Balak: Our Messianic Star Power

In a small Russian Shtetl, the community council decides to pay a poor Jew a ruble a week to sit at the town’s entrance and be the first to greet the Messiah when he arrives.  The man’s brother comes to see him, and is puzzled why he took such a low-paying job.  “It’s true,” the poor man responds, “the pay is low. But it’s a steady job.”

This joke, recounted in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews, encapsulates Judaism’s ambivalence toward the idea of Messiah (Hebrew: משח “Moshiach”). Telushkin, one of our generation’s most important Jewish educators, regards the Messiah as one of Judaism’s major contributions to Western thinking.  

On the one hand, Judaism professes to eagerly await the Messiah’s arrival.  The twelfth of Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith is, “I believe in the coming of the Messiah, and though he tarry, I will wait for him on any day on which he comes.” The Aleinu prayer at the end of each religious service also references the hoped-for realization of Zechariah’s glorious prophecy of worldwide peace and justice at the end of days – “On that day, G-d shall be One, and His Name Shall be One.”  

On the other hand, there is pragmatic skepticism. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was smuggled out of besieged Jerusalem just before the destruction of the Second Temple and who arguably saved Judaism by establishing his academy at Yavneh, taught, “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling, then go and greet the messiah.”  Avot d’Rabbi Natan, version B, chapter 31, Schechter edition.

Indeed, the “relationship” between Jews and “the Messiah,” or between Jews and the idea of the Messiah, has been both extremely important and extremely problematic.

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the Prophet Balaam (best known for berating and beating a talking ass, and later pronouncing the “Mah Tovu” blessing) prophesizes that:

I see it, but not now, I behold it, but not soon: There goes forth a star from Yaakov, There arises a meteor from Israel. It smashes the pate of Moav, The crown of all the Children of Shet.  (Numbers 24:17; Everett Fox translation).

At various times in Jewish history – most notably, the Bar Kochba [literally, “son of a star”) revolt – this passage was taken as a Messianic prophecy.  More than a few Jewish men have claimed to be and/or been regarded as the Messiah.  When these claims have been accepted by significant numbers of Jews, as with Simon Bar Kochba, David Alroi, Sabbatai Zevi, Jacob Joseph Frank, and some Chabad followers say, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the results have ultimately been disastrous for the Jewish people. In the first example, the Great Revolt against Rome, more Jews were killed as a proportion of the entire Jewish population than during the Shoah (Holocaust).

Terrible consequences for Jews have also resulted when other people have accepted someone as the Messiah or as a uniquely holy and venerated figure, and then turned their wrath upon the Jews for not doing likewise.  No wonder, then, that Judaism is ambivalent about the entire Messiah idea.  It expresses both an eternal optimism in the future and a sober recognition of danger for the present.  We should never lose sight of either.  

The concept of “Tikkun Olam” is far more than a “social justice movement” championed by Reform Judaism.  It literally means “Repairing the World,” but this refers to the Kabbalistic concept of a world broken because the “vessels” through which the Divine energy passed during creation shattered, sending shards throughout existence.  To effect “Tikkun Olam,” we are obliged to gather these shards through the performance of mitzvot.  Our efforts to do so, according to Kabbalistic thought, hasten the arrival of the Messiah.  Hasten, but are unlikely to succeed in our time.  What Bilaam said thousands of years ago still holds true: “I see it, but not now, I behold it, but not soon.”

Even so, we should continue to embrace the idea of Messiah, or of a “Messianic Age,” as central to Judaism.   It is the spur of optimism, purpose, and activism that indeed are central to Judaism.  Through Torah, worship, and acts of kindness, we can each be stars that go forth from Yaakov, meteors that arise from Israel.

When will the Messiah come?  It’s said that it will happen when all Jews properly observe two consecutive Shabbats, Shabbat being considered a “foretaste” of the Messianic Era.  Although we can laugh (with mixed emotions) about the Messiah, as we do about every other subject in Judaism, living to help bring about the fulfillment of the prophecy is no joke.

Shabbat shalom!

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