The wicked Balam's final words (Numbers 24:l7) opens with a prophecy concerning the two Meshichim [anointed ones], King David and the ultimate redeemer, the Mashiach, a descendant of King David:
I see it, but not now;
I behold it, but not in the near future.
A star shall go forth from Jacob,
And a staff [shevet] shall arise from Israel.1
In the original Hebrew, this statement contains 12 words, hinting at the 12 Jewish months of the year. Following the order of the Jewish months (beginning with Nisan), the eleventh word of the series, “staff” (שבט ), corresponds and alludes to the eleventh month, the month of Shevat (שבט ). During this month, we celebrate the New Year of the Trees (ראש השנה לאילנות ), hinting at the New year of the Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life serves as a symbol for the Mashiach, the descendent of King David, about whom it is said, "Behold, a man, his name is Tzemach (צמח ) and from the space underneath him he will grow (יצמח ).”2
The Hebrew letter associated with the month of Shevat, according to Sefer Yetzirah [the Book of Formation] is tzadik, צ ; its name literally means “a righteous individual” about whom Proverbs states, “The tzadik is the foundation of the world.”3 Furthermore, “A tzadik eats [in order] to satisfy his soul.”4 Indeed, the sense of eating is the special sense associated with the month of Shevat. When one eats of the fruits of the Tree of Life, one lives eternally.
The Torah describes that the Tree of Life was planted in the center of the Garden of Eden, which symbolizes the garden of the souls of Israel from which sprouts the soul of Mashiach, a tzadik who represents the Tree of Life. The letter tzadik itself alludes to the Tree of Life. It is the second of the two letters that form the word “tree” (עץ )5 in Hebrew. The letter tzadik’s shape (צ ) resembles a tree. Finally, tzadik is the 18th letter of the Hebrew alphabet and 18 is the numerical value of the word “alive” (חי ), the word that is the two-letter root of the word “life” (חיים ).
The Rambam, at the conclusion of the section in the Mishnah Torah entitled "The Laws of Kings" (Chapter ll, Halacha 1), states:
"The King Mashiach will rise forth and return the Kingdom of David to its former state?The Torah testifies [in several places] concerning him [the King Mashiach]?[amongst them,] in the portion of Bila'am whose prophecies concern two messianic figures: the first Mashiach is King David who saved Israel from its oppressors; the final Mashiach will rise forth from his [King David's] descendents and save Israel in the end of days. Bila'am prophesizes: 'I see it, but not now'-- this refers to King David; 'I behold it, but not in the near future'-- this refers to the King Mashiach; 'A star shall go forth from Jacob'-- this refers to King David; 'and a staff shall arise in Israel'-- this refers to the King Mashiach"
Thus, we find that "I behold it" parallels "a staff will arise" (both referring to the King Mashiach) relating to the Kabbalistic idea that the Jewish tribe paralleling the month of Shevat is Asher (cognate to the Hebrew word for "I behold it"--ashurenu).
The wicked Bila'am "distances" the coming of the Mashiach when he says, "I behold it, but not in the near future." In contrast, the prophet Isaiah draws the Mashiach nearer when he says, "for my salvation is near to come" (Isaiah 56:1). In his commentary on the Torah entitled Heichal Ha'bracho, the Komarnar Rebbe explains Bila'am's words as follows:
'Nearness' indicates a close neighbor who is the Tzadik, the foundation of the world. Similarly, the holy prophet (Isaiah) said, 'my salvation is near' (Isaiah 56:1). But this wicked one said, 'but not in the near future.' In truth it is near; for the redemption is experienced every day and in each hour by one with a sensitive heart. Now, it is truly close; its 'appointed time' is here. Yet, this is not exact, since even the 'appointed time' will be 'hastened' (before its time; see commentaries on Isaiah 60:22). Our master, the holy Ari, noted that the 'appointed time' had actually started in his day: "I am certain of this every day that I yearn and wait for the final redemption."
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (who passed away in 5503), author of the commentary Or HaChaim, explains our verse as referring in its entirety to the Mashiach. He explains that the Mashiach's coming will be hastened, if the Jewish People merit it, and if not, then he will come "in its appointed time." This is the meaning of the quote "in its appointed time, I will hasten it" (Isaiah 60:22), as interpreted by our sages. In accordance with this understanding, the quote "I behold it, but not now" (not immediately now, but very soon) refers to a state in which the Jewish People are worthy, whereas "I behold it, but not in the near future" refers to a state in which they are not. So too, if the Jewish People are worthy, then the Mashiach will come in a manner from above to below as pictured in the phrase, "a star will go forth from Jacob" and as it is said "he will come via the clouds of the heavens"--in the merit of the service of the majority of the souls of Israel, the average ones amongst the Jewish People, the rank and file--who may be labeled "Jacobs." Whereas, if they are not worthy, then the Mashiach will come in a manner from below to above, "and a staff shall arise in Israel" and as "a poor man, riding on a donkey"--in the merit of the service of the minority of the souls of Israel, the Tzadikim of the generation, who are labeled "Israel."
We notice that the first Mashiach--King David--according to the Rambam's interpretation, parallels the Mashiach at the level of "if they merit?'I will hasten it'" according to the Or Hachaim's explanation. In addition, the final Mashiach, a descendent of King David (called by the Sages "Caesar" in contrast to King David who is called "half-Caesar," according to the Rambam)--parallels the Mashiach at the level of "if they are not worthy--'in its appointed time'" according to the Or Hachaim's commentary.
In the final chapter of Tractate Brachot (54a), we learn that when viewing zikin in the heavens one should recite the blessing: "Blessed are You, HaShem, our G-d, King of the Universe, for His strength and His power fill the universe." The Talmud (58b) clarifies: "What is zikin? A comet." (In the Aramaic: kochava d'shavit). This expression--kochava d'shavit--alludes clearly to the verse we have been discussing: "A star [kochav] shall go forth from Jacob and a staff [shevet] shall arise in Israel." Similarly, Rav Hai Gaon explains (brought by the Aruch in his first interpretation of zik) that the comet is called kochava d'shavit because "it stands as straight as a staff," just as the verse states, "a star shall go forth from Jacob and a staff shall arise in Israel."
It is thus suggested that the kochava d'shavit symbolizes the "comet" (depicting the soul-root) of the King Mashiach that appears in the heavens in the month of Shevat (a month known for the frequent appearance of comets and shooting stars by means of which we see the revelation that, "His strength and His power fill the universe").
According to this explanation, we have a unification of seeming opposites: of the comet appearing above and the staff that arises from below--representing "in its appointed time" and "I will hasten it." Similarly, the cloud upon which Mashiach rides when descending from above (anan in Hebrew) is revealed, as is the poor man (ani in Hebrew), in the secret of the prophet Elijah (the harbinger of the ultimate redemption) who prays, (I Kings 18:37), "Answer me [aneini], O G-d, answer me [aneini]" (aneini is cognate both to anan ["cloud"] and to ani ["poor man"]). Towards the end of the Book of Isaiah, (Isaiah 63:17), the prophet prays that G-d will bring forth the redemption, "for Your servants' sake, the tribes (in Hebrew shivtei from shevet--staff) of Your inheritance"--"there (to Jerusalem) the tribes used to go up, the tribes of G-d" (Psalm 122:4)--from "below to above," complimenting the revelation "from above" of the kochava d'shavit.
As is well known, a comet has a "tail" that trails it (the Rambam asserts this fact in his laws of blessings). This is the secret of "the footsteps of the Mashiach"--the "traces" that are left by the King Mashiach on his way to redeem us. During the month of Shevat, the "footprints" of the Mashiach are enclothed in our consciousness, awakening within us the desire to search for him. We seek to connect with the essential quality of the King Mashiach, with the awareness that we are bound to him as Chava was to Adam before they were, as it were, sawn apart. In the month of Shevat, in which we celebrate "the New Year of the trees," it is important to rectify the blemish of the "severing of the sprouts" of faith, to join and re-unite the quality of Kingship (the congregation of Israel, the aspect of Chava) with the Tzadik, foundation of the world" (reflecting Adam, a contraction of Adam, David, Mashiach)--the King Mashiach.
2. Zechariah 6:l2. It is worthy of noting that the verse cited from Balaam) continues, “And he will crush” (ומחץ ) which contains the same letters as the Hebrew word translated as, “he will grow” (וצמח ).
4. Proverbs l3:25.
5. The first letter in “tree,” the ayin (ע ) is the letter associated with the month of Tevet, the month preceding Shevat. Thus, these two months together (especially, the moment in time that connects them together) are essentially connected with trees. Indeed, there are two opinions in the Mishnah regarding the date of the New Year of Trees. According to Hilel’s academy, the date is the 15th of Shevat (and this how we rule legally). But, according to Shamai’s academy the date is the 1st day of Shevat, the day whose first moment is the one that unifies Shevat and Tevet, as above.