Rabbi David Walk
Did you ever notice that Biblical poetry repeats itself? Perhaps our most famous liturgical poem is the 145th Psalm which every regular shul-goer calls Ashrei. Its first two lines begin with the word ashrei, which we usually translate as 'happy' but is probably closer to 'fortunate'. After that repetition almost every line contains a repetition, like: 'I bless You and extol you',' Your kingship and Your dominion', and 'Men shall talk of Your wonders and I will recount Your greatness'. This kind of style requires a translator to continually run to a thesaurus (okay, today we just punch a key or two, but you get the idea) to not sound too monotonous while rendering these redundancies. What's the purpose of this duplication? Well, I could say that it's stylistic, and even though it's true, that's too facile. You could say that these poems were memorized and this style made that easier. Okay, but that still doesn't exactly excite the reader. Often, you hear people say that it's for emphasis, yeah, but if you emphasize everything, then you've really emphasized nothing. I have a dear friend who underlines basically everything as he reads a book. I mean how helpful is that? So, we rabbi types like to explain that these repetitions present two ideas in parallel. Regularly we'll say one statement is describing a physical reality while the other is recounting a spiritual truth. That really works much of the time. So, this week I want to look at what I believe is a really cool repetition in the poetic blessings recited by that gentile poet and prophet, Bilaam.
Before I get to the verse which I really want to discuss, I feel that I must mention the far and away most famous redundancy in these poems, namely: How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob; thy dwelling places, O Israel (Numbers 24:5). This verse is amongst the most well known in our entire Bible. Many people recite it when first entering a Jewish place of worship. For me, I can't forget that quote, because this was written in huge letters on the outer wall of a reform temple back in my home town of Malden, MA. I'd like to say that I often went there for religious purposes, but in reality this temple was next to my favorite park, where I would regularly go to watch ball games and make a fool of myself trying to play. You couldn't hit a foul ball down the right field line without seeing that quote. And some of my best hits were foul balls down the right field line.
Anyway, the most famous way to explain that repetition is that tents are study halls and dwelling places are synagogues. However, I like an idea from the Sfat Emet. He explained that Jacob is our name during the week. On Shabbat we are Israel. Therefore during the week our home is a tent, a utilitarian domicile. On Shabbat our home is a mishkan, a sanctuary, a temple, a holy place. That's a great use of the repetition.
But I want to discuss this redundancy: I see him, but not right now, I perceive him, but not right here; a star rises from Jacob, a scepter from Israel (Numbers 24:17). There are two repetitions in this extraordinary passage. The second seems to be a reference to a messianic character emerging from the Jewish nation to ascend to great position in the world. This leader will be both a 'star' or heavenly spiritual director and a more prosaic 'staff' or earthly, practical manager. That's clearer than the first redundancy. The two words in question in the first half of the verse are: ata (now) and karov (close). The first term is obviously talking about time, but the second term, karov, can refer to either time or space. The translation I quoted above assumes that we're talking about locations. The Messiah will come at some future period but not here. It will presumably occur in Jerusalem. But that's not how most of our traditional authorities understand it. Most of them assume that both words are temporal references.
A popular approach to the dichotomy of time frame is that the Mashiach isn't coming immediately, and therefore isn't Moshe. However, this leader could come relatively soon, if the Jews are worthy, or could come in some very distant future if the Jews are undeserving. In other words, it's like a mortgage. There's an eventual pay off date, but it's worth your while to retire it earlier. It seems that we haven't behaved. It's been a long wait.
The Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh (Rav Chayim Attar, 1693-1750) suggests that the two phrases, the first concerning time frame and the second about the of this future sovereign's leadership, really work in tandem. If we work hard and develop our national spiritual capacity, then not only will this great personage come speedily, but the quality of that leadership will be more impressive and divinely inspired. On the other hand, if our spiritual intensity is feeble, the eventual scion from the House of David will eventually arrive, but that leadership will be more prosaic and earthly in nature. This fits in with many commentaries' approach that Moshe and Aharon couldn't lead the Jewish nation into Israel because that new generation wasn't spiritually acute enough for their level of divinely inspired guidance.
Our Biblical poetry is built on this principle of parallel construction. Almost every phrase and idea is restated in different terms and language. But the critical concept is that each of these phrases is an independent agent waiting to deliver a unique message to those willing to mine its depths (or, in my case, report another's interpretation). When one sees the dual meaning, whole new vistas of revelation emerge. In our case, the idea is profound, that nations get the leadership they deserve, but, hopefully, it's also encouraging. Bilaam may not have been good, but he was wise, and his inspired observation must motivate us to become the nation which is worthy of being led by a star.