A teaching of Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk, from Pri HaAretz, Balak.
וַיַּרְא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל שֹׁכֵן לִשְׁבָטָיו Bilaam saw Israel dwelling by tribe. Numbers 24:2
Rashi explains that their [tent] openings were not set one against the other [but were rather staggered], and for this reason Bilaam was moved to bless them, saying, “They deserve to have the Divine Presence rest upon them.”… To understand, let’s first look at the saying of our sages, “The Divine Presence does not rest on a person unless he is wise, rich, mighty…” This is strange — many righteous people on whom the Divine Presence dwelt lacked might or riches. What’s more, it doesn’t match the teaching of Rabbi Pinhas, that “Study leads to precision, precision leads to zeal, zeal leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to restraint, restraint leads to purity, purity leads to holiness, holiness leads to humility, humility leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to saintliness, saintliness leads to the [possession of] the holy spirit.”
But this can easily be understood according to the teaching of our sages, “Who is mighty? The one who overcomes his own will. Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot.” So “might” is in the heart and not in the hand; thus the one with “a weak and fearful heart” is relieved from going into battle…
Divine mercy is like water: it flows from a high place to a low one, descending and spreading out until it is no longer seen; but divine might holds together, and so it puts boundaries on the spreading of mercy, becoming like a vessel that at once restricts and reveals to every eye (1). So the outpouring of mercy can only be truly revealed in the restriction that comes from might, just as giving birth to a baby only happens through mighty contractions — otherwise the baby would never be born and would remain hidden. So it was at Creation: the world could only be born through God’s contraction of the divine Self (2). Thus through the ultimate in materiality and distancing from the Divine is God able to fill all worlds. Still, to most eyes God remains hidden. A person of wisdom or might, however, in whom God is known and revealed, understands that all materiality is truly a material revelation of God. So this person must return everything to the place from where it was taken, from the Ayn Sof, the Infinite, and this is done through humility (3). The more you return everything to its Source, the more you receive; but it is not so if you hold yourself apart from God.
It is written that “the man Moses was very humble.” Now true humility applies only to the truly great, who humble their greatness before that of God, the Cause of Causes and Source of All Powers; but if someone who has no greatness is humble, what of it? Likewise, your true greatness is only revealed after struggling to overcome your selfish inclinations, and the stronger your inclinations, the more your greatness is revealed; one who has only good urges can show no greatness. It is known that all Creation [that is, even the spiritual worlds] is for the sake of this material world, for even though it is physical “all the world is full of God’s glory,” and so the process of divine withdrawal and contraction was also so that God could be revealed in the lowest worlds — especially through our transformation of our lowest selves to higher selves. And the goal of the person who already possesses the finer character traits is to reveal God’s glory through humility, as explained above, which brings delight to God. Moses succeeded on both counts: he was at first a lowly person, full of bad character traits, and he overcame these traits and became the greatest person who ever lived, yet he remained the most humble of people (4). The Divine Presence surely rested upon him — that is, he embodied the Divine in this world, from the lowliest places to the heights of heaven. This is the meaning of “The Divine Presence does not rest on a person unless he is wise, rich, mighty” — unless he is a person of fine character, having overcome his selfish urges, yet humble. Now we can understand Rabbi Pinhas’ words that humility leads to possession of the holy spirit. You each must do this in your own way, according to your greatness and your humility, each overcoming your own inclinations.
We know from the Zohar that there are two kinds of Yirah: one is fear of punishment, and the other is awe of God’s greatness. Only the latter is true Yirah, yet the lesser form is still useful, for there are times when even the greatest and most righteous of us cannot overcome our urges for pure reasons, and it is only fear of punishment that saves us. This is why our sages taught, “A person should always strive to conquer his Evil Inclination with his Good Inclination…If he vanquishes it, good, but if not he should remind himself of the day of death.” So we see that everything is according to the time and the place and the strength of the urge and your ability to overcome it, and you should not try to imitate another, even a great and righteous person, because what helps him may not help you — you should not even compare your self in this moment to your past self, for everything depends on this moment, and you must start over in each moment until you feel “the terror of the LORD and His dread majesty,” truly and not only in your imagination…
This, then, is the meaning of Rashi’s interpretation of what Bilaam saw. He saw that their openings were staggered, for Yirah is called an opening and a gate — each strove to achieve Yirah, each in his own way. For this they deserved to have the Divine Presence rest upon them.
Sources: The Shekhinah does not rest… Nedarim 38a; Study leads to precision… Avodah Zarah 20b; Who is mighty?…Pirkei Avot 4:1; a weak and fearful heart… Deuteronomy 20:8; The man Moses…Deuteronomy 12:3; All the world…Isaiah 6:3; There are two kinds of Yirah…Hakdamat Zohar 11b; A person should always strive…Berachot 5a; the terror of the L!RD…Isaiah 2:10; Yirah is called an opening… Shabbat 31a-b
1) The divine attribute of Mercy, also called Rachamim, Hesed, Lovingkindness, Love, the Right Hand, and many more things, is associated with boundlessness, for example, boundless giving. The divine attribute of Might, also called Din, Judgment, the Left Hand, etc, is associated with setting boundaries. 2) God had to “contract” the infinite divine to make “room” for the finite. This is sometimes described in terms of giving birth: first God had to make a womb, then inseminate it, and then bear the newborn world through a passage of contractions. 3) By humbling ourselves we make room for God in a mirror image of the process of Creation. 4) This idea of Moses starting out as rotten and becoming the great man he was is completely contrary to the dominant theme in midrash, which is that Moses was born as a special kind of super-human, glowing at birth. This fits the Vitebsker’s characterization of the truly righteous person as someone who has done the most work in improving himself.