1. The Mishnah declares “There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.”

The Talmud lists a number of reasons for the great celebrations held on the 15th of Av. Among the reasons given was that on that day “the Jewish people stopped cutting wood for the altar in the Bais Hamikdosh...and they would call it Yom Tavor Magal, the day of the breaking of the axes.” Throughout the summer, they involved themselves in chopping down trees for the altar. However, from the 15th of Av on, “the strength of the sun becomes weaker”1 and the trees cut down afterwards were not considered suitable for altar use.2

Therefore, on the 15th of Av, they would conclude their efforts and break their axes. At this point a question arises: The Talmud does not directly indicate that the reason for the extraordinary celebrations on the 15th of Av was the sum total of all the different factors it mentions. Each factor alone could be considered the sole reason for the rejoicing. On the surface, the abovementioned reason, the cessation of cutting wood for the altar, does not appear to be an event which could be the cause for such powerful joy. (In fact, one might raise an argument to the contrary: The people should have been sad that they could no longer continue the Mitzvah.) A second question also comes to mind. Why did they break their axes? The simple reason is that they did so in order to prevent the axes that had been used for a Mitzvah from being used for everyday, mundane purposes.3 However, this explanation is still insufficient. The axes could have been stored in a closed vault and used again the following year.4 Why was it necessary to break them?5

The answer to these questions centers on a statement of the Rashbam, who comments, “On that day they would rejoice because they completed this great Mitzvah.” Since it is a custom to rejoice after completing a Mitzvah, [e.g. the celebration at a Siyum (conclusion of a tractate of Talmud), and the celebration of Simchas Torah, the conclusion of the Torah] after the Jewscompleted such a great Mitzvah they would hold a great celebration.

However, the question arises: Why was the conclusion of cutting down trees for the altar considered a great Mitzvah? In fact, the cutting of the trees itself was not even considered a Mitzvah in the first place, being merely a preparation for a Mitzvah. (Bringing sacrifices was a Mitzvah. Wood was necessary in order to offer sacrifices. However, bringing the wood itself was merely a preliminary step towards the offering of the sacrifice.)6

The great Mitzvah connected with the cutting down of trees was the Mitzvah of Tzedakah. After they chopped down the trees, they stored the wood in a chamber in the Bais Hamikdosh. They made sure to provide enough wood to consume all of the sacrifices for the coming year. Through their efforts, all the sacrifices brought by the Jewish people as a communal entity7 as well as all the individual sacrifices whose owners were unable to provide wood, were able to be offered.8

Tzedakah itself is considered a great Mitzvah. Its great importance is evident from the fact that the Jerusalem Talmud uses the term “Mitzvah” to refer to Tzedakah. In Tanya it is explained that Tzedakah includes all the other Mitzvos within itself. In Pirkei Avos, it is considered one of the pillars upon which the world stands.

Why did the people break their axes? An axe is made of iron. The Talmud explains that the altar and iron have diametrically opposing functions. “The altar was created to lengthen a man’s life while iron was created to shorten a man’s days.” Therefore, no iron tool was used for building the altar. As long as the axes were able to contribute to the altar’s functioning (i.e. when used for chopping down trees) they were considered valuable and necessary. However, as soon as that task was completed and the axes could no longer be of benefit to the altar, the axes had to be destroyed. After the 15th of Av, the entire essence and function of an axe reverted to its original status, directly opposing the altar’s purpose, and therefore the axes had to be destroyed.9

The act of breaking the axes was considered so important that the 15th of Av was called “the day of breaking the axes.” Since the day was connected with (a positive act,) “the completion of a great Mitzvah,” why does the name chosen seem to connote (a destructive act,) the breaking of the axes?

In actuality, the choice of this name demonstrates the aforementioned idea that the entire existence of the axe is to help maintain the altar and that when it can no longer serve in this capacity, the axe need not exist. The name, “the day of the breaking of the axes” clearly alludes to the completion of the Mitzvah because the act of breaking the axes openly demonstrates that the cutting of the trees was finished.10

Furthermore, the purpose of the altar (and therefore the wood that was cut down for it) was to “lengthen the days of man.” Practically speaking, the wood was used and thus, its purpose was actualized many days after the 15th of Av. However, even before the wood’s use, its positive purpose was emphasized by breaking the axes and cancelling out the influence of iron, “created to shorten man’s days.”

The above is connected with Isaiah’s prophecy, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares,” which describes the Messianic redemption. That redemption will be brought about by our service, as Isaiah proclaims: “Zion will be redeemed by judgment (interpreted in Likkutei Torah to refer to Torah study) and its captives by Tzedakah.” Both types of service are connected to the 15th of Av. The connection to Tzedakah is described above. The connection to Torah study is brought out by the statement of the Talmud, “From then on, he who increases (his Torah study) will (have his life) increased.” This increase involves not merely the prolonging of his life; rather, it means that each day of his life will be increased and intensified. A Jew’s true life will be in the time when the Bais Hamikdosh is rebuilt. Then he will enjoy the full measure of Torah study and performance of the commandments. So shall it be for us in the days very close to the 15th of Av 5739 with the coming of Moshiach, who will redeem us, take us to our land, and build the Bais Hamikdosh speedily in our days.

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2. The 15th of Av was also singled out as one of the days when one of the nine families — Zattu ben Yehuda — who had donated wood to the altar after the return from Babylon would bring an offering of wood. However, the significance of the date is not merely confined to that family, but relates to others as well. In addition to the family of Zattu ben Yehuda, the wood offering of the 15th of Av was brought by Kohanim Levi’im11 and anyone who had forgotten their tribal lineage. Today, all of the Jewish people fall into those categories. With the exemption of Kohanim and Levi’im, none of us know our family lineage. Therefore, we all share a connection with the wood offering of that date.

The wood offering, along with all of the other Bais Hamikdosh sacrifices, has a parallel in our personal service to G‑d. The Ramban explained that a person had to meditate when bringing a sacrifice. He had to picture that everything being done to the sacrifice was being done to him, and appreciate how G‑d’s mercy made possible the substitution — instead of being sacrificed himself, he had to sacrifice an animal (both the animal in him and also the actual beast). The same concept applies to the wood offering. We have to find a parallel to it in our own service.

The foundation for that concept can be derived from the Zohar’s commentary on the subject of the M’koshaish Aitzim (the Jew who was executed for gathering wood on Shabbos). The Zohar explains that Aitzim (the Hebrew word for wood or trees) is plural, alluding to two trees: the tree of knowledge12 and the tree of life. The M’koshaish Aitzim possessed a refined spiritual intention (as the Talmud declares, the M’Koshaish Aitzim’s intention was for the sake of heaven). He wanted to connect the two trees together.

The tree of life is connected with the Yetzer Tov (the good inclination), and the tree of knowledge, with the Yetzer Hora (the evil inclination). The M’koshaish Aitzim’s intention was to fuse them together in the manner that our sages depict in their comment on the verse, “You should love G‑d with all your heart”: with both your hearts, with both your inclinations. However, despite the purity of his intention, his action was a sin because it was performed on Shabbos. [See Sichos Motzaei Shabbos Parshas Re’eh for explanation in all the above.]

The same concept is related to the wood offering. Its purpose was to transform darkness into light, to refine the evil inclination to the point where it also desires to serve G‑d. However, the wood offering was not an end in itself. With this wood, other sacrifices — including all three elements of non-human existence animals, plants, and inert matter (the salt offered on every sacrifice) — were elevated and brought close to G‑d.13 The same applies in the personal sense — after refining the evil inclination, it is necessary to go out into the world and do Mitzvos. In this way we elevate the physical material with which we perform the Mitzvos and of which the world is made: the parchment of the Tefillin, the wool of Tzitzis, etc.

The wood offering teaches us a further lesson. The wood offering was intended for the use of another Jew who could not bring any wood of his own, i.e. a person whose Yetzer Hora has become so powerful that it is no longer under his control. The wood offering teaches that even a person who has refined himself and transformed his Yetzer Hora to the point where it also desires G‑dliness must provide wood for someone who is at the other end of the spectrum entirely. The wood offering shows every Jew14 has an obligation15 to help his fellow.16 This is particularly true in the present day when we must be involved in activities that will hasten the construction of the Bais Hamikdosh. This will be accomplished through building our own personal Bais Hamikdosh. These activities negate the declaration made by the Midrash: “Every generation in which the Bais Hamikdosh was not rebuilt is considered guilty as if it had been destroyed in their days.

The above is also connected to the Mishna’s statement, “There were never days of joy as great as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” Our sages explained that one of the reasons for the celebration of the 15th of Av is because at that time “the moon is full.” However, on other occasions throughout the year, including the first days of Pesach and Sukkos, the moon is also full. Why is the 15th of Av singled out for such great rejoicing? The fact is that since the ascent of the 15th of Av comes after the descent of Tisha B’Av, it is understandable that the ascent comes in parallel measure to the descent.

The above emphasis brings us to the practical need to increase our involvement in the Ten Mivtzoim, beginning with Mivtza Ahavas Yisroel — the love for one fellow Jew — which was expressed through the wood offerings, and proceeding to Mivtza Chinuch, Mivtza Torah, Mivtza Tefillin, Mivtza Mezuzah, Mivtza Tzedakah, Mivtza Bais Maley Seforim, Mivtza Nairos Shabbos Kodesh, Mivtza Kashrus, and Mivtza Taharas HaMishpacha. These activities will motivate G‑d to carry out the Mivtza dependent on Him, the Messianic redemption and the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh, speedily in our days.

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3. As mentioned before, the Talmud comments concerning the 15th of Av that from that time on, he who increase his study of Torah will have his life increased. The question arises: How can one increase one’s study of Torah over the minimum required by law? On the surface, every free minute of a Jew’s time should be spent in that activity. The Talmud declares that one who spends even one moment of this time that could have been devoted to Torah for another purpose is described by the verse, “He scorned the word of G‑d.” In view of that statement, how can we add to our study of Torah?

In truth, the intention is that we should add to the set periods we have designated for Torah study. Hilchos Talmud Torah recognizes our other preoccupations and the limits they place on our time. Halachah requires each person to fix a set time in the morning and in the evening for Torah study. The present request is to extend those study sessions, to find more time that can be devoted to Torah.

(This concept was expressed in a previous farbrengen, Parshas Devarim, based on the Talmud’s statement: “Hillel’s example obligated poor people to study Torah. Rabbi Eleazer ben Charsom’s example obligated the rich.” In other words, both a poor man and a rich man have pressing financial considerations which would occupy this time. However, these individuals ignored those considerations and devoted the majority of their time to Torah.)17

Furthermore, if we have no extra time to add for study, the increase need not be quantitive. We can increase our study of Torah by adding to the energy and commitment we direct to our learning. The Talmud uses the expression “Amalim,” work, in regard to Torah. From that perspective, there is always room for an increase. No matter how intense our involvement, we can always make yet a greater effort. This concept was expressed by our Rebbeim in the adage, “If ‘good’ is good, isn’t ‘better’ better?”18

An example of “work” in Torah can be seen in Rav Chaim Vitol’s description of the Ari z”l’s manner of study. “Even though deep analysis came quickly and easily to him,” the Ari z”l would explain each concept six different ways according to the principle of Torah’s exoteric legal tradition and once according to the tradition of Kabbalah.

His example has paved the way for us.19 Since it was recorded, published, and expounded publicly, it obviously was intended to be used as a practical lesson. Particularly since many have followed his example, the road to such behavior has become easier for us20 today.

May we increase in our Torah study and may that increase in turn cause G‑d to increase our life, including also the definition of life which the Tanya gives regarding a Tzaddik: “faith, fear and love of G‑d.” And may the addition we make today be merely the starting point for a greater addition to be made tomorrow and in the days to come.

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4. The above-mentioned increase in Torah study is connected with the portion of the Torah appropriated for today. That portion describes Moshe’s receiving the second Tablets. The Midrash explains that the second Tablets possessed an advantage over the first. The first contained only the Ten Commandments (or only the Five Books of Moses and the book of Joshua, according to another opinion.) The second Tablets also contained the Oral Law: Halachah, Midrash, Aggadah.

The second Tablets were also connected with the service of Teshuvah. Therefore they were given on Yom Kippur. This is connected to the above-mentioned idea of breaking the axes on the 15th of Av: breaking an axe, an instrument of iron, and by doing so transforming darkness into light.

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5. The concept of possession of the Land of Israel is described in the verse, “He declared to His people the power of His work, that He may grant them the heritage of the nation.” The Jewish people were intended to take the land of Canaan and transform it into the Land of Israel. Today, there are rabbis who support the opinion in favor of returning portions of the Land of Israel. They claim that this will help save Jewish lives. We cannot save Jewish lives by transgressing G‑d’s will. The Shulchan Aruch prohibits doing anything that will open Jewish land up to enemy attacks. It requires us to take arms, even if doing so involves desecrating the Shabbos, to protect our frontiers. Furthermore, these decisions cannot be made by a Ray who has been bribed, who has received honor, money for his yeshiva, etc. to influence his opinion.