Monday, August 15, 2011

Tu B’av: When Smaller Is Bigger

Self Doubt
Have you ever made a snap decision that radically altered your lifestyle? I’m talking about deciding to move to a place you were visiting, changed careers midcourse, or perhaps seeing something attractive in a particular teacher and making a snap decision to transfer your child to her class.
What occurs when the excitement wears off and reality sets in? What do you do if the new position is an improvement in some ways, but in other ways a setback? How do you respond when questions arise and self-doubt encroaches? Are you the adventurous sort who goes with the flow or the prudent sort who retreats to the safety of familiar territory?

Full Moon
The Fifteenth of Av was the happiest day in the Jewish calendar. It was a time of joy and merrymaking. Many restrictions were lifted on this day and many a tragedy was averted on this day. On this day our people took comfort for the calamities they suffered on the ninth of Av. In ancient Israel this day was dedicated to matchmaking and matrimony. (1)
The mystics saw the significance of this day in the fullness of the moon which appears as a sliver in the beginning of the month and grows progressively larger till the fifteenth of the month. Thus, synonymous with the highest point of revelation, the fifteenth is a day of abundant blessing. (2)
The problem is that after reaching its fullest capacity on the fifteenth the moon grows progressively smaller till it disappears completely. This renders the fifteenth a small consolation. It is the highest point of revelation, but it is also the beginning of the downturn. Is this a cause for celebration?

The Power of Humility
In addition to the above, the fifteenth of Av was, according to our sages, the driest day of the Israeli summer and was thus the final day to chop wood for use on the Temple’s altar. After the fifteenth the trees began to moisten, which rendered them unfit for use on the altar. (3)
The wood chopping aspect of the fifteenth answers our earlier question about the diminishing moon. Our sages taught that the sun’s light was far more intense when it was first created than it is today, but when G-d saw that humanity was undeserving of such light He concealed it. This light will yet be revealed, according to our sages, in the messianic era when our capacity for light will have increased. (4)
The moon, according to our sages, was as luminous, at first, as the sun is today. When the sun’s light was diminished to its present day proportions it was in equal measure to the moon. The moon then complained that two equal luminaries could not co exist. The moon hoped it would be granted the superior light that once belonged to the sun. But G-d instructed the moon to diminish itself and become a recipient or reflection of the sun’s light. (5)
At first glance this appears to be a punishment to the moon for its hubris. Yet upon deeper reflection we realize that it was a lesson rather than a punishment. The moon was not seeking self aggrandizement. The moon yearned for the powerful G-dly light that will be revealed in the Messianic era. This light represents absolute cognizance of our creator and total attachment to Him. The moon took note that the sun was stripped of this light and saw an opportunity to claim this connection with G-d for itself.
G-d taught the moon that growing larger does not necessarily bring one closer to G-d. On the contrary practicing humility and setting oneself aside is the path that leads to G-d. The Messianic era will not be marked by our greatness, but by our humility for when we will stand face to face with G-d our ego will be utterly suspended and we will merge completely into His beatific presence. (6) (7) (8)

Driest Day and Fullest Moon
We now return to the connection between the wood chopping aspect of the month and the diminishing moon. Up until the fifteenth of Av our ancestors prepared the wood for the Altar, but it was only after the fifteenth that the wood was actually put to use in the service of G-d. (9)
The wood chopping teaches us that there is a time for Mitzvah preparation and a time for Mitzvah observance. The diminishing moon teaches us that our actual observance of the Mitzvah does not rise to the full level of Divine worship until we internalize the true meaning of service.
The first half of the month is marked by a growing moon. It is a time to grow in our service of G-d through Torah study and Mitzvah observance. But such growth carries the danger of hubris when rather than serving G-d, our growth serves to enhance our self image. It is in the second half of the month, when the moon diminishes, that the real service of G-d can begin. We are reminded that true service is not marked by self growth but by suspending our ego and being absorbed in His greatness. This is when the observance rises from the level of practice to the level of worship.
The Fifteenth of Av is thus a day of true celebration. It marks the time when we turn from self absorption to self abnegation; when we turn our sights from ourselves to G-d.

The Highest Milestone
The above is also applicable to the journey of life. Life is a growing curve dotted with landmarks and milestones. We begin in infancy unable to accomplish anything at all. As we progress through toddlerhood and childhood we develop social skills, which are enhanced during adolescence and early adulthood through education. Graduation is a milestone of great achievement; it qualifies us to embark upon the world and make our mark.
It is only when we enter the workforce that we realize how low on the totem pole we really are. We start at the bottom rung and make the arduous climb step by tortuous step. After decades of promotion we reach our peak and decide that it is time to retire. The company throws a party and to the tune of great accolades we reach another milestone. The big question is what’s next? Can we rise from here?
The answer is yes. It is only after retirement that we attain the fullest wisdom of life. So long as we are engaged in the daily grind, our minds were focused exclusively on the next goal and it was difficult to step back and contemplate the larger questions. Once we have achieved all that can be achieved we can begin to consider the big picture. Not just pay lip service to it, but consider it on a gut level.
The big picture is the realization that life is not about what we can make of ourselves, but what we can do for others. How we can be of service and for whom we can make a difference are the sole considerations of the big picture. It is not about taking, but about giving. It is less about the mark we leave than the people we help. It is not about mastering the secrets of life; it is about serving the master of life. Arriving at this realization is the largest milestone of all.
So long as we are driven by egocentric considerations and illusions of grandeur we are blinded to the innate G-dly energy that pulsates within us and makes us unique. It is only after the ego is suspended and the glare of self image recedes that we come to appreciate how holy the human experience can be. How exalted and noble is the ethic of service. How virtuous it is to serve G-d.
It is only when we reach this milestone that life is endowed with sanctity. Reaching goals and accomplishing tasks in the service of our own ego is vane, but when we identify with this truth our achievements take on cosmic meaning.
This is the milestone that awaits us after all other milestones have been seemingly reached. When we have reached our peak and can accomplish no more we appear to begin the downward slide to oblivion. And yet it is this very slide away from the limelight that grants us the greatest gift of all; the gift of humility that bestows meaning on the whole of life.

This is the message of the waning moon. The fifteenth of the month is significant not only because it is the day when the moon shines at its brightest, but because it is the point from which we embark on our journey toward humility.

Radical Changes
We now return to the dilemma we posed at the beginning of this essay. When life presents opportunities for radical change and significant growth we embrace it because of the personal benefits we perceive in it. The truth is that these opportunities are presented to us not for our benefit, but for G-d’s; they enable us to serve G-d in new and radically different ways. (10) This truth is not presented to us upfront because if this were the only perceived benefit we would hardly be motivated to surrender everything we like about our current circumstances in the service of a higher ideal.
Life therefore presents us with many reasons to make the change. We perceive the benefit of our new employment, we anticipate the excitement of our new location, we grasp the advantage of our son’s new school and we embrace the opportunity to change. Yet unbeknownst to us we are really presented with this opportunity because it enables us to serve G-d in a new and upgraded way.
When the move has been made and we have settled in we come to learn its many drawbacks. We wonder why we didn’t perceive them earlier and why we were blinded to the difficulties we would encounter. At this point we question the wisdom of our move and consider turning back, but that is the wrong interpretation of these questions.
In truth this is life’s way of informing us that this change really was not made for personal benefit. In fact we now perceive the drawbacks that the counterbalance those benefits to which we were blinded earlier. The true purpose of our move was Divine.

Our very doubts give us opportunity to embrace our new circumstances in service to G-d rather than to ourselves. It is time to look around and ask ourselves what I and I alone can accomplish for G-d in this new place. When we find our little niche we know that we have found the true purpose of our change.
Just as the diminishing of the moon’s light presents an opportunity to suspend our ego and embrace our inherent connection to G-d so is self-doubt an opportunity to let go of the selfish reasons that precipitated our move and seek out the ways in which we can connect with G-d.


1. Babylonian Talmud, Taanis: 30b and Jerusalem Talmud Taanis chapter four.
2. Pri Etz Chaim Shaar Chag hashvuos. Ohr Hatorah (nach) p. 1096
3. Babylonian Talmud, Taanis: 31a. The Talmud further comments that from this point forward the nights grow longer and it is incumbent on all Jews to increase in their study of Torah. The subject of this essay will also address the question of why the night is more suitable to Torah study than the day. See also Eiruvin 65a.
4. Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah: 12a.
5. Babylonian Talmud, Chulin 60b. The moon continued to complain and G-d told her that she would serve in the day as well as the night.
6. Adapted from an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on 16 Av, 5745. This is also implied by G-d’s consolation to the moon that great Jews such as King David would be linked to the moon when they were descried as humble. G-d was informing the moon that true greatness is humility.
7. This helps to explain why the night is best suited to Torah study. It was only after the moon was successfully diminished that it was able to illuminate the night. The sun cannot illuminate the night. The sun turns the night into day. The moon is able to humbly accept the presence of the night and yet mitigate its darkness with light. Light and dark are opposites yet the moon reconciles them. The moon does not negate the dark; it illuminates it. When the moon began to practice self abnegation and devoted itself to the exclusive service of the Divine it was able to reflect the Divine. Light and dark are both creations of G-d. It is thus only within the power of G-d to bring the two together. The same is true of nighttime Torah study. Torah represents light. Studying the Torah at night demonstrates that the light of G-d is not opposed by the dark; on the contrary, the night can serve Torah study as well and even better than the light.
8. It is therefore with the advent of the moon that we pray every month for the light of the Moshiach. See Isaiah 30:26.
9. See commentary of Tosafos Yom Tov to Taanis 4: 8.
10. King David (Psalms 37: 23) taught that our lives are directed by G-d for the purpose of His service. Our decision to move to a particular location or vocation is guided by G-d so that we might serve Him better in that place.

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