A remarkable day called Tu B’Av occurs this Friday, July 31. The Midrash (Eichah Rabbah) describes it as “the day on which the digging ceased.”
Commencing from the first Tisha B’Av in the desert, a decree was promulgated against the six hundred thousand men of that generation who had listened to the miraglim, the spies sent by Moshe to scout the Land of Israel, had cried, and were subject to the penalty of “in this wilderness you shall perish” (Bamidbar 14:29).
Each year on erev Tisha B’Av the men of that generation would dig their graves and sleep in them. The next morning fifteen thousand would not wake up.
As Eliyahu Kitov writes in The Book of Our Heritage, “On the last Tisha B’Av in the Wilderness, the remaining fifteen thousand men dug their own graves and waited. But God granted them a reprieve and they survived. However, when they arose in the morning…they did not know that they had been spared. Instead, they concluded that they must have been mistaken in calculating the date. They therefore lay down in their graves every night for the following five nights. When the Fifteenth of Av arrived and they saw the full moon, they knew their calculations had been correct and realized that, since Tisha B’Av had passed, the decree [of death upon them] must have been rescinded. They therefore observed the [Fifteenth of Av] as day of celebration.”
Thus, the Fifteenth Day of the month of Av became a day of national rejoicing. The moment that had seemed hopeless became the moment of Redemption. “In the evening one lies down weeping, but with dawn – a cry of joy” (Tehillim 30).
Many questions arise, but the first one is: Why did Hashem rescind the decree in the fortieth year, before all the men of that generation had died? Did He simply want to give Am Yisrael a “gift” before they entered the Holy Land? Had He relented in His decree? What happened in the fortieth year that had not happened in the previous thirty-nine years?
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I have a theory. During the first thirty-nine years after the decree, when the men of the generation had dug and slept in their graves on erev Tisha B’Av, perhaps they thought, “Maybe I will be one of those who is spared.” Indeed, each year some were spared. But in the final year there were only fifteen thousand men left. It was clear that none of them would wake up the following morning. So they had no hope. Apparently the certainty of their death instilled in them a strong regret that caused them to do teshuvah for their actions. For that reason the decree was rescinded and they all survived. Teshuvah turned the tide in the fortieth year.
For this reason, Tu B’Av became a day of joy almost unmatched on the Jewish calendar. And what did the people see on the Fifteenth of Av that jarred their souls and assured them the decree had been lifted? What shook them to their essence?
They saw the full moon.
But how can the full moon trigger a day of such celebration, a day akin to Yom Kippur, a day of forgiveness that resembles liberation from death? What is it about the moon?
We say during Kiddush Levanah, the blessing on the moon:
May it be Your will, Hashem…to fill the flaw of the moon that there be no diminution in it. May the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the seven days of creation, as it was before it was diminished, as it is said, “The two great luminaries.” And may there be fulfilled upon us the verse that is written: “They shall seek Hashem their God, and David their king. Amen.”