also hinted by the gematria – the numerical equivalent of these two Hebrew letters. The gematria of Aleph is one and Bet is two. The first part of the month is cursed as it represents us being one or alone. Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah, when lamenting the destruction of the Temple (commemorated in the first part of the month) describes the Jewish people as abandoned and alone. The numerical equivalent of the letter Bet, representing blessing (characterizing the latter part of the month) is two. Two are better off than one (Ecclesiastes, 4:9) said the wise Solomon. Two is always better because two only happens when a one and another one come together. Indeed, Tu Ba’v, the beginning of the second part of the month, was a time when young people came together, a time of matchmaking, union and joy.
Among other things, the pandemic has kept many people living as one. We must remember this is not the ideal spiritual state in which Judaism envisions us living. We are meant to live as two. As long as the pandemic prevails, we must therefore endeavor to make as many of those who are alone, feel as though they are not. I often end my Facebook Live lunch and learn sessions by encouraging my students to not let the day go by without calling someone who is alone. Be it a parent, grandparent, colleague at work or another single friend, that phone call and those few minutes of caring can mean the world of a difference. In those moments, we transform someone from being a one to a two, from an Aleph to a Bet, from sadness to joy and blessing.