Diminishing Returns

by Rabbi Yehoshua Kahan


The Jewish year is characterized by an interweaving of two sets of significant days – feasts and fast.  For obvious reasons, the feasts get the most attention.  But there is a profound logic, a message and a re-accessing to be found in living according to each.

We are presently rapidly approaching the pinnacle of the fast cycle, with Tisha BeAv looming but Three Weeks ahead.  And, as our calendar is as much about transitions as it is about specific occasions, we begin to prepare for this day of national destruction by gradually increasing our (temporary) withdrawal from those actions that make for the burgeoning of life.

Mishenichnas Av Mema’atim B’Simchah – “Once Av enters, we reduce joy” is the guiding principle of our approach to Tish’ah BeAv, as enunciated in the Mishnah.

We implement this practically, as stipulated by the Shulchan Aruch, through a whole series of restrictions beginning Three Weeks before Tisha b’Av. There are many variations of the following (consult a halachic source for the detailed requirements): We don’t engage in joyous building, refurbishing, and planting; we reduce our business ventures, we don’t celebrate marriages nor “party” (music and dancing); we don’t buy or wear new clothing; we don’t cut our hair; and in the final nine days we don’t launder our clothing, eat meat or drink wine, or even bathe.  In sum, many aspects of life are either shut down or drastically reduced.

“The mitzvot were only given to refine human beings”, we are told in the Talmud.  So we must try to understand how this “reduction of joy” doesn’t merely make us sad, but rather refines us and spurs our spiritual growth.

A key can be found in a well-know Chassidic re-reading of the Mishnaic statement above:  “Once Av enters, we reduce – in joy”.  This re-reading is quite consonant with the original Hebrew, and brings us to a whole new dimension of dealing with destruction.

We generally associate joy with expansiveness, generosity.  When we seek to evoke a state of joy, or express a felt happiness, we “pour it on”: feasting, drinking, throwing our bodies about, turning up the volume, “expanding” our consciousness in various ways.

And then there’s the day after.  We gather ourselves back together, wincing in the aftermath of our excesses.  An investment in expansion always yields dimishing returns.

But is it possible to be joyous as we contract?  Is it possible to have joy as we live within limitations?  I believe that not only is the answer to that question a resounding “yes”, but that it is one of the central teachings of Torah.

For, after all, as made explicit in Kabbalah – Hashem “contracts” Himself in creating His world, and He looks at all he has created, every limited element “crowding out” the illimitable expansiveness of the One Who IS Being, and everything He sees is VERY GOOD.

Shlomo proclaims in his prayer upon the completion of the Temple, “Shall G-d indeed dwell on earth?  Behold the heaven and the heavenly heavens cannot provide for You, much less this house I have built.” (Kings I 8:27)  Yet Hashem has already told an astonished Moshe in the Midrash, “it’s not as you imagine; twenty boards on the north; twenty boards on the south, eight on the west and I will descend and concentrate My Presence within them”  (Pesikta Rabbati 16) In fact, the Shechina speaks to Moshe while “comfortably reposing” (bein shaddai alin) in the spark-gap between the wings of the Keruvim.

Hashem rejoices in, impossibly, making room for the other.  And as we are created in Hashem’s image, so can we.

When we imagine that, to be ourselves, we have to be full of ourselves, then, says Hashem, there isn’t enough room for “both of us” in the world.  But when we contain ourselves, when we realize the blessing of limitation, then the spaciousness of His astonishing creations is unfathomably expansive.  We accept the challenge of filling up even that “small” existential space we each have been allotted with actions of consequence, thoughts of profundity, intentions of healing and unification.  We recognize the joy of being limited, and there is more than enough room for all.

In my community, we have just been informed that the local paper recycling bin accepts products such as paper-based foot packaging and the cardboard tubes left when a roll of toilet paper is spent.  Until that announcement, I threw those tubes in the trash mindlessly, without a thought.  Now, I purposefully walk down stairs and deposit them in our home paper-recycling bin.  Far from feeling compelled and constrained, I rejoice at yet another action imbued with direction, purpose and with a mindfulness which holds thoughtless expansion in check.

As we complete the cycle of the Three Weeks and our journey of “reducing in joy,” let maintain the consciousness of what limits can provide us.  Diminishing our urge to expand leaves just enough room for the vast reaches of Hashem’s restored Presence to exist – “in between” –  in our midst.

Rabbi Yehoshua Kahan is the founder and director of ASHREI, an introductory learning program for men in Nachlaot, Jerusalem.  ASHREI weaves together a cutting-edge Hebrew ulpan, a classical learning curriculum focused on acquiring skills for individual learning, a user-friendly but thorough introduction to the hows of whys of Jewish practice and living and a mentored guide to developing an intimate, personal relationship with G-d using the tools of chassidut, prayer and deep personal work.  All of this, implemented by a truly devoted and talented staff, in an open atmosphere in the midst of the most dynamic neighborhood in Jerusalem.  Plus: outings, Shabbatot, community projects (including organic gardening), music and more.  There are still some openings for this coming year’s program.  Generous tuition consideration available to excellent candidates.  See the website at www.ashrei.org.il and/or contact R. Yehoshua Kahan at: ravyehoshua@ashrei.org.il