Quite surprisingly, Valentine’s Day resembles in some ways the upcoming Jewish festival of the 15th of Av (Tu B’Av). Love as the theme of Valentine’s Day began with Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem (14th century) “The Complaint of Mars,” in which Saint Valentine hears a bird singing: “Waken all, I counsel you. And you who have not humbly chosen your mates in good time, make your faithful choice now. And you who have chosen as I prescribe, renew your homage at least; confirm it, to last perpetually, and patiently accept what befalls you.” This beautiful encouragement to find a mate and accept him/her perpetually echoes the most fundamental human urge to pair up found in Genesis 2.
Tu B’Av became the day when Israel’s young sought their match made in heaven all the way back at the conclusion of the awful civil war that nearly wiped out the entire Tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20). Realizing the horrendous consequences, the eleven other tribes came to this incredible solution: “So they said, ‘Behold, there is the yearly feast of the LORD at Shiloh … And they commanded the people of Benjamin, saying, ‘Go and lie in ambush in the vineyards and watch. If the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and snatch each man his wife from the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.’”
The Talmud recalls the days before the destruction of the Second Temple, when “there never were in Israel greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem used to walk out in white garments ... The daughters of Jerusalem came out and danced in the vineyards exclaiming at the same time, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you have chosen for yourself.’” (Taanit 26b)
In Israel today, finding a mate, let alone a mate for life, has become a real crisis, and from what one reads in Jewish sources, it was always difficult. A known Talmudic passage gives a glimpse into the reason why so many can’t find a husband/wife today, and even when they do, one out of three couples will divorce: “A man is paired to a woman according to his deeds … Forty days before the creation of a child, a Bat Kol [heavenly voice] issues forth and proclaims, the daughter of A is for B.” (Sota 2a)
This passage brings forth the unending tension between predestination and free will. Simply put, though there is such a thing as a match made in heaven, and couples are predetermined so that every human being can pair up, this pairing up is not for the sake of rudimentary desires. Rather, man and woman are supposed to love one another as a way of realizing the most meaningful reason for human existence – true love. True love, in the words of Chaucer, means “accept what befalls you,” or accepting the other no matter what. Couples who stay together learn that true love is what Judaism calls “love of fire” as it was said: “Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord.” (Song of Solomon 8:6) This love’s warmth comes from burning one another’s chaff, making one another more pure.
If people chose otherwise, to follow whims and desires and selfish aims, then, the Talmud warns, “a man is paired to a woman according to his deeds,” which is to say, the man will get the wife he deserves and a woman will get the man she deserves. If they are righteous, they will pair up with righteous. If they are wicked they will pair up with wicked.
Tu B’Av therefore is a reminder that a match made in heaven is a dream waiting to be realized only for those who are attuned to the will of the heavenly match-maker.