Tag Archives: Midrash

The Kabbalah of Bar Mitzvah

This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, begins with God’s command to Abraham to leave Charan for the Holy Land. The Torah tells us that Abraham was 75 years old at this point, on which the Zohar (I, 78a) comments:

And this is why the soul will not start fulfilling the mission it was commanded to perform until it has completed thirteen years in this world. Because only from the twelfth year is the soul aroused to complete its task. Therefore it is written that “Abraham was seventy five years old”, since seven and five equals twelve.

The Zohar employs a method of gematria known as mispar katan, “small” or “reduced value”, where the digits of a multi-digit number are themselves summed up to produce an “inner” number. In this case, 75 reduces to 12. The Zohar explains that it is only when a person turns 13 that their true soul begins to be aroused. Until that age, a child is dominated by the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Indeed, it is the nature of a child to be selfish. This is expressed in its greatest form with a newborn, who is completely unconcerned about their parents’ wellbeing. As the child grows, they slowly learn to become less selfish and more selfless. By 13, they are (supposed to be) fully cognizant of this struggle, and now have the ability to truly overcome their yetzer hara.

The Arizal elaborates on this through an exposition of the five levels of soul. While many think of a soul as being a single entity, it is in fact a collage of many sparks distributed among five major layers. The lowest level of the soul is nefesh, which is simply the life force. The nefesh is found not only in humans, but all living organisms. The Torah cautions (Deut. 12:23) that one should not consume blood with meat because hadam hu hanefesh, the blood is (or contains) the life force of the animal.

The layer above the nefesh is the ruach, an animating “spirit”, which the Sages state is housed within the heart, and encapsulates one’s inclinations, both good and bad. Then comes the most important soul, the neshamah, whose seat is in the brain. This generates the mind of a person, and makes up their identity and inner qualities. Beyond the neshamah is the chayah, the “aura” that emanates from a person’s body, and the highest level of soul is the yechidah, a spiritual umbilical cord of sorts that connects one to their source in Heaven.

In the introduction to Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that a newborn child has expressed their nefesh, and begins to tap into their ruach. By age 13, the ruach has fully developed (in most cases), and now the person begin to access their neshamah. It is expected that the neshamah will be expressed in its fullest by the age of 20. This is why the Torah considers one who has reached 20 years to be an adult. The multiple censuses taken in the Torah only counted those above 20, and only those above this age were fit for military or priestly service. Similarly, the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 14:7) states that Adam and Eve were created as 20 year olds. For this reason, the Sages teach that although an earthly court can try a person over the age of 13, the Heavenly courts only try people over the age of 20. (See Sanhedrin 89b, and Rashi on Numbers 16:27.)

We can now understand why the Zohar above states that a person only begins to fulfil their task in this world starting at 13. It is at this age that they begin to tap into their neshamah, the most unique of the five souls, which contains one’s identity and purpose. We can understand why the Zohar says that before 13, one is dominated by the yetzer hara, for in this period one is still growing within their ruach, which contains the evil inclination. And based on this, we can understand the significance of a bar mitzvah.

What is a Bar Mitzvah?

The Mishnah (Avot 5:22) states:

At five years old, one should begin the study of Scripture. At ten, the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, the obligation to observe the mitzvot. Fifteen, the study of Talmud. Eighteen, marriage. Twenty, to pursue. Thirty, for strength. Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, to be an elder. Seventy, for fulfilment. Eighty, for fortitude…

Jerusalem, 1999: A mass Bar Mitzvah celebration by the Western Wall for Soviet immigrants.

The Mishnah tells us that a 13 year old becomes obligated in fulfilling the mitzvot. This is tied to the age of puberty (see Niddah 45b), and since girls begin this stage of life earlier, their age for mitzvot is 12. At this age, boys and girls are ready; their ruach now fully developed, and with it the ability to overcome tests and challenges. Their neshamah begins to emerge as well, meaning that they can start to find their unique niche in this world. By 20, it is hoped that a person has figured it out, and can now pursue it, as the above Mishnah states. Of course, many do not have it figured out by 20, and the Arizal maintains that some never tap into the full potential of their neshamah at all. This is particularly true in our generation.

It is therefore of tremendous importance to guide and encourage bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs in their personal development, and to provide them with not only a physical education, but a spiritual one. It is imperative to remember that while these young people are not yet adults, they are no longer children either, and should not be treated as such. They should be challenged. They should be given responsibilities, and much more than just making their beds. Otherwise, they risk remaining in a state of immaturity and entitlement for the rest of their lives. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 26) states that it was precisely when Abraham turned 13 that he recognized God, rejected the immorality of his society, and began his life’s good work. Let’s inspire our youths to do the same.

Torah on the Big Bang and the Age of the Universe

The Torah begins with Beresheet, the famous account of Creation.  In recent times, many have questioned the validity of this narrative in light of the findings of modern science. In reality, the Torah’s account is quite accurate in scientific terms, and the Jewish tradition described the origins of the universe and its age with stunning precision centuries before modern science caught up.

According to Science

The current scientific model holds that 13.7 billion years ago, the entire universe was compacted into a super tiny point with infinite density. For some unknown reason, this point suddenly burst in a massively vast and rapid expansion of energy and radiation. As the early universe cooled and expanded, particles began to form, and then whole atoms, starting with hydrogen. Hydrogen atoms fused into helium atoms, and later on heavy elements formed from further fusion in the cores of stars and their explosions. Everything that we see today—the entire universe and all matter within it—emerged from that initial expansion, “the Big Bang”.

The evidence for a Big Bang is extensive. In fact, you can see some of it when you look at the “snow” on an old television that is not tuned to any channel. The antenna is picking up some of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the “afterglow” of the Big Bang. The entire universe is still glowing from that initial expansion! Popular physicist Brian Greene writes in his bestselling The Hidden Reality (pg. 43):

…if you were to shut off the sun, remove the other stars from the Milky Way, and even sweep away the most distant galaxies, space would not be black. To the human eye it would appear black, but if you could see radiation in the microwave part of the spectrum, then every which way you turned, you’d see a uniform glow. It’s origin? The origin.

The universe is glowing, it’s just that most people cannot see it because human eyes perceive only a very narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which we call “visible light”. Light of a higher energy and frequency includes dangerous x-rays and gamma rays, while light of lower energy and frequency includes microwaves and radio waves. The seeming blackness of the universe is actually radiating with light—we simply cannot see it. Incredibly, this is precisely what the Torah states.

The electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light makes up just a tiny sliver of the spectrum. Some living organisms can see in UV or infrared wavelengths.

Zohar haRakia

We read in the Tanakh (Daniel 12:3) that “they who are wise shall shine as bright as the rakia…” The Torah tells us that God established a rakia (wrongly translated as “firmament”) on the second day of Creation, and this is where all the stars and planets are suspended (Genesis 1:15). The Talmud (Chagigah 12a), composed over 1500 years ago, further elaborates that above the earth is the vilon, the atmosphere that stretches over the planet, and beyond the vilon is the rakia, a vast expanse within which are all the stars. Beyond the rakia is a region called shechakim, the interface between the physical and spiritual realms, and further still are the highest levels of the Heavens, inhabited by angels and transcendental beings. From this, and other ancient sources, it is clear that rakia refers to outer space.

Daniel tells us that the wise will shine like the rakia, and goes on to state that “they who turn the many to righteousness [shall shine] as the stars”. We can understand how people might shine bright like stars, but why would Daniel say the rakia is shining? Outer space is totally dark! Of course, as Brian Greene described, today we know that the universe is indeed glowing.

One of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts is Sefer HaBahir. According to tradition, it dates back some two thousand years, and was first published at least seven hundred years ago. This book gets its name from another verse in the Tanakh (Job 37:21), which states “And now, men do not see the light that is bright [bahir] in the skies.” Once again, Scripture tells us that the universe is glowing with a bright light that humans are unable to perceive. Science has found that this glow comes from the Big Bang, and this too is accurately described by the most famous of Jewish mystical texts, the Zohar.

Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the glow of the universe, discovered in the 1960s by Robert Wilson and Jewish physicist Arno Penzias.

The Secret of Beresheet and the Big Bang

Like Sefer HaBahir, the Zohar was first published around seven hundred years ago, with its teachings dating back two millennia. The Zohar is a parasha-by-parasha commentary on the Torah, and naturally begins with the first section in describing Creation. The book gets its name from the above verse in Daniel which speaks of Zohar haRakia, the glow of the universe. It elaborates (I, 2a, 15a):

בְּשַׁעְתָּא דִּסְתִימָא דְכָל סְתִימִין בָּעָא לְאִתְגַּלְּיָא, עֲבַד בְּרֵישָׁא נְקוּדָה חֲדָא, וְדָא סָלֵיק לְמֶהֱוֵי מַחֲשָׁבָה. צַיֵּיר בָּהּ כָּל צִיּוּרִין חָקַק בָּהּ כָּל גְּלִיפִין… וְרָזָא דָא, בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים. זֹהַר, דְּמִנֵּיהּ כָּלְהוֹ מַאֲמָרוֹת אִתְבְּרִיאוּ בְּרָזָא דְאִתְפַּשְׁטוּתָא דִנְקוּדָה דְּזֹהַר סְתִים דָּא

When the Most Concealed One [God] began to create, He first made a singular point, with which he then brought forth all thought, drew all blueprints, and carved out all things… And the secret of “In the beginning, God created…” [Genesis 1:1] is radiance [zohar], from which all Utterances were created, in the secret of the expansion of that point of radiance.

Many centuries ago, the Zohar accurately and elegantly sums up the findings of modern science. God first created a tiny singular point which burst forth in light, and from which He “carved out” all things in existence. All of God’s Utterances (since the Torah says God created by speaking: “And God said ‘Let there be light.’”) came forth from the expansion of that initial primordial radiance.

Time is Relative

All that remains is the seeming contradiction in time. Science estimates 13.7 billion years, while the Torah speaks of six days. Of course, the nature of a “day” in the account of Creation is flexible, considering there was no Earth, sun, or moon until the third and fourth days (so how could there be a 24 hour day as we know it before this?) There were also no humans at this point, and the Torah describes Creation from the perspective of God, for whom “a thousand years is like one passing day” (Psalms 90:4). The fact that time runs differently for man and God actually highlights another scientific principle, as revealed by Albert Einstein.

Einstein’s theory of relativity holds that the passing of time varies depending on an entity’s speed. A person who could board a spaceship and fly near light-speed would experience very slow time. A few days for this person would be equivalent to many years on Earth. (This theme has been explored in countless science fiction books and films, including 2014’s Interstellar.) The Lubavitcher Rebbe often cited this fact to conclude that arguing about apparent space-time contradictions is therefore quite pointless. Meanwhile, physicist Gerald Schroeder has mathematically calculated that six days could be equivalent to 13.7 billion years when factoring in the universe’s expansion. After all, we are looking back in time at an ancient universe through human eyes, while God was looking forward in time from the universe’s first moments.

An infographic explaining the relativity of time. Note the conclusion: “there is no meaning to the concept of absolute time.” The whole debate of 6 days vs 13.7 billion years is therefore quite meaningless.

Physicist and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explored this issue extensively and cites multiple ancient Jewish texts that support the notion of a very ancient universe (see his book Kabbalah and the Age of the Universe). In multiple places, the Midrash states that before creating this world, God was creating and destroying many previous worlds (see, for example, Kohelet Rabbah 3:14), while the Talmud calculates that “there were 974 generations before Adam” (Chagigah 13b, Shabbat 88a).

On this last point, it has been shown that a generation according to the Torah is forty years (Numbers 32:13), and as we saw, a day for God is likened to 1000 human years (Psalms 90:4), therefore:

            974 generations × 40 years/generation × 365 days/year × 1000 human years/divine day =

14.2 billion years

Compared to the current best estimate of science at 13.7 billion years, it is amazing that one can come to a very similar number by simply putting together a few Torah verses.

What we see from all of the above is that ancient Jewish texts describe the universe’s origins in absolutely perfect detail. And it is only in recent decades that science has finally caught up. In many other ways, too, science has a lot of catching up to do.

The Incredible Midrash of the Death of Moses

‘The Death of Moses’ (Illustration from the Providence Lithograph Company)

On the holiday of Simchat Torah, we conclude the yearly cycle of Torah readings with the final portion, V’Zot HaBerakhah. This short parasha relays Moses’ final blessing to the people before ascending Mt. Nebo and returning to his Maker:

Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his vigour… And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom Hashem knew face to face…

The Torah tells us that Moses was incomparable, and there was never a prophet like him. Indeed, in his 13 Principles of Faith, the Rambam has one principle (#6) stating that God communicates with man through prophecy, and a separate belief (#7) that Moses’ prophecy is the greatest of all. The Sages stated that while all the other prophets saw visions only through a blurry (or dim) lens, Moses saw visions through a perfectly clear lens. While all the other prophets only received visions while dreaming or entranced, Moses alone could communicate with God fully conscious and awake.

‘Moses Coming Down From Mt. Sinai’ by Gustav Doré, with rays of light shining forth from Moses’ face.

The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 11:3) presents an intriguing passage where various Heavenly figures argue with Moses on who is the greatest. Adam comes first and says: “I am greater than you because I was created in the image of God.” Moses replied that although Adam was initially very great, his honour was taken away from him, whereas the Torah says that Moses had not “lost his vigour”. The Sages teach that Adam initially glowed with a pure light. This light was lost after the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit, leaving behind only frail skin. Moses reversed this: upon his return from the summit of Sinai, his skin glowed so brightly that he had to wear a mask (Exodus 34:35).

After Adam, came Noah and said: “I am greater than you because I was delivered from the generation of the Flood.” Moses replied: “I am far superior to you. You saved only yourself, but had no strength to deliver your generation, while I saved both myself and my generation when they were condemned to destruction at the time of the Golden Calf.”

Abraham arose next, and said: “I am greater than you because I used to give hospitality to all wayfarers.” Moses replied that while Abraham “fed uncircumcised men, I fed circumcised ones” and while Abraham “gave hospitality in an inhabited land, I fed them in the wilderness.”

Isaac argued he was greater than Moses because he was willing to die upon the altar, and witnessed the Divine Presence at that moment. Moses countered that he regularly spoke “face to face” with the Divine Presence, and his eyes had not dimmed from this, while Isaac had ultimately gone blind.

Finally, Jacob said: “I am greater than you because I wrestled with the angel and prevailed.” Moses replied: “You wrestled with the angel in your own territory [on Earth], but I went up to their territory, and they feared me.” The passage concludes by saying that this is what King Solomon hinted to when he wrote v’at alit al kulana, “…and you have excelled them all.” (Proverbs 31:29)

The Ascent of Moses

The Midrash continues to describe the moment of Moses’ passing. When the time came, God instructed the angel Gabriel to bring up Moses’ soul. Gabriel told God: “Master of the Universe! How can I witness the death of him who is equal to 600,000? How can I behave harshly to one who possesses such qualities?” So God told the angel Michael to bring Moses. Michael replied: “Master of the Universe! I was his teacher, and he my pupil, so I cannot witness his death.” God then had to summon the wicked Samael to bring up Moses’ soul. Samael took his sword and went gladly, for he had been waiting a very long time for that moment. However, when he approached Moses and saw the pure light shining from his face, he trembled and said: “Surely no angel can take away Moses’ soul!”

Samael tried to take Moses anyway, telling him that he should come willingly, for all mortals must die. Moses argued that he is unlike any other mortal, and proceeded to give a resume of his achievements. Convinced, Samael went back to Heaven. God insisted that Samael go back to bring Moses, and not take no for an answer. Samael returned sword in hand, and Moses drew his staff for battle. The Midrash says that Moses readily defeated Samael, blinded him, and “removed his beam of glory”.

At this point, a voice called forth from Heaven and said: “The time of your death has come.” Still, Moses would not relent, so God had to do the job Himself. As soon as He extracted Moses’ soul, the soul itself protested:

Master of the Universe! I know that You are the God of all spirits and all souls, the souls of the dead and the living are in Your keeping, and You have created and formed me and placed me within the body of Moses for a hundred and twenty years. And now, is there a body in the world purer than the body of Moses…? Therefore I love him and I do not desire to leave him.

The Soul continued to tarry until finally “God kissed Moses and took away his soul” with a Divine Kiss. It was then that the Divine Presence proclaimed: “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses…”

When reading such Midrashic passages, it is important to remember the old adage that those who deny the validity of the Midrash are heretics, yet those who take the Midrash literally are fools. Although this Midrash probably shouldn’t be taken literally, it certainly captures the incomparable greatness of Moses.

Chag Sameach! 

‘Moses on Mount Sinai’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c.1900)

That Year When Sukkot was 14 Days Long and Everyone Ate on Yom Kippur

The Haftarah reading for the second day of Sukkot is a passage from the Book of Kings. The passage describes how the Jewish people inaugurated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem:

And all the people of Israel assembled themselves unto King Solomon at the feast, in the month of Eitanim, which is the seventh month. And all the elders of Israel came, and the priests took up the Ark. And they brought up the Ark of Hashem, and the Tent of Meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the Tent; even these did the priests and the Levites bring up… (I Kings 8:2-4)

1896 Illustration of King Solomon Drafting Plans for the First Temple

The passage goes on to describe the offerings presented to God, and then the speech and blessings delivered by Solomon to the people. The Haftarah ends at this point, but the Tanakh continues to relate a prayer of Solomon, where he asks God to bless the Davidic dynasty, to maintain His presence in the new Temple, and to act justly with the Jewish people. Solomon requests for God to forgive the sins of Israel, to protect them, and to keep them as His treasured people. He asks God to keep the Jews on the right path, and give them strength to fulfil their mission in this world: “So that all the peoples of the Earth may know that Hashem, He is God; there is none else.” The chapter concludes with some puzzling words:

So Solomon held the feast at that time, and all Israel with him, a great congregation, from the entrance of Hamath unto the Brook of Egypt, before Hashem our God, seven days and seven days, fourteen days altogether. On the eighth day he sent the people away, and they blessed the king, and went unto their tents joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that Hashem had shown unto David His servant, and to Israel His people. (I Kings 8:65-66)

Since we are talking about the month of Tishrei (then known as Eitanim), the seven-day festival must be Sukkot, and the eighth day that is mentioned must be Shemini Atzeret. The text says that the festival was fourteen days, an extra week in honour of the Temple inauguration. That means Sukkot started a week early, on the 8th of Tishrei. If that’s the case, what happened to Yom Kippur, on the 10th?

The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 9a) surprisingly states that Yom Kippur was not commemorated that year, as it was superseded by the Temple’s inauguration! But how could such a thing be done? Yom Kippur is a clear commandment from the Torah! What gave Solomon and his elders the authority to negate a Torah mitzvah in order to throw a party?

An Era of New Holidays

The Midrash famously prophesies that a day will come when all the current holidays will be nullified (except for Purim, according to most opinions). Meanwhile, Zechariah prophesied that all the fast days will be transformed into feast days (Zechariah 8:19). When will this happen? When Mashiach comes, of course. And who is Mashiach?

Mashiach is a descendent of King David, who establishes a united Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land, builds a Temple in Jerusalem, and brings peace to the world. Solomon was the son of David, ruled over a united Jewish kingdom, built the first Temple, and successfully brought peace to the whole region, if not the whole world. (According to tradition, there were no wars at all during Solomon’s reign, hence his name Shlomo, which means “peace”.) Solomon fit the bill of Mashiach perfectly, and was quite literally Mashiach ben David.

And so, since there is an established tradition and prophecy that Mashiach’s coming will nullify the holidays, there was no need for Yom Kippur. If that’s the case, why celebrate Sukkot? Shouldn’t Sukkot be nullified as well? Amazingly, the Haftarah reading for the first day of Sukkot tells us:

And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations that came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.

Sukkah decoration featuring the “Sukkah of Leviathan”, in which the righteous shall feast with Mashiach during the festival of Sukkot. (Malkhut Vaxberger, www.mwaxb.co.il)

The prophet Zechariah stated that after Mashiach’s coming, the land of Israel will finally be secured for the Jewish people, and once a year—only once a year—all the nations of the world will come to celebrate together with the Jews. What will they celebrate? The feast of tabernacles, Chag haSukkot!

While all the current Jewish holidays (except Purim) may indeed become nullified, Sukkot will transform into a special international holiday for the whole world. Thus, King Solomon’s nullification of Yom Kippur and establishment of an extra-long, special Sukkot is right in line with what’s supposed to happen when Mashiach comes. (A careful reading of the verses even suggests that Solomon invited the nations for the festival: “a great congregation” from Hamath until Egypt.)

Was Solomon the Messiah?

All of the above begs the question: was King Solomon the prophesied messiah? It appears Solomon should have been the messiah, but unfortunately failed to fulfil this role. As is well-known, Solomon’s taking of one thousand wives and concubines was not for his personal pleasure, God forbid, but in order to make peace treaties with all the surrounding nations and kingdoms, and to introduce them to monotheism. Had he been successful in this, Solomon would have been Mashiach.

Instead, Solomon was unable to control those wives and concubines, and they turned him to idolatry. To be fair, it is highly unlikely that Solomon himself participated in idolatrous practices. Rather, because he was unable to reign in his wives, and his palace had become filled with idols, the Heavenly Court considered him personally responsible, and Scripture describes it as if Solomon himself fell into idolatry.

1553 Illustration of King Yehoash, or Joash

We read that Solomon’s reign lasted 40 years. This is, in fact, the prophesied length of time that Mashiach is supposed to rule (see Sanhedrin 99a, and Midrash Tehillim 15). It was also the length of David’s reign, and the righteous kings Asa and Yehoash. It appears all of these were potential messiahs. The same is true for Moses, who led the Israelites for 40 years. According to tradition, had Moses entered the land with the people, the Temple would have been built, and the World to Come would have been ushered in immediately.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, and we continue to await the day when (Zechariah 14:9) “Hashem shall be King over all the Earth; in that day Hashem will be One, and His Name one…”

Chag Sameach! 

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Deciphering Bilaam’s End of Days Prophecy

‘Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell

This week’s parasha is Balak, named after the Moabite king that sought to curse Israel. Balak hired the sorcerer Bilaam to do the job, but instead of cursing Israel, Bilaam’s mouth would utter blessings and prophecies. The parasha is perhaps most famous for Bilaam’s last prophecy, concerning acharit hayamim, the “End of Days” (Numbers 24:14-25):

“I see it but not now, I behold it, but it is not soon. A star will go forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph.” When he saw Amalek, he took up his parable and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, and his fate shall be everlasting destruction.” When he saw the keini, he took up his parable and said, “How firm is your dwelling place, and your nest is set in a cliff. For if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” He took up his parable and said, “Alas! Who can survive these things from God? Ships will come from the Kittim and afflict Assyria and afflict those on the other side, but he too will perish forever.” Bilaam arose, left, and returned home…

What is the meaning of these cryptic words? The first part seems relatively clear: in the distant future, a leader will arise for Israel who will “uproot all the sons of Seth”, meaning all of mankind, who come from Adam’s third son, Seth. Israel’s enemies will be defeated for good, as will the evil Amalek. Bilaam is, of course, speaking about Mashiach. Then it gets more complicated. Who is the “keini”? Why does he dwell in a nest? What does Cain have to do with anything, and who is Assyria taking captive?

Balak’s Bird

The parasha begins: “And Balak ben Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab became terrified of the people…” The Zohar comments on the name Balak ben Tzippor (literally “Balak, son of a bird”) by saying that Balak was a powerful sorcerer who was able to do all sorts of witchcraft using various birds. One of those birds was called Yadua, and through it he was able to see visions. What did Balak “see” that made him so terrified of Israel?

The Zohar says that Balak took the Yadua bird as usual and performed his rituals, but this time, the bird flew away. When it returned, he saw the bird engulfed in flames, and this made him fear Israel. Why did the image of a flaming bird strike fear in Balak’s heart? What does this flaming bird have to do with Israel?

The Phoenix

In almost every culture around the world there is a myth of a magical flaming bird. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Bennu, the “solar bird” which lived for 500 years before being reborn from its own egg. The Persians spoke of Simurgh, a peacock-eagle that lived 1700 years before igniting itself in flames, and had lived so long that it saw civilization destroy itself three times. The most famous version of the myth is from the Greeks, who called the flaming bird Phoenix. The name derives from the fact that the bird comes from, and sets its nest, in the land of Phoenicia.

Phoenix by FJ Bertuch (1747-1822)

Phoenicia is another name for Lebanon, whose territories once overlapped with Israel’s. The Phoenicians and Israelites had very similar cultures and used the same alphabet. The Tanakh describes the central role that the Phoenicians played in the construction of the First Temple. They sent skilled artisans and builders, as well as gold and the cedar trees that served as the Temple’s framework. King Solomon gave the Phoenician king Hiram twenty Israelite cities around the Galilee as a gift. The two merged their navies and did business together, and are even described as “brothers” (see I Kings 5).*

In the Greek account, the eternal Phoenix builds its nest in one of the cedars of Lebanon before the nest catches fire and the Phoenix is cremated into ash. From the ashes emerges an egg, and the selfsame Phoenix hatches from it. This story is very similar to one told in the Midrash.

In the Garden of Eden

The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 19:5) describes what Eve did after eating the Forbidden Fruit. She gave some to Adam, and then

… She fed [the Forbidden Fruit] to all the beasts and all the animals and all the birds. All of them listened to her, except for one bird, called Hol, as it says, “Like the hol that has many days” (Job 29:18). The School of Rabbi Yannai said: “It lives for a thousand years; and at the end of a thousand years, fire comes out of its nest and burns it and leaves the size of an egg from it, and it comes back and grows limbs and lives.”

According to the Midrash, it wasn’t just Adam and Eve that ate the Fruit, but all living things had a taste, making them all mortal. However, there was one bird that did not listen to the humans, and flew away, escaping death. It lives one thousand years, then burns to ashes in its nest, and is reborn. Adam, too, was meant to live in segments of one thousand years, being reborn each millennium. However, after eating of the Fruit, his life was capped at a single one thousand year segment. (Of this 1000 years, he gave up 70 to King David, which is why Adam lived 930 years, and David exactly 70. See ‘How Did Adam Live 930 Years?’ for more.)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) also speaks of this immortal bird. Here, the Phoenix is waiting patiently for Noah to give it food, so he blesses it with eternal life. In both Midrashic and Talmudic passages, the scriptural source is Job 29:18, which speaks of Hol, the Hebrew term for the Phoenix. Why was Balak terrified when he saw an image of the firebird?

The Bird’s Nest

Some of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts are collectively known as Heikhalot, “Palaces”. These texts describe the ascents of various sages to the Heavens, and their descriptions of what they see. For example, Heikhalot Zutrati describes the ascent of Rabbi Akiva while Heikhalot Rabbati describes that of Rabbi Ishmael. In their description of the Heavenly architecture, the residence of Mashiach is called kan tzippor, the “Bird’s Nest”. This moniker is used throughout later Kabbalistic texts as well. Mashiach is said to be dwelling in a bird’s nest.

Mashiach’s role can be summarized in this way: his task is to complete the various spiritual rectifications (tikkunim) and return humanity to the Garden of Eden. Central to this is restoring a world without death—the world of resurrection. Note how Jewish prayers never request for us to enter some kind of ethereal afterlife in the Heavens, but rather to merit techiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead, here in the earthly Garden of Eden. The Sages refer to that world as Olam HaBa, the world to come; not some other world or dimension, but the coming world that is here. (See here for more on the Jewish perspective on the afterlife.)

Mashiach is the one who is supposed to defeat death and usher in that world of resurrection. The Sages actually describe two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. The role of Mashiach ben Yosef is to fight Israel’s wars and defeat its enemies, paving the way for Mashiach ben David to re-establish God’s kingdom. However, amidst the great battles, Mashiach ben Yosef is supposed to die. This is first mentioned in the Talmud (Sukkah 52a):

What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days]? Rabbi Dosa and the other rabbis differ on the point. One explained: the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef; the others explained: the cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination… Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days), “Ask of Me anything, and I will give it to thee”… When [ben David] will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him, “Master of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life.” God answered him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life of Thee, Thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever].’” (Psalms 21:5)

The Talmud links the death of Mashiach ben Yosef with the death of all evil. Mashiach ben David will then ask God to restore Mashiach ben Yosef to life, and God answers that He had already granted that request long ago to David himself, as seen from a verse in Psalms. Ben Yosef will die, then return to life, followed by the return of all the righteous dead after him.

Not surprisingly then, the symbol of Mashiach ben Yosef is a Phoenix, and he dwells in a “bird’s nest”. The Phoenix is said to take residence in the cedars of Lebanon, which is also associated with Mashiach ben Yosef, as it says in Psalms 92:13: “The righteous one will flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in the Lebanon”. [For those who like gematria, the term “cedar” (ארז) has the same value as “ben Yosef” (בן יוסף).]

‘Phoenix’ is one of the 88 constellations in the night’s sky. A modern map is on the left, and a 1742 depiction from Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr’s Atlas Coelestis is on the right. Every year, a meteor shower (called the Phoenicids) appears at the Phoenix constellation, from July 3 to July 18.

Warships in Syria

This is precisely what Balak feared when he saw the Phoenix. He realized that his plot to destroy Israel would fail miserably. Moreover, he saw that he would be the very ancestor of Mashiach, since he is a great-grandfather of Ruth, who is the great-grandmother of David! Unable to work his own magic, Balak summoned another sorcerer, Bilaam. It is highly appropriate that Bilaam’s final prophecy was regarding the End of Days and the coming of Mashiach.

Bilaam sees the “keini” in his nest—Mashiach—and says “… if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” What does Mashiach have to do with Cain? The Arizal explains that the tikkun associated with Cain is the most significant, for Cain is the one who actually brought death into the world. He is the first murderer, having killed his brother Abel. Abel’s was the first ever death. If Mashiach is to remove death from the world for good, he must rectify that primordial event.

And so, Mashiach ben Yosef is a reincarnation of Cain, and he must die as a measure for measure rectification for Cain’s murder of Abel. And who is Abel? Mashiach ben David, the one who brings about the resurrection of Mashiach ben Yosef! The brothers finally make peace. Cain and Abel are the two messiahs, and their mission is to restore peace to the entire world—after all, they were the ones that brought conflict into the world to begin with.

What did Bilaam say? He saw the keini, the one of Cain, in his nest. He is taken captive by Assyria—amidst a great battle that brings massive warships from the West—and “will perish”. He must perish because he is Mashiach ben Yosef, and through his demise all death and evil die with him. With these words, Bilaam fittingly ends his prophecy of the End of Days, for that event is the very end of the world as we know it, and the start of an entirely new era into which even Bilaam could not peer.

This week in the news: the USS George HW Bush, one of the largest warships in the world, docks in Haifa, Israel, on its way to a mission in Syria. Does the current Syrian conflict play into Bilaam’s prophecy?


*After the kingdoms of Phoenicia and Israel were destroyed, their outpost of Carthage in North Africa remained. This trading post had become a powerful city-state, and challenged Rome for control of the Mediterranean. The greatest Carthaginian leader was Hannibal. While many are familiar with Hannibal, few are aware of his last name, Barak (Latinized as Barca). Recall that the Biblical Barak was Deborah’s military general. He hailed from the tribe of Naphtali, and it is precisely from this region that Solomon gave Hiram twenty cities. Considering that Hiram and Solomon had combined their navies and traded together across the Mediterranean and Red Sea together, it is very possible that Carthage was one of the joint Israelite-Phoenician outposts, and Hannibal was a descendent of the Biblical Barak! Interestingly, Hannibal spent the last years of his life in Greek Syria, and helped Antiochus III conquer Judea. Unlike his son Antiochus IV (of Chanukah fame), Antiochus III was very friendly with the Jews, and supported Jerusalem’s Temple.