Before we go further into the topic of the Three Weeks, here’s a quick review of what we’ve learned so far:
The destruction of our temples and many other national tragedies occurred in the three weeks between the seventeenth of Tamuz and the ninth of Av.
Bil’am, a powerful sorcerer, searched for sins in the Jewish people so that he could successfully curse them. He looked at their tents, but saw that they were arranged modestly.
After failing on his mission, Bil’am advised that B’nei Israel be seduced by girls from Midian and Mo’av. Although they also led Jewish men to the greater sin of idol worship, Bil’am understood that public immoral behavior would result in a more immediate punishment for the Jews- “Their God hates illicit behavior.”
Pinchas defended Hashem’s honor by spearing Zimri and the woman he was with; the plague that had come upon the nation stopped.
Parashat Balak, the Three Weeks, and the summer coincide because a lack of modesty- especially common in this season- holds us back from rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash.
These connections also explain why, in addition to B’nei Israel’s dwelling places, Bil’am also praised the Mishkan and Batei Mikdash- for their ability to bring atonement, and their destiny to be rebuilt after being destroyed.
The exile we are currently in, Galut Edom, refers to the nation that descended from Esav…
These are the descendants of Esav- which is Edom.
Esav/ Edom evolved into what would become Rome. This nation eventually destroyed the second Beit Hamikdash and forced the exile from Israel of the Jews it did not kill. The Roman Empire later dissolved into Europe, which later spawned other countries- most notably, the United States of America. In short, Edom is still known today by two features: it represents the West, and is mighty- both militarily and culturally.
Let us look at some historical background on the struggle between B’nei Israel and Edom…
One night, Yaakov Avinu was confronted by Edom’s angel:
And Yaakov remained alone- and a man (i.e. an angel) wrestled with him until daybreak.
We know instinctively that this showdown was not a mere test of fighting skills; why would such a wrestling match be important, and who’s to say Yaakov could match an angel in strength? The reality is deeper: the physical fight reflected a spiritual struggle on the highest levels (“The dust from their feet reached the Throne of Glory”). Whatever exactly was taking place in the heavenly spheres, Yaakov was made to defend himself from the attacks and accusations of Edom. And what was the result of this fight? The verse attests that Yaakov stood his ground- but that the angel managed to injure him:
He (the angel) saw that he could not overcome him, and so he touched him on the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was strained when he wrestled with him.
Like the struggle itself and Yaakov’s success, the blow that the angel dealt must also hold deep significance. Why was Yaakov damaged specifically on that part of his body?
One explanation given by the holy Zohar is that the thigh symbolizes the place of physical desire (as it houses the reproductive system). As such, Edom’s last gasp effort was to hurt Yaakov’s descendants in the area of immoral relations and intermarriage; if Yaakov’s tremendous righteousness could not be breached in a direct confrontation with evil, perhaps his children could be swayed to follow their desires.
This approach, the rabbis teach, was actually reflected in the angel’s initial attack. Instead of simply ‘fighting’, the Torah stresses that the angel “wrestled with” Yaakov… because it is an allusion to hugging. When wrestling does not work, Edom introduces illicit behavior and intermarriage.
It should not surprise us to learn that Esav himself employed this same dual strategy immediately afterward:
And Esav ran toward him, and he hugged him and kissed him…
-Vayishlach, 33:4 (abridged)
The Torah makes it clear that Esav constantly desired more and more physical pleasure (Vayishlach, 33:9; Rashi)- as shown by his sins for lust and power (Toldot, 25:29; Rashi), and his commitment to eating and drinking because he was “anyway going to die” (Toldot, 25:32). Yaakov was forced to hide his daughter Dina lest Esav see her, and Esav attempted to set his eyes upon Rachel (Vayishlach, 33:5; Rashi, ibid:7). Esav is thus said to epitomize the trait of the “Evil Eye.”
Whom are we reminded of? Bil’am. Bil’am chased after his desires, and was convinced to curse the Jews in exchange for honor and wealth (Balak, 22: 17-18; Rashi)- and tried to turn his own evil eye upon B’nei Israel. And when that didn’t work… he brought B’nei Israel to sin through illicit relations. Understandably, Bil’am is said to epitmoize the Evil Eye:
[One who has] an evil eye, haughtiness, and is obsessed with desires is of the students of the wicked Bil’am.
-Pirkei Avot, 5:29
The Torah tells us that Yitzchak Avinu favored Esav over his other son Yaakov (Toldot, 25:28). Yitzchak misjudged Esav partly because he was blind, which made it difficult to recognize the nuances of Esav’s misbehavior. This mistake brought Yitzchak to want to bless Esav, forcing Yaakov to ‘take’ the blessings after buying the firstborn status from Esav, and therefore to later defend himself from the accusations of wrongdoing by Esav and his angel.
Perhaps we can now better understand a Kaballah teaching. The Chida (Chacham Yosef David Azoulay) quotes the holy Arizal:
Pinchas was instilled with the soul of Yitzchak Avinu at the time of his zealousness- and Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon whom he killed- was the reincarnation of… Esav.
With his act, then, Pinchas effectively repaired Yitzchak’s misplaced love of Esav.
We can also appreciate that Bil’am’s advice to seduce B’nei Israel was promoted by Zimri- otherwise known as Esav. We can also add that Yitzchak’s inability to see Esav’s faults was rectified in one moment of clear vision:
And Pinchas… saw, and got up from among the congregation, and took a spear in his hand.
-Balak, 25:7 (abridged)
[We can also point to the role of sight and eyes in Bil’am’s narrative- as evidenced by Balak 23:13; ibid. 24:1-4; ibid. 15-16, among others- as examples of Bil’am using the evil eye.]
Now we should have a better picture of the history and significance of those who try to undermine our spirituality through improper sights and behavior. I hope that in the coming days we can supplement this with a few more points about the importance of ‘proper sight’ and its role in our mourning and prayers.
Have a great Shabbat!
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.