In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, the Torah records the final encounter between the twins Jacob and Esau. This takes place when their father, Isaac, passes away and “is buried by his sons, Esau and Jacob.” (Genesis 35:29) Following this, the Torah presents a detailed genealogy of Esau and the various future chiefs of Edom. Nothing more is said of Esau. It is the Talmud (Sotah 13a) that describes how his life came to an end.
This week’s Torah reading is Balak, which describes how the Moabite king Balak hired the (non-Jewish) prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Balak saw what the Israelites had done to neighbouring kingdoms, and feared that he would lose his own as well. He therefore sought to reverse their fortunes through a curse. The Sages state that Bilaam could sense the precise moment when – just once a day, for precisely 1/58,888th of an hour (or about 61 milliseconds) – God was in his “strictest” mode, and Bilaam could take advantage of this moment to kindle God’s wrath against His chosen people (Berakhot 7a).
The plan ultimately failed, of course, and instead of cursing the Israelites, Bilaam’s mouth uttered blessings and praises. Perhaps most interesting, Bilaam also spoke a series of prophecies about the End of Days. They begin like this:
I see it, but not now; I behold it, but it is not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel which will smite the Moabite princes and uproot the sons of Seth. Edom shall be inherited, and Seir will become the inheritance of its enemies, and Israel shall do valiantly. And out of Jacob shall one have dominion, and will destroy the remnant of the city… (Numbers 24:17-19)
Bilaam describes a time in the very distant future, and the Sages agree that the “star of Jacob” refers to Mashiach. The Zohar (III, 212b) further elaborates on Bilaam’s prophecies, and describes what precisely is supposed to happen, and when that star of Jacob will be seen. Within this lengthy passage are a few verses that describe a scene quite familiar to the modern reader, and have therefore been used to suggest that the Zohar predicted the events of September 11, 2001:
… And [the star] will be seen on the sixth day, on the 25th day of the sixth month. It will be gathered on the seventh day, at the end of seventy days. On the first day it will be seen in a city of Rome. On that same day, three high structures of that city of Rome will fall and a great edifice will fall…
In traditional Jewish texts, Rome is typically referred to as Edom, and represents the entire Western (or European/Christian) world. The “city of Rome” represents whatever place is the centre of the Western world at a particular period of time. After the city of Rome itself had fallen in 476 CE, the “new Rome” was Constantinople. When this new Rome collapsed as well (and became present-day Istanbul), a “Third Rome” was said to arise. In the past, we have written about the identity of the Third Rome. Most scholars – at least in Jewish circles – agree on two possibilities: the Third Rome is either Moscow (as we have written about before), or New York.*
If it is indeed New York, then the Zoharic passage above makes a lot of sense. A great edifice of three high structures will fall? Yes, on September 11, three of the iconic World Trade Center buildings collapsed (WTC1, WTC2, and WTC7). And the dates match quite closely, too. The Zohar says the 25th of the sixth month, ie. the 25th of the month of Elul. September 11, 2001 happened to be the 23rd of Elul!
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, a number of articles circulated online (for example, here) suggesting that the Zohar predicted this tragedy, and added an additional detail of great interest: These articles claimed that Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, better known as the Vilna Gaon – who lived in the 18th century – corrected the Zohar and wrote that the event will, in fact, take place on the 23rd of Elul. These articles claim that the Vilna Gaon’s correction is recorded in a mystical text called Sifra DiTzniuta.
Are these claims true, and did the Zohar really predict the September 11 attacks?
What Do The Prophecies Actually Say?
First of all, Sifra DiTzniuta was written and published long before the Vilna Gaon’s time, so suggesting that his correction of the Zohar was recorded there is already unlikely. The Vilna Gaon did write a commentary to the Sifra DiTzniuta (full text is available here).
Having searched through both Sifra DiTzniuta and the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on it, I was unable to find any reference to the 23rd of Elul, or any correction of the Zohar’s prophecy. This doesn’t necessarily mean the claim is false, but it definitely looks like the source is incorrect.
Either way, we have to go back to the Zohar and read the entire passage, not only those few verses describing the fall of the buildings. It reads like this:
It is taught that in the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will rebuild Jerusalem and reveal one firm star, glowing with seventy pillars of fire, and with seventy sparks flashing from it in the middle of the Firmament, and they will be reigned over by seventy other stars, and they will glow and burn for seventy days.
And [the star] will be seen on the sixth day, on the 25th day of the sixth month. It will be gathered on the seventh day, at the end of seventy days. On the first day it will be seen in a city of Rome. On that same day, three high structures of that city of Rome will fall and a great edifice will fall. The ruler of that city will die. Then the star will spread out to be seen in the rest of the world. In that time, great wars will stir all around the four corners of the world and no faith will be found among [its people].
In the middle of the world, when that star will shine in the middle of the Firmament, a great king will arise and rule the world, and his spirit will gain pride over all the kings, and he will awaken a war between both sides, and he will become strong against them.
On the day that the star will be hidden, the Holy Land will tremble forty-five miles around the place of the Holy Temple, revealing an underground cave. From this cave will come out a blazing fire to burn the world. And from this cave a great branch will grow out, and it will rule over the whole world, and to it will be given the kingdom. The Holy Beings will gather to it. Then Mashiach will be revealed to the entire world…
Clearly, there is a lot more going on! While Jerusalem has been rebuilt, we have yet to see the emergence of a star glowing with seventy pillars of fire, with seventy other stars glowing for seventy days. (These may be metaphors, of course, and may not be literally referring to celestial objects.) The Zohar says the edifice would fall at the end of seventy days (or at the beginning, depending on how one reads the passage). There was nothing particularly salient about the period of seventy days before or after 9/11. Moreover, “the ruler of that city” did not die on that day. The events of 9/11 did instigate “great wars” and it is true that we live in an increasingly faithless world. Ultimately, a “great king” to rule the entire world has not arisen (as far as we can tell), nor did the Holy Land tremble to reveal a cave from which Mashiach sprang forth.
Therefore, to suggest that this Zohar is speaking of the 9/11 attacks is perhaps a bit premature. While there are several parallels, the entire sequence of events has not occurred in the years since September 11, 2001. It appears that we have yet to witness the true fulfilment of Bilaam’s and the Zohar’s prophecies.
*While New York is the largest city in the United States, and by far its most important and famous, another candidate for the “Third Rome” is Washington, D.C. Washington has the plus of being a capitol city, the seat of “the ruler” as the Zohar says. It, too, was attacked on 9/11, and its major edifice – the Pentagon (the world’s largest office building) – damaged. Interestingly, long before Washington became America’s capital city, it was settled by a man who named it Rome!
The article above is adapted from Garments of Light – 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!
This week’s parasha, Vayishlach, begins with Jacob’s return to the Holy Land following a twenty-year stay in Charan. The most famous passage of this parasha is Jacob’s battle with a certain angel. After its defeat, the angel gives Jacob a blessing and renames him Israel. What is the meaning of “Israel”? What was the purpose of this battle to begin with? And what does it all have to do with Jacob’s difficult twenty years in servitude to his deceiving father-in-law Laban?
Jacob vs. Esau
The Torah describes in quite some detail the conception, birth, and early lives of the twins Jacob and Esau. We see that Jacob was an “innocent man, sitting in tents” while Esau was a “hunter, a man of the field.” As twins, and the only children of Isaac and Rebecca, they were meant to work together in carrying on the divine mission started by their grandfather Abraham. The mission was to rectify the world, and fill it with true Godliness and righteousness. Such work mainly consists of educating others, doing good, and spreading the light. However, when that doesn’t work, it is also necessary to fight evil head-on. This was exemplified well by Abraham, who was both a wonderful preacher and, occasionally, a fearless warrior (as in the “War of the Kings” in Genesis 14).
Jacob and Esau were meant to take this to the next level. Thus, Jacob was blessed with extra intellect, wit, and spirituality, while Esau was blessed with extra strength, physical abilities, and ambition. In an ideal world, Jacob would have acted as the peaceful teacher, while Esau would defeat any remaining evil in battle. As partners, they would have been unstoppable in bringing light, morality, and a new God-consciousness to the world.
Unfortunately, the two couldn’t channel their blessings in the right direction. Esau’s physicality got the better of him, and he descended into a never-ending spiral of materialism. At the same time, Jacob used his cunning to take Esau’s birthright instead of using his intellect to put his brother back on the right path. Nonetheless, Jacob remained dedicated to fulfilling his divine mission, while Esau “despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34).
By taking Esau’s birthright and blessing, what Jacob had done was to take Esau’s mission upon himself. He, too, would have to become a fighter. However, Jacob was born soft and meek—not fit for battle—while Esau was the one born muscular and hairy, as if already a grown man (hence his name Esav, literally “complete”). Could Jacob really become that holy warrior that Esau was meant to be? Jacob had to be put to the test.
Right after receiving Esau’s blessings, Jacob was told that his brother was out to get him. The soft Jacob immediately fled the Holy Land, as far away from his brother as he could. This was true to his character as a docile man, “sitting in tents”. But this was clearly not what a holy warrior would do.
Jacob ended up in the home of his uncle and future father-in-law, Laban. He instantly fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, and agreed to work for Laban for seven years to be able to marry her. After seven years, Jacob was tricked into marrying the elder Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. It is hard to miss the irony of it all: Jacob, the one who tricked his father into getting his older brother’s blessing, is now tricked by his father-in-law into marrying his beloved’s older sister!
Laban forces Jacob to work for another seven years. This is, of course, completely unjust. A man such as Esau would have surely taken on Laban in combat, but the spineless Jacob simply agrees, and slaves away for seven more years. Following this, Laban finds more ways to trick Jacob out of an honest wage. Thankfully, Jacob is starting to learn, and begins to counter Laban’s wits with his own, soon building even greater wealth than his father-in-law.
At this point, Jacob hears that Laban is not very pleased with Jacob, and Jacob fears for himself and his family once again. As he did twenty years earlier, he decides to flee. While Laban was away shearing his sheep, Jacob takes the opportunity to run, taking the whole family with him. It appears that Jacob fails the test yet again, and is unable to confront his evil enemies.
Ten days later, Laban and his men find Jacob, and everything begins to change. Laban waltzes in to Jacob’s camp and begins threatening his son-in-law as he’d always done in the past. But this time Jacob has had enough, and realizes he can’t run away anymore. “And Jacob was angered, and battled with Laban” (Genesis 31:36). Jacob succeeds, and Laban seeks a peace treaty (v. 44). The two make a pact and part ways, never to see each other again. Jacob is becoming a fighter.
Jacob vs. Israel
This sets up parashat Vayishlach, where Jacob has to face off with Esau twenty years after running away from him. The night before, Jacob goes off on his own and is confronted by a mysterious figure (see ‘With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle? in Volume One of Garments of Light). The two battle it out all night long, and Jacob finally prevails. He is certainly no longer that weak, passive man he was two decades earlier. He has earned his badge of being a holy warrior. And with this, he is given a new name: Israel, one who “battles with God”; not against God, but alongside God, to defeat evil and make the world a better place. Jacob finally proves that he can indeed be Esau, and is worthy of having taking Esau’s birthright and blessing.
The Sages tell us that this is the real reason why Jacob had to marry both Rachel and Leah. Originally, since Rebecca had two sons and Laban had two daughters, the plan was for the younger Jacob to marry the younger Rachel, while the older Esau would marry the older Leah (Bava Batra 123a). Truly, these two couples were soulmates. However, Esau lost his spiritual essence to Jacob, and with it, his spiritual counterpart, Leah. The problem is that the Torah forbids a man from marrying two sisters! The Arizal (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Vayetze) tells us that, in fact, Rachel and Leah did not marry one man, for Jacob and Israel were really two souls in one body, and while Jacob married Rachel, it was Israel that married Leah. After all, Israel was the new Esau, the part of Jacob that wasn’t just “sitting in tents” but was capable of being a “man of the field”, too.
We later see that Israel was Jacob’s true self, his more-elevated inner being, and what he was really meant to be all along. God confirms this with a prophetic blessing (Genesis 35:10): “‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.’ And He named him Israel.”
This brings a tremendous lesson for all of us: we are not meant to be the weak Jacob, passively sitting in tents and being pushed around. Rather, we are meant to be Israel, who can balance study and prayer with strength and might; who can balance the physical with the spiritual, science with religion, and who knows both when to seek peace and when to pursue war. It is most fitting that the founders of the modern Jewish State decided to call it “Israel”. (In fact, they had originally planned to call it “Judah”, then “Zion”, and even “Tzabar”, before voting 7 to 3 in favour of “Israel”). If Israel is to fulfill its divine task, it should live up to its name: battling alongside God, as holy, righteous warriors, to repair the world—physically and spiritually—restoring it to its original, perfected state.