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Messianic Transportation: Cloud or Donkey? It’s up to Us

The yahrzeit (day of passing) of the holy Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, also known as the Or Hachaim, is on the 15th of Tammuz. In his commentary, the Ohr Hachaim explains that the verse appearing in the Torah portion of Balak regarding Mashiach, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but [he is] not near; there shall step forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17)  is referring to two different aspects of the redemption captured by the prophet Isaiah (60:22) with his famous phrase, “In its time, I will hasten it” (בְּעִתָּהּ אֲחִישֶׁנָּה). The sages (Sanhedrin 98a) explain that the first word, “In its time” (בְּעִתָּהּ) refers to the Mashiach coming like a pauper on a donkey, and the second word, “I will hasten it” (אֲחִישֶׁנָּה) refers to Mashiach coming as if he were riding the clouds of heaven.

“I see him, but not now” – perhaps not now, but in the near future, is the possibility of redemption occurring very soon, corresponding to “I will hasten it.”

“I behold him, but not near,” says the Or Hachaim, means that I can see the redemption, but it is very distant, corresponding to the prophecy of redemption “in its time.”

The second part of the verse also continues with the parallel: “A star has stepped forth from Jacob:” The Mashiach arrives upon heavenly clouds, in “I will hasten it” mode. “And a scepter shall rise out of Israel:” A branch grows slowly, from bottom up. This alludes to Mashiach’s arrival on a donkey in the “In its time” mode.

Interestingly, the verse that refers to Mashiach coming with haste, on the heavenly clouds, calls the Jewish people, “Jacob,” as opposed to the donkey option, in which the verse calls the Jewish people, “Yisrael,” their more eminent name. The Or Hachaim explains that the hasty redemption depends upon the Beinonim of Israel, the Intermediary (as per the explanation of the Tanya), regular people, whereas the slow-growing donkey-mode redemption depends upon the pious of the generation, the tzaddikim. One would think just the opposite!

The Or Hachaim further explains that if the beinoni/intermediates rely on the pious tzaddikim to bring the redemption, it will be in slow, donkey mode. It is specifically us, ordinary Jews, who can hasten the redemption.

The Or Hachaim continues to explain, based on the Zohar, that there are two Mashiachs: Mashiach the son of David and Mashiach the son of Joseph (also called Mashiach the son of Efraim). He explains that, “there shall step forth a star out of Jacob” corresponds to Mashiach the son of David (and that Mashiach the son of Joseph will die in battle) and that “a scepter shall rise out of Israel” corresponds to Mashiach the son of Joseph, when the entire Nation of Israel is at the level of tzaddikim, the more exalted level of Yisrael.

There are people who want the redemption to be “human-like,” approaching slowly, step by step. They call our situation today “the beginning of the redemption.” But according to the holy Ohr Hachaim, we see that the service of the intermediary, regular people is to bring Mashiach speedily and miraculously, on the clouds, indicating a heavenly, Divine-like redemption that happens instantaneously.

There are people who want Mashiach to have a good vehicle. Regarding the major spiritual gap between the early sages and later generations, the Talmud (Shabbat 112b) writes that if the early sages were like angels, then we are human. And if the early sages were human, then we are like donkeys. If we work on our own self-nullification (the inner dimension of chochmah/wisdom) so that we relate to the early sages as angels, then the Mashiach will be spiritual and will come on the clouds of heaven to redeem us. But if instead of practicing self-nullification, we see the early sages as ordinary people, that makes us “donkeys.” Some people are perfectly happy to be the donkeys of Mashiach, letting the redemption unfold naturally over the centuries. It is up to us and our work on self-nullification, however, that can hasten the redemption and bring Mashiach on the clouds of heaven!


L’ilui nishmat R’ Elimelech ben Moshe and Hinda

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