This week’s parasha, Yitro, begins: “So Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, took Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent away, and her two sons… to the desert where [Moses] was encamped, to the mountain of God.” (Exodus 18:2-5) After the Israelites safely made it to Mt. Sinai following the Exodus, Moses’ family returned to join him. However, we had previously read that when Moses first left Midian for Egypt before the Exodus, he had taken his family with him! (Exodus 4:20) Where did they go? Continue reading
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 (see, for example, Zohar II, 7b). 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.
On Sunday night we usher in the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and welcome the 5777th year according to the Jewish calendar. This day commemorates the birth of Adam, and his judgement on the very same day. Among other events, it also marks the Akedah – the “Binding of Isaac” on Mt. Moriah. Of course, the Torah does not mention any of this explicitly, and does not even mention the term “Rosh Hashanah”. The plain text of the Torah only tells us that the first day of the seventh month should be a “memorial” day, and a time to hear the shofar’s blast.
In discussing the mitzvah of the shofar, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) compares the sound of this instrument to the weeping of Sisera’s mother. Sisera was the powerful general of King Yavin of Chatzor. The fourth chapter of Judges tells us that Sisera oppressed the Israelites for twenty years with his mighty army of 900 iron chariots. Finally, the judge and prophetess Deborah summoned Barak to raise an Israelite army of ten thousand. With God’s help, the Israelites finally defeated Sisera and his forces until “there was not a man left”. Sisera himself escaped and hid in the tent of a woman named Yael, who promptly killed him with a tent-peg while he was asleep.
Following the victory, Deborah and Barak sang a special song full of cryptic verses and prophecies. The song ends by describing how Sisera’s mother eagerly awaits the return of her son from battle. When he fails to arrive, she weeps by her window. People try to comfort her, to no avail. The song ends quite abruptly at this point, and states that all of God’s enemies will ultimately perish.
Why did the Sages compare the sound of the shofar to the weeping of Sisera’s mother? Further still, the commentaries on the Talmud relate that Sisera’s mother cried 100 times, and for this reason we blow the shofar 100 times! Others have pointed out that the account of Sisera’s mother in the Book of Judges has exactly 101 letters, which is why many communities blow the shofar an additional, 101st time.
Some understand this shofar-blowing as counteracting the cries of Sisera’s mother. Sisera was a very wicked man, and it appears his mother was no different, hoping that her son was late from battle because he was delighting in the spoils of war (Judges 5:30). A more positive way of looking at it is that a mother loves her child regardless of how wicked that child may turn out. We hope that God – our Heavenly parent – also continues to love us despite our faulty ways. We blow the shofar 100 times to imitate Sisera’s mother in the hopes of stirring some divine mercy.
Sisera and Rabbi Akiva
The Tanakh uses two different words for the “window” by which Sisera’s mother cries: first she looks out a chalon, and then through ha’eshnav. The first refers to her looking out a literal window and seeing that her son is not returning. The second refers to her glimpsing into the future – with some Midrashic sources suggesting the eshnav was some kind of fortune-telling tool that Sisera’s mother was proficient in. What did she see when she looked into the future?
According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 96b), the descendants of Sisera “studied Torah in Jerusalem”. Who was Sisera’s primary descendent? None other than Rabbi Akiva himself, the greatest of Talmudic sages! Sisera’s mother saw that not only will her son fall in battle and be killed, but his descendants will become part of the very nation he sought to destroy!
In that case, perhaps we blow the shofar to mimic Sisera’s mother as a request for divine protection in the new year, a plea for the enemies of the Jewish people to have the same fate as Sisera and his descendants. Indeed, blowing the shofar 101 times also corresponds to the gematria of Michael (מיכאל) – the guardian angel of Israel.
Rebuilding the Temple
Some suggest that Sisera’s mother peered even further into the future. The gematria of ha’eshnav (האשנב) is 358, equal to Mashiach (משיח). Sisera’s mother gazed far enough to see that at the very end of days, her Israelite enemies will be restored to their Promised Land, and live there in peace and glory.
Maybe we blow the shofar to remind us of this as well, in the hopes of getting our very own glimpse of the future. According to Jewish tradition, the arrival of Mashiach will be signaled by a tremendous shofar blast heard around the world (Isaiah 27:13). And Mashiach’s coming is associated with a “Judgement Day”, too, when all souls past and present will be judged for the final time. This ties right into the spirit of Rosh Hashanah, with two of its major themes being the shofar and judgement.
Interestingly, the gematria of Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה) is 861, equivalent with Beit HaMikdash (בית המקדש), the Holy Temple, the rebuilding of which we await upon Mashiach’s arrival. In fact, there is just one place in the entire Tanakh where the term “Rosh Hashanah” is mentioned. This is at the start of the fortieth chapter of Ezekiel, where the prophet receives a vision of the future Temple, and records all of its dimensions. This passage follows Ezekiel’s doomsday prophecies of Gog u’Magog, describing the travails surrounding the coming of Mashiach.
The Final Judgement
Another prophet, Micah, describes a future time of great struggles before God reveals Himself once more: “As in the days of your coming out of Egypt, I will show you wonders.” God will then make judgement, and cleanse everyone of their sins:
Who is a god like You, that pardons iniquity and passes over transgressions…? He will again have compassion on us, He will subdue our iniquities, and cast all of [our] sins into the depths of the sea… (Micah 7:18-19)
This passage is the source of the Rosh Hashanah custom to go to a body of water and symbolically cast off our sins. The custom is known as tashlich, from the word used in this verse to refer to casting sins into the sea. Again we see a major theme of Rosh Hashanah tie into acharit hayamim, the End of Days.
The last major theme of Rosh Hashanah is that of God’s kingship. In our Rosh Hashanah prayers, we replace the words HaEl HaKadosh – “the Holy God” – with the words HaMelech HaKadosh – the Holy King. It is said that each Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish people coronate God anew. This relates to a Messianic prophecy as well:
And there shall be a day which shall be known as Hashem’s… And it shall come to pass in that day that living waters shall go forth from Jerusalem… And Hashem will be King over all the earth. On that day, Hashem will be One, and His name will be one. (Zechariah 14:7-9)
In light of the above, it is evident that the main themes, customs, and rituals of Rosh Hashanah are all geared towards inspiring a singular vision: that of acharit hayamim, the coming of Mashiach, and the return of God’s revelation. Rosh Hashanah is a yearly mini-judgement to remind us of, and prepare us for, the Great and Final Judgement to come, and the ideal world that is said to follow. The shofar is therefore an alarm of sorts, a wake-up call to prompt us to do everything we can to bring about that final phase of mankind. This is what God wants us to remember when He commands in His Torah, quite simply, that the first of Tishrei is a day of remembrance. To remember how God intended this world to be when He created it – a world of peace, blessing, and pure goodness; a Garden of Eden.
Shana Tova u’Metuka!