Bilam the heathen prophet, was hired by Balak, the Moabite King, to curse the Jewish people. Instead,
G-d compelled him to utter some of the most beautiful and powerful blessings for the Jewish people. One of these prophetic blessings reads as follows:
"I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh. A star steps out from Jacob and a scepter will arise from Israel..."
Most classical commentators interpret Bilam’s prophecy as a prediction of the coming of the Moshiach/Messiah. However, these commentators differ as to why the Torah uses repetitive language to describe the future arrival of Moshiach: (a) “I see him, but not now”; (b) “I behold him, but not nigh.” (a) “A star steps out from Jacob”; (b) A scepter will arise from Israel.”
According to Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher and authority on Jewish law, the “doublet” refers to Bilam’s prediction of two great Jewish leaders: King David and the Moshiach.
The first leader to bolster Jewish existence, consolidate power in Israel and lay the foundation for the building of the Holy Temple was King David, represented by the first part of the verse: "I see him, but not now,” and “a star steps out from Jacob.” The second leader to complete the task begun by King David, by bringing total peace to Israel and the entire world, rebuild the Temple etc., is the Moshiach. This is alluded to in the second part of the verse: “I behold him, but not nigh,” and “a scepter will arise from Israel..."
Rabbi Chaim ben Atar (an 18th century Sephardic Sage, whose anniversary of passing is today, the fifteenth of Tammuz) in his classic commentary “Or HaChaim, provides a novel interpretation of the foregoing verse, based on the words of the Talmud that there are really two distinct scenarios for the coming of Moshiach:
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi raised a contradiction. It is written [with respect to Moshiach’s coming]: ‘in its time’ (Isaiah 60:22]. And it is written [in the very same verse]: ‘I will hasten it.’ If they are meritorious, I will hasten it. If they are not meritorious, in its time.” In other words, if the Jewish people will act meritoriously and earn the arrival of Moshiach, he will come before the prescribed deadline. If we are undeserving, Moshiach will still come, but not before the designated time.
The Talmud then proceeds to cite another apparent contradiction:
“It is written: ‘And behold, with the clouds of heaven, one like a man came,’ [implying that Moshiach will arrive ‘on a cloud’ in a majestic and miraculous fashion] ” (Daniel 7:13) And it is written: ‘A humble man, riding on a donkey,’ [implying that Moshiach will make his entry onto the Jewish scene in a humbled and inconspicuous way].” (Zechariah 9:9). The Talmud then resolves this discrepancy by stating: “If they are meritorious, with the ‘clouds of heaven.’ If they are not meritorious, a ‘humble man, riding on a donkey.’”
From the foregoing it is clear that there are two distinct scenarios for the unfolding of the Messianic drama. If we are meritorious and deserving, Moshiach’s coming will be hastened and will manifest itself in a rather spectacular way. If we are not worthy, Moshiach will still come, but his coming will be at the appointed time, rather than sooner, and will also occur in a natural and non-dramatic way.
Others have suggested that the distinction between our behavior being meritorious or not will also determine how the third Temple will be rebuilt. If we will be deserving it will descend from Heaven as the Zohar suggests. If we will not be deserving it will be built by us, under the direction of Moshiach, as stated by Maimonides.
According to Or Hachaim, these two distinct scenarios were actually intimated in the use of dual expressions in Bilam’s Messianic prophecy.
When the Torah refers to Moshiach’s coming in the most ideal manner, it refers to Moshiach’s arrival as a “star” that is visible in the heavens. This means that his coming shall be in a glorious and “star-studded” manner. However, when the Torah states “a scepter shall arise from Israel,” it is referring to Moshiach arising in a natural process.
The obvious lesson for us is that although Moshiach will be “sent” by G-d to usher in the Age of Redemption, our efforts can affect the entire process. Our good actions will hasten the process and bring an end to the suffering and misery in the world. Moreover, the entire experience will be one that will be punctuated with excitement and joy.