We Jews have a fascinating relationship with time. Our prayers and our holidays are strongly connected to specific temporal markers, either historic events or natural phenomena, phases of the sun or moon. These ‘markers’ tend to have happened or, like the sunrise, are happening right now. But this week’s Torah reading presents us with a scenario in which we are expected to either feel connected to or, at least, anticipate some future event. Here’s the quote: What I see for them is not yet, What I behold will not be soon: A star rises from Ya’akov, A scepter comes forth from Yisrael; It smashes the brow of Moab, The foundation of all children of Seth (Bamidbar 24:17). Wow! How do we do that, connect to a future miracle? I think that we have an example.
One of the most famous questions about the holiday of Sukkot is: If the Jews were in huts all year, every year for 40 years in the Wilderness, why do we celebrate Sukkot specifically in the middle of Tishre? There are many answers, like it continues God’s forgiveness of Yom Kippur, it commemorates the harvest, or it’s the time of year when most people are going indoors. However, I believe the correct answer is in the Haftorah of the first day of Sukkot: In that day, fresh water shall flow from Jerusalem, part of it to the Eastern Sea and part of it to the Western Sea, throughout the summer and winter. And the LORD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name… All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King LORD of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Sukkot (Zecharia 14:8-9 & 16). Sukkot is timed to celebrate an event which hasn’t happened yet.
This difficult relationship with time is exactly what the gentile prophet Bila’am is talking about in the prediction about the future ‘star’ (MASHIACH) rising from the Jewish people. He may not have been a nice guy, but he was blessed by God with amazing insight and vision (SHATUM EINAYIM, verse 16). Bila’am’s prescience contained a fascinating insight. We Jews have a textured perception of time. His vision was of both the near future (‘not now’) and a distant destiny (‘will not be soon’).
This is also true of our past. There are profoundly ancient events which we will always observe, like Pesach and Tisha B’Av. Of course, there are recent events which we consecrate, like Yom Ha’Aztmaut or Yom Yerushalayim. But over history there were major anniversaries which were observed for a while and then faded from memory, like the Purim of Prague (inaugurated in 1620 to remember a salvation from Anti-Semitic mobs) or the Fast of Nemirov (Sivan 20, mourning the largest pogrom in the Chmielnitzki uprising, 1648). Some historical events live with us forever; some for a number of generations.
That’s what Bila’am the wily seer is teaching us, differing relationships to differing time frames. According to the Ha’emek Davar the relatively soon events go through to the time of David HaMelech, the first ‘star’ of the Messianic Dynasty (a couple of centuries), and the distant future, of course, is the future scion of that royal family the Mashiach, who will usher in a period of eternal world peace (a few thousand years).
This layered approach to future history is critically important. We should never be like millenarian cults who would destroy their present society to bring about some Utopia. This was the grave error of followers of Shabtai Zvi who in 1666 abandoned all their worldly possessions to follow that charlatan. This explains the famous quote: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught: “If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Mashiach has come, stay and finish the planting, and only then go to greet the Mashiach (Avot D’Reb Natan 31b).”
This textured approach to history means that I can dream of the glorious Messianic Era, while still going to work every day and paying my bills. I await and expect Mashiach, but I live day to day and year to year. There is no contradiction in those two realities.
So, thank you Bila’am the Prophet. You may have desired our demise, but your penetrating insights still guide us. We must imbibe from every available source.