The ‘Three Weeks’ period from the seventeenth of Tamuz through the ninth of Av is a sad time for our nation, as we mourn the destruction of the Batei Mikdash and other tragedies that occurred during this time of year. Knowing that to build the third Beit Hamikdash we must rectify our ways, we also now focus on what we need to change in order to finally leave this long exile behind us.*
As is often the case, the Torah portion connects to the part of the calendar with which it coincides; the lesson we’ll learn comes from last week’s reading, which marked the beginning of these three weeks. In addition, we’ll also discuss why the summer is the particular season in which these events took place.
We read last week about Bil’am, a wicked prophet and sorcerer who was hired to curse B’nei Israel. Hashem did not let Bil’am carry out his mission, and eventually inspired him to bless the Jewish nation instead. Among Bil’am’s deep and prophetic blessings and praises for B’nei Israel, one phrase in particular is well-known in our prayer books:
How good are your tents, Yaakov; your dwellings, Israel!
What exactly about our living quarters was so commendable? Here is one explanation of the verse for now:
How good are your tents: He saw that the doorways of the tents did not face one another. (-Gemara Bava Batra)
Your dwellings, Israel: Your encampments, as the Targum [Onkelos] renders.
Apparently, the tents’ arrangement showed the modesty and the ‘guarded eyes’ of B’nei Israel; women would be out of their neighbors’ line of sight, and men avoided looking at their friends’ wives. This way of life impressed Bil’am very much.
It is stunning, then, that shortly afterward many of the nation sinned in exactly this area of modesty. Soon after Bil’am returned to his native land, a large number of B’nei Israel consorted with girls from Moav and Midian. Even worse, the Jewish men were influenced to serve the girls’ idols as a precondition to being with them. Hashem sent a plague upon His nation, and 24,000 people ultimately died. We will soon see which sin exactly brought about this punishment.
A couple of questions come to mind as we think about this sudden turn of events. Why did all of these Moabites and Midianites just show up? And was it a coincidence that the Jews acted immorally just after Bil’am had praised them for being modest?
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) teaches that the girls had actually traveled to B’nei Israel on a mission; they came with the intention of first seducing the Jewish men, then convincing them to serve the Ba’al Peor idol. Who came up with this idea? We are told that it was none other than… Bil’am. Before returning home after failing in his mission, he spoke to Balak, the leader of Mo’av who had hired him to curse the Jews:
And now, behold, I am going to my nation; come- I will advise you…
-Balak, 24:14, abridged
I will advise you: And what is the advice? Their God hates illicit behavior, and they desire clothing of linen. Come; I will give you advice…
-Rashi, from Gemara Sanhedrin 106a
As the Gemara (ibid.) details, everything that followed was done with the explicit guidance of Bil’am. He advised that old women stand outside tents selling linen clothing, while immodestly dressed young women would wait inside. The man who came would be told he could get a better price inside the tent, and the young woman there would soon offer him wine and seduce him. She would then refuse to be with him until he worshiped the idol. The plan was carried out, and many were swiftly led to the most severe sin of idol worship.
So… which was it? Was the aim to cause the worship of Ba’al Pe’or, or was it to induce immoral acts? We must probably conclude that Bil’am was operating on two levels: although he had the girls think that their mission was to cause idol worship, he told Balak that the seduction itself was the real goal. Perhaps the girls would only allow themselves to be taken by Jewish men if they believed it was for the greater good of the idol, and so were told that this was the purpose of their activity. In truth, though, Bil’am was really after B’nei Israel acting illicitly. It emerges that although idol worship is technically a much more severe sin, Bil’am understood that the illicit behavior would somehow pose a bigger threat to the Jews! Unfortunately, Bil’am’s plan worked to a large extent. In fact, the verses show that his judgment in prioritizing the sins was correct as well: the punishment the Jews received was for their involvement with the Moavite and Midianite girls- not for the idolatry. This is why the plague stopped after Pinchas killed Zimri and the Midianite princess with whom Zimri was sinning. As Hashem later told Moshe, this act “sent back My anger from B’nei Israel.” Although idolatry is technically the more serious of the two sins, the public nature of the Jews’ immodesty with the girls demanded more immediate and severe consequences.
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Oznayim LeTorah, suggests that Bil’am initially searched for a sin in B’nei Israel so that his curses could take hold through a specific channel; he therefore looked into their modesty. He saw that they excelled in this field, and had to move on- but remembered this later when he was unable to curse them. At that point, Bil’am advised Balak to entice the nation to sin through immodest actions- so that they would be punished severely. (It may well be that Bil’am later understood that the merit of modesty is what was protecting the Jews, and so chose to attack them in this field.)
Summer is underway, and for all the advantages it offers, it is a spiritually dangerous season. A changed schedule allows us to relax and recharge our batteries- yet tempts us to waste time and lose momentum from months of learning and growth. The warm weather helps us enjoy ourselves- but tests us with the completely immodest dress that surrounds us, making the task of protecting ourselves against spiritual damage and sin that much more difficult. Rav Avrohom Schorr, a prominent New York rabbi, noted that he has never seen a case of spiritual decline that did not take root in the summer months!
It’s no coincidence that we read about the protection that modesty gives, and the fact that Hashem hates illicit behavior, during the summer. Likewise, the physical and spiritual catastrophe of this time period shows that the forces of impurity and the trait of justice are prevalent at this time. Therefore, the math tells us, in order to restore the Beit Hamikdash we must avoid immorality, improper sights, and immodest exposure. Only after fighting back against the indecency that dominates in this era will we turn the tide of this bitter exile.
We turn now to the second set of explanations of the verse with which we began:
How good are your tents: How good are the tent of Shiloh and the eternal Temple when they are inhabited, for sacrifices are brought up in them to atone for you.”
Your dwellings, Israel: Even when they are desolate, for they are held as a pledge (“mashkon” in Hebrew, which is associated here with “mishkenotecha,” “your dwelling places”) for you, and their desolate state atones for your souls…
Based on what we’ve learned, we gain new insight into the first teachings of Rashi above. The building of the Temple is now linked to the direction of our tents; the ruins will be rebuilt and atonement will be achieved… when we turn our ‘tents’ back to where they should be facing.
May we improve our ways, particularly in the area of modesty, and thus merit the coming of the rebuilding of the third Beit Hamikdash, speedily in our days.
Have a great Shabbat!
* We must repent from all of our misdeeds, yet certain tests are more important to overcome than others. This can be due to the seriousness of a given sin, or because it is a specific challenge that a certain period of exile presents us with.
Elli is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.