This week’s Torah reading seems to come from an entirely different genre of literature than the rest of the book of Bamidbar, and, perhaps, all of Chumash. It has the feel of stories from later Biblical books, like in NEVI’IM, prophets. Our protagonist is not a Patriarch or Moshe Rabbeinu, but a foreign seer. That doesn’t prevent many of our verses from becoming central to Jewish tradition. All of us are familiar with MAH TOVU OHALECHA, YA’AKOV, ‘how goodly are your tents, O Ya’akov’ (Bamidbar 24:5). However, I want to focus on another famous verse: I see him coming, but not now. I view him coming, but not soon. A star will blaze a path from the family of Jacob. A new ruler will come from the Israelites. He will smash the heads of the Moabites and crush the heads of all the sons of Shet (verse 17).
According to most commentaries this verse foresees the advent of MASHIACH. Although other verses in Chumash obliquely hint at the Messianic reality, this is the clearest prophecy of his coming before the visions of Yeshayahu. So, this seems like a good opportunity to discuss a few ideas about our greatest of expectations.
Messianism is a bit of a double-edged sword. The reality will be fabulous, but the expectation can be dangerous. Declaring his arrival before the proper time has been disastrous for our people. Some of our people’s greatest catastrophes have been caused by Messianic fervor, like Christianity, the Bar Kochba revolt, and Shabtai Zvi, to mention three of many examples. This problem has been so prevalent that it caused our Sages to denigrate those who ‘force the end’.
But what is the Messianic Age? There is a fascinating argument about the nature of that much anticipated era. One side explains that the coming of MASHIACH will be the crowning fulfillment of history, the cherry on top of this multi-layered cake. The great analyst of these things, Gershom Scholom (‘great’ but not observant) called this expectation ‘utopian’. A brand-new age to culminate the great march of human history.
The other approach, which has become more prevalent, he calls ‘restorative’. This point of view sees the Messianic Age as a return to some earlier pristine time, the Garden of Eden, Mt Sinai, or Shlomo HaMelech, take your pick. This idea is expressed in the oft used expression CHADESH YAMEINU K’KEDEM, renew our days as of old.
This ancient argument in Jewish tradition is mirrored in a famous secular debate about human progress. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) describes the natural state of humanity as ‘no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is, worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ In other words, the role of nation states and ‘social contracts’ is to control the brute in us all and hold back the jungle. People are naturally wild and we must control a path towards civilization.
On the other hand, Jean Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed basically the opposite. He said, ‘Nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man.’ He espoused the concept of the ‘noble savage’. For him, the greatest dream is a return to our glorious roots.
So, which is it? Are we on a glorious march to continued improvement, or a fatal descent to oblivion without a return to the wonders of yesteryear? Better scholars than I have debated this for a very long time, so don’t expect too much of me. However, there are hints of an approach in this week’s Haftorah.
Micha the Prophet exhorts the troubled nation:
And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples-like dew sent by the Lord, like torrents of rain upon vegetation that does not hope for any man and does not wait for the sons of men… And I will destroy the cities of your land, and I will break down all your fortresses… And in anger and fury I will execute vengeance upon the nations who have paid no heed (Micha 5:6, 10, 14).
Sounds very bad! This seems to describe the descent of people towards the jungle, dystopia. Salvation must, therefore, be a return to some better time, like,
‘O My people, what have I done, and how have I wearied you? Testify against Me. For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam’ (6:4).
If that were the end of the Haftorah, the Rousseau-’restoration’ team would seem to win. But the Haftorah ends with, perhaps, my favorite verse ever (this is actually my Bar Mitzva Haftorah),
‘O humanity, what is good, and what does the Lord demand of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness (CHESED), and to walk discreetly (humbly?, HATZNE’AH) with your God’ (verse 8).
Why am I trying so hard to be good if it makes no difference? Let’s go party and let the Messianic chips fall where they may. No, that’s not the way. God wants us to try and save the world on our own with an eventual climb towards a perfect society, or utopia. It is possible. But it’s not inevitable. There is the other possible outcome: We fail, and God forcibly returns us to a better place. One which we fleetingly experienced once before.
Unlike Rousseau and Hobbes, we Jews don’t see the world in black and white paradigms. We see within humanity the potential for success or failure. Are we headed to bliss or Armeggedon? It’s up to us. Let’s try the CHESED, TZNI’UT path, please.