Parshat Balak:Guided by the Messiah

‘A star shall shoot forth from Jacob…’ (Numbers 24:17)

Horses eating 311 (photo credit: Israel Weiss,
Horses eating 311
(photo credit: Israel Weiss,
What is the meaning of our faith in a Messiah, and why is the Messianic vision given to a gentile prophet, Balaam? At the conclusion of the morning prayers most 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.”
Despite our history of exiles and persecutions, belief in the Messiah remains one of our deepest sources of national resilience. The sages of the Midrash express this in a most poetic fashion: “The Messiah was born on Tisha Be’av [the ninth day of the month of Av, the yearly fast for the destruction of both Holy Temples], and Comforter [Menahem] is his name.”
Our sages are underscoring the truism that we only really appreciate what we have after we lose it; hence our deep yearning for the Messiah and national renaissance (Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel, with the Holy Temple restored in Jerusalem) only became pillars of Jewish prayer with the destruction of our Temple.
Moreover, it was specifically our belief in the ultimate vindication of our mission to illuminate the world with compassionate righteousness, morality and peace that prevented us from being crushed by 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 and stretches forward to Freudian psychology and much of Christianity, and is one of the greatest gifts Judaism has bequeathed to the world.
Explicit Torah sources for Messianism are to be found in only 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 that He “will make you a great nation… He will bless those who bless you and those who curse you shall be cursed, and all the families of the Earth shall be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3). The descendants of Abraham will disseminate his ethical monotheism, compassionate righteousness and moral justice (Gen. 18:18, 19).
At the conclusion of Genesis, Jacob gathers his sons around his deathbed to tell them what will befall them “at the end of days” (Gen. 49:1).
Judah, the anointed leader (the Hebrew word Messiah refers to a king anointed with sacred oil) of his brothers, will wield the “scepter” of rulership into the period of Shiloh (Messiahship), when all the nations will surround him (Gen. 49:8-11).
But the most explicit reference is in Balak, which strikingly builds upon our previous sources. The gentile prophet Balaam was hired by King Balak of Moab to curse the “invincible” Israelites, but Balaam cannot curse those blessed by God (Numbers 24:9). Balaam then declares to Balak what Israel will do to Moab “at the end of the days… a star shall shoot forth from Jacob and the Judean scepter from Israel, who shall crush the nobles of Moab. Israel will emerge victorious…. Amalek’s end shall be eternal destruction” (Num. 24:17-20).
What is especially noteworthy about Balaam’s prophecy is that it is preceded by his assessment of the Israelite encampment: “How goodly [tov, morally excellent] are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5, 6). He clearly sees their cleanliness, modesty and 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 world history.
He also does not see the star “Messiah” arriving immediately. 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 (Num. 24:17-20).
The essence of our faith in the Messiah is our “anxious anticipation of his coming,” preparing by making ourselves more worthy. This is the significance of the Maimonidean formulation with which we opened this comment; this was the importance of the various “campaigns” of the peerless Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
I’ve heard it said in the name of the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, my distinguished friend, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that the captain of a ship is guided by a 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 until we first become a holy nation ourselves.
Why then is the Messianic vision of the Torah most explicitly expressed by a gentile? 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.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.