The Great Joy of Tu B’Ab
The Gemara teaches in Masechet Ta’anit (30b), "There were no greater holidays for Yisrael than Yom Kippur and Tu B’Ab." The occasion of Tu B’Ab (the 15th of Ab), which to us appears as a very minor holiday, ranks together with Yom Kippur as one of the two most joyous occasions on the Jewish calendar.
The Gemara proceeds to bring several reasons why Tu B’Ab is an especially joyous day. One reason is because it was on that day when "Kalu Meteh Midbar" – the punishment decreed against the generation of the wilderness was completed. As Rashi explains, each year in the desert, on Tisha B’Ab – the day when the sin of the spies occurred – a certain number of people from that generation died, as G-d had decreed in the wake of the sin of the spies. In the fortieth year, however, nobody died, and several days later, on Tu B’Ab, the people realized that the punishment had been competed, and thus Tu B’Ab marks a special occasion.
After presenting this reason for Tu B’Ab, the Gemara proceeds add more information, which, at first glance, seems irrelevant to the discussion. The Gemara states, "As the Master said: Until the deaths of the generation of the wilderness were completed, there was no speech [from G-d] to Moshe" – meaning, Moshe did not receive prophecy throughout the thirty-eight years during which Beneh Yisrael were punished for the sin of the spies. This is inferred from a verse from Parashat Debarim (2:16) in which Moshe recalls that after the generation of the sin of spies had perished, "G-d spoke to me" – implying that during the previous thirty-eight years, until that entire generation had died, G-d did not speak with Moshe.
The question arises, why does all this need to be mentioned? Why did it not suffice for the Gemara to inform us that one of the events celebrated on Tu B’Ab is the end of the decree against that generation? Why do we also need to be told that God did not speak to Moshe during the interim years? Moreover, the Gemara comments, "As the Master said" – implying that this information substantiates the claim being made, that Tu B’Ab is celebrated because "Kalu Meteh Midbar." How does the fact that G-d did not speak to Moshe during the interim years substantiate this explanation of Tu B’Ab?
Rashi, commenting on the Gemara’s comment that G-d did not speak to Moshe during the interim years, writes, "Therefore it is a Yom Tob." It seems that Rashi understood the Gemara to mean that the primary reason why Tu B’Ab is a joyous occasion is because prophecy was restored to Moshe Rabbenu. This is what Tu B’Ab celebrates – that after thirty-eight years of distance, G-d once again came to Moshe and spoke to Him. Tu B’Ab celebrates not just the end of the punishment, but rather the restoration of G-d’s connection to the people as expressed through His communication with Moshe Rabbenu.
Further insight into the nature of this day can be gleaned from Rashi’s subsequent comments, explaining that in truth, G-d did speak to Moshe during the previous thirty-eight years. However, during those years, G-d did not speak to Moshe "Be’yihud U’be’hiba" – in an especially close and affectionate manner. The uniquely intimate quality of Moshe’s prophecy was absent throughout the thirty-eight years when Beneh Yisrael were being punished for the sin of the spies, and this quality was restored when the punishment was completed. Rashi makes this remark also in his Torah commentary (Debarim 2:16-17).
A number of commentators noted that Rashi’s comments seem to contradict his own remarks elsewhere, distinguishing between two verbs used for speech – Dibbur, and Amira. Rashi writes that Dibbur denotes harsh speech, whereas Amira signifies gentle, pleasant speech. When Moshe recalls G-d speaking to him after the thirty-eighty years ended, he uses the verb "Dibbur" – "Va’yedaber Hashem Elai Lemor." How can Rashi say that this was the first time G-d spoke to Moshe in a close, affectionate manner, if Moshe describes this prophecy with the verb which refers to harsh speech?
The Keli Yakar (Rav Shlomo Efrayim Luntschitz, Prague, 1550-1619) offers a powerful answer to this question. He writes that people offer uncomfortable criticism specifically to those whom they love. Parents discipline their own children because they love their children and want them to behave properly and learn the right values, and so they criticize and punish their children, but not other children. The verb "Va’yedaber" is used here specifically because G-d spoke in a harsh way – which is an expression of His great love for His cherished nation. Speaking softly bespeaks apathy and a lack of concern; it is when we truly love somebody that we sometimes need to speak to that person harshly in order to teach and guide him.
It turns out, then, that Tu B’Ab celebrates this notion of "Dibbur" – the recognition that when G-d deals harshly with us, this is, in truth, an expression of His great love for us. Even though it is difficult to see how life’s hardships express love, Tu B’Ab reminds us to trust in G-d’s unlimited kindness and immense love for each and every one of us, even when He treats us harshly.
This is why Tu B’Ab is celebrated in the month of Ab, following Tisha B’Ab and the period of mourning for the destruction of the Bet Ha’mikdash and the other calamities that have befallen our nation. The occasion of Tu B’Ab is a crucial part of the process of Nehama (consolation) that we are to experience during this period, by showing us that G-d’s punishments are a function of His great love for us. When we live with this realization, we will be better able to overcome the various different trials and tribulations that life presents us, confident that we are G-d’s beloved children and that everything He does is done for our benefit and out of His boundless love for us.