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Torah Attitude: Parashas Pinchas: The three weeks and the three pillars


Five calamities occurred on the 17th of Tamuz. The suspension of the offerings is one of the calamities. The reason for the offerings 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 state 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. Rabbi Abraham explains that all three pillars were affected by the destruction of the Temple. The Prophet Jeremiah laments the diminishing of the three pillars of Torah, service of G'd and kind deeds. Even in our days of affluence, many people still suffer and live 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.

Five calamities

This past Sunday we observed the fast day of the 17th day of Tamuz. With this we began the three weeks of mourning that concludes with the 9th of Av. During this period, Jews worldwide remember the destruction of both the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud (Taanis 26a-b) relates that five calamities occurred on the 17th of Tamuz. The first one took place when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. When he saw that the Jewish nation had made the Egel (golden calf), he broke the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The second calamity happened 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 fortified themselves inside the Temple and continued to bring the offerings. They had sufficient sheep 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 they had to suspend the daily offerings. At some point during the Second Temple, an idol was erected in the Temple on the 17th of Tamuz. And on this very same day, a Greek officer by the name Apustumus burned a Torah scroll. The last calamity happened at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem 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. This is not just part of the general destruction of the Temple, but 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 necessarily dependent on the existence of the Temple (see Shu"t Binyan Zion #1).

Curse of the earth

From the earliest of times, G'd fearing people brought offerings to G'd. The Torah relates how Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve, brought offerings (see Bereishis 4:3-5). After the flood, Noah expressed 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 refers to the curse of the earth caused by the sin of Adam. When G'd smelled the aroma of the offering of Noah, He decided to discontinue this curse. The Zohar explains that in a similar way the offerings in the Temple brought about that G'd's blessings would be bestowed upon the earth.

G'd's pleasure

In this week's parasha, the Torah describes the daily offerings brought in the Temple in great detail. In the beginning of this part of the parasha G'd says to Moses (Bamidbar 28:1-2), "Instruct the children of Israel. You shall observe to bring My offering My satisfying aroma at its appointed time." Obviously, G'd does not need our offerings. The Torah describes that G'd has pleasure from the aroma of the offerings to relay to us that these offerings please G'd. As Rashi (ibid 8) quotes from the Sifri, that G'd is pleased that He has spoken and His will has been fulfilled.

Special offerings

The Torah continues to describe the special offerings brought every Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh (beginning of the new month) and on the various Festivals. On these occasions, G'd is ready to bless the Jewish people with special blessings. In the merit of the offerings, G'd lets His blessings flow freely from above. The Zohar (ibid) explains that since the time of the destruction of the Temple, these blessings have ceased to flow. Even worse, says the Zohar, not only have the blessings stopped, but one curse after another has developed in their stead. 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 that the offerings brought about, everything flows through different channels that cause more harm than good. Our sages explain that if the gentiles would realize how much they have lost by destroying the Temple, they would force the Jewish people to repent so that the Temple can be built again.

Three pillars affected

The Mishnah says (Pirkei Avos 1:2): "The world rests on three things: on Torah, on the service of G'd, and on kind deeds." These three things are often referred to as the three pillars of the world. Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Vilna Gaon, explains that not only the offerings in the Temple were discontinued, rather all the 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 describes the terrible situation after the destruction. He initially expresses his anguish that G'd has rejected the offerings on the altar of the Temple.

Pillar of Torah

Jeremiah goes on to describe the king and officers. This is a reference to the rabbis and their students who are scattered amongst the nations without Torah. Throughout our exile there have been many times when the study of Torah was prohibited by the gentile authorities. Even when we have been able to study Torah, our understanding of the Torah is on a much lower level and less clear than at the time when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. We mention this 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 in the Torah. For when the Temple will be rebuilt, we will understand the Torah on a higher level and each of us will know which part of the Torah corresponds to our specific purpose in life.

Pillar of kind deeds

Finally, 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 refers to the many instances of persecution throughout our long and bitter exile. Time and again, we have suffered and been driven from place to place, when both adults and children were killed without mercy by our enemies. This is how it was during the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades. Later, we suffered during the Pogroms in Eastern Europe, and in more recent times during the Holocaust. Throughout these difficult periods, the Jewish people, who normally excel in charity and good deeds, were often 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. Many Holocaust survivors have managed to rebuild their lives. They have established families and seen a tremendous success in their businesses. Although they, as well as a new generation of philanthropists, are very generous, many families still suffer and live below the poverty-line. Thank G'd many Torah institutions flourish and educate new generations of Jewish children to prepare them to become tomorrow's leaders. However, it is no secret that most of these institutions have a daily struggle to finance their holy task.

Bring us close

Says Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Vilna Gaon, we 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." In this prayer, we ask G'd to bring us back, both physically and spiritually, by rebuilding the Temple. For then we will be able to study Torah again on a higher level and to serve G'd with the daily offerings. At that time, we will have the means to perform acts of kindness to those who need our assistance. And then we will be able to repent all our shortcomings from throughout our exile.

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. The truth is that there is no way we can 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 pray to G'd: "Please return us to appreciate the truth of Your Torah, and bring us close to Your service. 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 soon see the rededication of the altar in the Temple, with the coming of Mashiach. Amen.

These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel