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?
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?
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.
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).]
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.
*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.