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Torah Attitude: Parashas Pinchas/The 17th of Tamuz: The three weeks and the three pillars
Five calamities occurred in different years on the 17th of Tamuz. The suspension of the offerings is included as one of the calamities. The reason for the offerings brought by the Jewish nation is to cause G'd's blessings to flow to the earth. The description of G'd having pleasure from the aroma of the offerings is to give us some kind of understanding that these offerings please G'd. Our sages explain that if the gentiles would realize how much they have lost by the destruction of the Temple, they would force the Jewish people to repent so that the Temple can be rebuilt again. Rabbi Abraham explains that all three pillars were affected by the destruction of the Temple. The Prophet Jeremiah laments regarding the three pillars of Torah, service of G'd and kind deeds. Even in our days of affluence, a large segment of the Jewish people still suffers and lives below the poverty-line. May these three weeks be turned from mourning into celebration. May we all speedily experience the rebuilding of the Temple, and the rededication of the altar, with the coming of our righteous Mashiach.
This week we observe the fast day of the 17th day of Tamuz. This is the beginning of the three weeks of mourning that concludes with the 9th of Av. During this period, Jews worldwide commemorate the destruction of both the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud (Taanis 26a-b) relates that five calamities occurred in different years on the 17th of Tamuz. The first of these calamities took place when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. When he saw that the Jewish nation had made a golden calf, he broke the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The second calamity took place prior to the destruction of the First Temple. The Babylonians had breached the walls of the Holy City on the 9th of Tamuz and laid siege to the Temple. But the Kohanim had fortified themselves inside the Temple and continued to conduct the Divine offerings. They used the stock of sheep maintained in the Temple, sufficient to last four days. From the 13th of Tamuz, the Kohanim managed to bribe some of the besieging soldiers to provide them with sheep. However, this only lasted until the 17th of Tamuz when the daily offerings were suspended. The third calamity happened at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans on the 17th of Tamuz. On this very same day, a Greek officer by the name Apustumus burned a Torah scroll. At an earlier occasion, an idol had been erected in the Temple on the 17th of Tamuz.
Suspension of offerings
It is interesting to note that the suspension of the offerings is included as one of the calamities for which we fast on this day. It is not just part of the general destruction of the Temple, but it has a significance of its own. As a matter of fact, the halachic authorities throughout the generations have been discussing the possibility of bringing offerings even at a time when the Temple is not standing, as the bringing of offerings is not dependent on the existence of the Temple (see Shu"t Binyan Zion #1).
Curse of the earth
From earliest of times, G'd fearing individuals brought offerings to G'd. Already the children of Adam and Eve understood the importance of this service (see Bereishis 4:3-5). After the flood, Noah realized that it was appropriate that he express his appreciation and thanks to G'd for his family's salvation by bringing offerings. As it says, (Bereishis 8:20-21) "And Noah built an altar to G'd and he took of every pure animal and every pure bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And G'd smelled the pleasing aroma and G'd said in His heart, 'I shall not continue to curse the earth anymore because of man.'" The Zohar (ibid 70b) explains that this is a reference to the curse of the earth caused by the sin of Adam, the first man. When G'd smelled the aroma of the offering of Noah, He decided that this curse should not continue. The Zohar explains that there is a similar reason for the offerings brought by the Jewish nation in the Temple, as these offerings cause G'd's blessings to flow to the earth.
In this week's Torah portion, the daily offerings brought in the Temple are described in great detail. This part of the portion is introduced with G'd saying to Moses (Bamidbar 28:1-2), "Command the children of Israel. You shall observe to bring My offering … My satisfying aroma at its appointed time." It is obvious that G'd does not need our offerings. The description of G'd having pleasure from the aroma of the offerings is to give us some kind of understanding that these offerings please G'd. As Rashi (ibid 8) quotes from the Sifri, that G'd is pleased with the fact that He has spoken and His will has been fulfilled.
The Torah continues to describe the special offerings brought every Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh (beginning of the new month) and on the various Festivals. These special days are times when G'd is ready to bless the Jewish people with special blessings. In the merit of the fulfillment of His command to bring offerings, these blessings will flow freely from above. The Zohar (ibid) explains that, from the time of the destruction of the Temple, all of these blessings have ceased to flow. Even worse, says the Zohar, not only have the blessings stopped, but in their stead has developed one curse after another. We find a similar statement in the Talmud (Sotah 48a and 49a) where it says: "From the day the Temple was destroyed, there is no day without a curse … every new day the curse is bigger than the day before." Instead of the whole world benefiting from the blessings resulting from the offerings brought in the Temple, everything has to flow through different channels that causes more harm than good. Our sages explain that if the gentiles would realize how much they have lost by the destruction of the Temple, they would force the Jewish people to repent so that the Temple can be built again.
Three pillars affected
The service of the offerings was not the only thing affected by the destruction of the Temple. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 1:2) says, "The world rests on three things: on Torah study, on the service of G'd, and on kind deeds." Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Vilna Gaon, explains that all of these three pillars were affected by the destruction of the Temple.
Pillar of service
The Prophet Jeremiah laments (Book of Eichah 2:7-12): "G'd rejected His altar … G'd decided to destroy the wall of the daughter of Zion … Her king and officers are among the nations, there is no Torah … My eyes have emptied from tears … as babies and sucklings faint in the streets of the city. They say to their mothers, 'Where is grain [bread] and wine?'" The Prophet initially expresses his anguish over G'd having rejected the service on the altar of the Temple, and that He does not anymore allow us to bring the "pleasing" offerings.
Pillar of Torah
Secondly, Jeremiah describes how the king and officers, which our sages often use as a reference to the rabbis and their students, are scattered amongst the nations, not being able to study Torah. Although we can study Torah today, there have been many times throughout our exile, when the study of Torah was prohibited by the gentile authorities. Even during the periods when we have been permitted and able to study Torah, our understanding of the Torah is on a much lower level than at the time when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. As we express in the prayer after the end of Shemona Esrei, where we besiege G'd to rebuild the Temple and give each of us our share of the Torah. This clearly indicates that, in our present situation, our understanding of the Torah is with much less clarity than it will be when the Temple will be rebuilt, when each of us will clearly know our specific part of the Torah, corresponding to our specific purpose in life.
Pillar of kind deeds
Thirdly, the Prophet cries bitterly as he has a vision of the infants that are forsaken and cannot be fed and cared for. There is no one around to give charity and provide them with the food and attention that they need. This is not just a description of the time at the actual destruction of the Temple, but a description of many instances of abuse throughout our long and bitter exile. Time and again, the Jewish people have been persecuted and driven from place to place, when both adults and children were killed without mercy by their enemies. This is how it was during the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and in later times the Pogroms in Eastern Europe, as well as in more recent times during the Holocaust. Throughout these difficult periods, the Jewish people, who normally excel in charity and good deeds, were not in a position to help each other and extend a hand to feed and care for the many suffering children and infants.
Jewish people living in poverty
Even in our days of affluence, where, by the grace of G'd, we have seen an unbelievable revival, how so many Holocaust survivors have managed to rebuild their lives, have established families and seen a tremendous success in their businesses. Although many of them, as well as a new generation of philanthropists, give very generous amounts of charity, a large segment of the Jewish people still suffers and lives below the poverty-line. At the same time as we see how so many Torah institutions have been re-established and educate new generations of Jewish children and prepare tomorrow's leaders to take over, it is no secret how most of these institutions have a daily struggle to continue their holy tasks.
Bring us close
Says Rabbi Abraham, it is on this basis that we daily pray in the fifth blessing of Shemona Esrei: "Return us, our Father, to Your Torah, and bring us close, our King, to your service, and bring us back to repent to You in complete repentance before You." It is our sincere prayer that G'd shall take mercy on us and allow us not just to live in the land of Israel, but to add the spiritual Torah dimension to our physical ability to live in the Holy Land.
Turning mourning into celebration
It is most devastating to see how our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land are still surrounded by our enemies, living a life of danger in constant fear of what will happen. Everyone realizes that there is no way to achieve peace with our enemies. Only G'd, the Master of Peace, can bring that about. It is our obligation to strengthen ourselves and everyone around us as we say this prayer in sincerity to our merciful Father and powerful King: "Please return us to appreciate the truth of Your Torah, and bring us close to Your service, acknowledging that You are the source of all blessings and the only One Who has the power to provide these blessings. Help and bring us back to repent to You in complete unity, as one nation with one goal." May these three weeks be turned from mourning into celebration. And may we all speedily experience the rebuilding of the Temple, and the rededication of the altar, with the coming of our righteous Mashiach. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network