1. The three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tishah BeAv are referred to as the Three Weeks of Retribution and Bein HaMetzorim, “between the straits,” names whose connotation is not openly positive.

This presents a conceptual difficulty. The number three is generally connected with positive themes, e.g., the three Patriarchs, the three pilgrimage festivals. Similarly, our Sages associated the giving of the Torah with the number three, praising G‑d for giving, “a threefold light to a threefold people... in the third month.” Furthermore, the number three has the implications of permanence as expressed in the verse, “the threefold cord will not be snapped speedily.” Similarly, in halachic terms, the number three is connected with a chazakah, a presumption that can be assumed to continue. Accordingly, it is difficult to understand: Why is the concept of retribution and destruction, the direct opposite of holiness and permanence,1 associated with the number three?

Generally, the concept is explained as follows: The awesome descent of the Three Weeks is intended to allow for an ascent. When a person wants to reach a level which is much higher than his present rung, it is necessary for him to undergo a descent first. Similarly, for the Jews to reach the peaks of the Messianic redemption, a redemption which will not be followed by a descent, it is necessary that they first undergo the descent of exile. In this context, the Three Weeks are associated, not with exile, but rather with the Third Beis HaMikdash that will be built after this exile.

This explanation, however, is insufficient for the Three Weeks connect the aspect of descent (and not the subsequent ascent) with three. When a descent is intended for the sake of an ascent, the descent itself is not desired. Indeed, it will ultimately be nullified and all that will remain is the ascent. If so, why is three which is, as above, usually connected with permanence, associated with a dimension that has no self-contained purpose and which ultimately will be nullified?2

The question can be reinforced: Generally, the number three expresses an ascent which follows a descent. For example, in the narrative of creation, the first day, is referred to in the Torah as yom echad, “one day,” i.e., a day of oneness, to quote the Midrash, “the day that G‑d was at one with His world.” It was followed by the second day, “the day on which strife was created,” as reflected in the separation of the higher waters from the lower waters. Accordingly, the expression, “And G‑d saw that it was good,” is not mentioned in connection with the second day since division, even when necessary for the world, cannot be called “good.”

This was followed by the third day, which compensated for the division of the second day, creating peace and unifying the two opposites. For this reason, the expression, “And G‑d saw that it was good,” is repeated twice, revealing a compound goodness which qualitatively exceeds the goodness of the other days.

This is reflected by the attribute of Tiferes (“beauty,” which was expressed on the third day of creation) which unifies Chessed (“kindness,” expressed on the first day of creation) with Gevurah (“might,” expressed on the second day of creation). This reveals a unity which surpasses that of the first day. On the first day, the unity existed on a level above division. Thus, there is the possibility that division will ultimately arise. In contrast, the unity of the third day is established within the context of division, bringing about a true state of unity.

The same concept is reflected in Torah where we find the concept of “a controversy for the sake of heaven,” the controversy between Hillel and Shammai. This division has its source in the division which came into being on the second day of creation and, in turn, serves as the source for subsequent differences of opinion within Torah.

A “controversy for the sake of Heaven,” is obviously not a simple matter of strife or conflict. Nevertheless, it — even the controversy between Hillel and Shammai — brought about a descent. Ultimately, however, it serves a positive function.3 The debate between a thinking process that favors leniency (since its source is the attribute of Chessed) and a thinking process which tends to severity (since its source is the attribute of Gevurah) leads to a clarification of Torah law.4 A third opinion emerges which reconciles and unifies both conflicting perspectives.5

Thus, both in the world at large and in Torah, the concept of descent and division is associated with the number two and three is associated with the ascent and unification that follows. Similarly, in regard to the Batei HaMikdashos: The first (associated with the Patriarch Avraham, and the attribute of Chessed) and the second (associated with the Patriarch, Yitzchok, and the attribute of Gevurah) Batei Mikdashos were destroyed, while the third Beis HaMikdash (associated with the Patriarch Yaakov and the attribute of Tiferes) will be an eternal structure. Thus the original question is reinforced: Why are these weeks which are connected with mourning, destruction, and exile associated with the number three?

This question can be resolved by developing a different understanding of the concept “a descent for the purpose of an ascent.” To explain: A Jew should be in a constant process of ascent, “always ascending higher in holiness,” “proceeding from strength to strength.” If so, what is the reason for a descent? To proceed to a higher and more elevated rung that could not otherwise be reached. To give an example from every day life, when faced with obstructions and difficulties, a person summons up inner strength that brings out greater achievements that would otherwise be impossible.

In this process of descent for the sake of ascent, there are two levels: a) a descent which is limited within the context of the natural order, b) a descent which cannot be fathomed by the rules of nature.

In the first case — which reflects the progression from two (descent) to three (ascent) — just as the descent is limited, so, too, the ascent has certain limits. In contrast, when the descent is unlimited, as in the Three Weeks, the ascent which follows is also unlimited in nature.

The first type of descent was implanted by G‑d in the natural order of the world. In contrast, the second descent is brought about by man, through his sins. Thus, in the first instance, there is a direct connection between the descent and the ascent which will follow. In contrast, when a person sins, on a revealed level, there is no apparent connection between the sin and the ascent through teshuvah which will ultimately follow. In particular, when the descent that is brought about by sin is connected with three — and thus, has the power of permanence — the ascent becomes even higher.

To rephrase the matter: The process of ascent that is brought about by descent is a natural phenomenon. Since the descent into the realm of division brings about a higher sense of oneness, the division is not genuine. On the contrary, even on the level of division, it is felt how it is temporary in nature, with no purpose in and of itself, and that it exists only to bring out the higher level of unity. When is there genuine division? When there is an approach that possesses the aspect of permanence associated with three and yet appears to be totally negative in thrust with no connection with the ascent that will follow. When unity is established in that context, then it is true and complete.

In this context, we can understand the Three Weeks. This period, brought about by our sins, reflects the lowest possible descent, a descent that would not be possible within the order of nature, and reflects the aspect of permanence associated with the number three. Thus, we see that this exile continues without end, to quote our Sages:

In the first generations, their sin was revealed and the end [of the period of retribution] was also revealed. In the later generations, their sin was not revealed and the end [of the period of retribution] was also not revealed.

Even after our Sages declared, “All the appointed times for Mashiach’s coming have passed,” the exile continues. Furthermore, on the surface, there is no way in which it is apparent how such an exile will lead to the redemption.

Nevertheless, this itself is an indication that it will lead to an ascent which is totally beyond our comprehension, that it will surpass even the peaks of holiness that were attained previously, establishing an entirely new framework of reference.

Furthermore, since this is the purpose of the descent of the Three Weeks — although it is not consciously felt — we must appreciate that the Three Weeks themselves have a positive dimension. The Three Weeks are associated with the revelation of the three powers of intellect.

In that context, the word פורעניות rendered as “retribution” can be reinterpreted in a positive context. The Zohar associates Pharaoh (whose name פרעה shares the same Hebrew root as פורעניות) “with the revelation of all the sublime lights.” Similarly, these Three Weeks can be the source for a revelation of light that transcends all limits, the light that will be revealed in the Third Beis HaMikdash.6

In this context, we can explain the connection between the Three Weeks and this particular Shabbos, the Shabbos on which the Book of Bamidbar is completed.7 The process of descent for the sake of ascent which is revealed in the Three Weeks goes beyond the limits of nature. Thus, it brings about a strengthening of the Jews in Torah, as evidenced by their calling out in powerful tones, Chazak, Chazak, Vinischazeik, (“Be strong, Be strong, May you be strengthened”).8

The concept of an immeasurable ascent which comes because of the descent into exile is also alluded to in each of the parshiyos of Matos and Masei.

The name Matos refers to a branch which has become strong and hard because it was cut off from the tree.9 There is a parallel to this in our service of G‑d. The Jewish soul as it descends into a body, particularly as it exists in exile, is, on an apparent level, cut off from its source. This brings about a hardening and strengthening process. On the surface, the hardening is negative in nature, intensifying the challenges which a Jew faces. Through confronting these challenges, however, a Jew attains added strength and power in his service of G‑d which enables him to endure the challenges of exile without being affected.

Similarly, the parshah of Masei shares a connection to the exile. Masei meaning “journeys,” in an extended sense can refer to all the journeys undergone by the Jews in their departure from Egypt (the place of boundaries and limitations) with the intent of reaching Eretz Yisrael in the Messianic era. These journeys add strength to the Jews as expressed in the exclamation, Chazak, Chazak, Vinischazeik.

Thus, the extended exile which is felt acutely in these Three Weeks should not bring a Jew to despair, but rather to an appreciation of the heights to which the exile will bring us. This realization should, in turn, bring about a strengthening of Torah and mitzvos which will lead to the Messianic redemption. This should be expressed in “spreading the wellsprings outward,” extending the influence of Torah to places which by nature have no connection to it.

In particular, this should be expressed in making siyumim, conclusions of the study of Talmudic tractates or Torah works. These siyumim should be made in every place possible. May this lead to a siyum of the exile.

{There is a connection to the above in the beginning and the conclusion of the Talmud: The Talmud begins, “From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?” “Evening” refers to exile. Within the exile there can the recitation, i.e., the revelation, of Shema, the Oneness of G‑d and His unique connection to the Jews. This is brought about by מאימתי, which as the Maggid’s son Rav Avraham explained, can also be rendered as, “Out of awe,” i.e., the fear and awe of G‑d.

This leads to the conclusion of the Talmud: “The School of Eliyahu [i.e., the prophet Eliyahu who will announce Mashiach’s coming] taught: Whoever studies Torah laws every day is assured of life in the World to Come.”10 The study of Torah law gives a Jew control over the entire world and enables him to experience the World to Come within the context of his life in this world. This will lead to the era of the redemption.}

This must lead to the ultimate decision of Torah law, that the exile has endured for too long and the Messianic redemption must come now.11