Judaism: Ohr Torah on Balak
Rabbi Shlomo RiskinThe writer is the founding and Chief Rabbi of Efrata, Gush Etzion, as well as founder and Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, author of Torah Lights and other well known Judaic texts.
"A star shall shoot forth from Jacob..." (Numbers 22:2 -25:9)
What is the meaning of our faith in a Messiah and why is the Messianic vision prophesied by a Gentile prophet, Balaam?
At the conclusion of the morning prayers most, if not all Orthodox prayer books list the "Thirteen Principles of Faith" formulated by Maimonides including the declaration:
"I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nevertheless, I anxiously await him, every day, that he may come."
Despite our history of exiles and persecutions, belief in the Messiah remains one of the deepest sources of our national strength and resilience. The Sages of the Midrash express this in a most accurate and poetic fashion:
"The Messiah was born on Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av, the annual fast day of mourning for the destruction of both Holy Temples) and Comforter (Menahem) is his name."
Our Sages are underscoring the truism that unfortunately, we only really appreciate what we have after we lose it; hence, our deep yearning for the Messiah and the national renaissance (Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel, the Holy Temple restored in Jerusalem) only became central pillars of Jewish prayer and expectation with the destruction of our Temple.
Moreover, it was specifically our belief in the ultimate vindication of our nationhood, and our mission to illuminate the world with compassionate righteousness, morality and peace that prevented us from being crushed on the rocks of despair.
The optimism of our faith in a perfected humanity at the end of the days, lies in stark contrast to the Greco-Roman pessimism which informs the myth of Sisyphus, much of Christianity and Freudian psychology. Our optimism is one of the greatest gifts Judaism has bequeathed to the world.
Fascinatingly, the explicit Pentateuch sources for Messianism are only to be found in three places: God's election of Abraham, Jacob's final blessings to his sons, and perhaps most specifically, in the words of the Gentile prophet Balaam.
God initially promises Abraham; "I will make you a great nation… He will bless those who bless you, those who curse you shall be cursed, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you". (Gen 12:1-3). The descendants of Abraham will form a great nation which will ultimately disseminate Abraham's ethical monotheism, compassionate righteousness and moral justice throughout the world. (Gen 18:18, 19),
At the conclusion of the Book of Genesis, Jacob gathers his sons around his death-bed to tell them what will befall them "at the end of the days" (Gen 49:1). Judah, the anointed leader (the Hebrew word Messiah refers to the King anointed with sacred oil) over his brothers, will eternally wield the "scepter" of rulership, into the period of Shiloh (Messiahship or Peace) when all the nations will surround him (See Gen 49:8-11).
But the most explicit reference is in our Biblical portion of Balak, which strikingly builds upon our previous sources. The Gentile prophet, Balaam, was hired by King Balak of Moab to curse the newly freed, "invincible" Israelites, but Balaam cannot curse those blessed of God, "whose "blessers will be blessed and whose cursers will be cursed". (Numbers 24:9) Balaam then declares to Balak what Israel will do to Moab "at the end of the days,…when a star shall shoot forth from Jacob and the Judean scepter (shevet) from Israel, who shall crush the nobles of Moab . . . Israel will emerge victorious…. Amalek's end shall be eternal destruction". (Numbers 24:17-20)
What is especially noteworthy about Balaam's prophecy is that it is preceded by his assessment of the encampment of Israel: "How goodly (tov, morally and ethically excellent) are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling houses, Israel" (Numbers 24;5,6). He clearly sees their cleanliness, their modesty and their sanctity. As long as they are worthy, they must be blessed by God; this is Balaam's unmistakable message to Balak, as well as to subsequent Jewish and world history.
He also does not see the star "Messiah" as arriving immediately, "Messiah now". Much the opposite, "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near— a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites. Edom will become a possession, Seir a possession of its enemies, while Israel does valiantly". (Numbers 24: 17-20) The essence of our faith in the Messiah is our "anxious anticipation of his coming", preparing for him by making ourselves more worthy. This is the significance of the Maimonidean formulation with which we opened this commentary; this was the importance of the various "campaigns" of the peerless Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson ztz"l (unfortunately, the Messianists miss the point!).
I heard it said in the name of the Chief Rabbi of England, my distinguished friend, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that the Captain of the Ship is guided by the star even though he knows he will never quite reach it. One thing is certain: we cannot hope to be a Kingdom of priest-teachers to the nations of the world until we first become a holy nation ourselves.
Why then is the Messianic vision of the Pentateuch most explicitly expressed by a Gentile prophet? Perhaps because it is only when the Gentiles can truly say "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob" that they will want to learn from us; and only then will we be close to the striking distance of the star, destined to shoot forth from Jacob and bring blessings to all the families of the earth.