Parashat Balak 2021/5781
Haftorah: Micah 5:6-6:8
The prophet Micah was a contemporary of the northern prophets Amos and Hosea, and of his compatriot in the south, Isaiah. Micah lived and prophesied, like Isaiah, in the south, in the kingdom of Yehuda/Judea. He lived through the destruction and exile of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE at the hands of Sancherib of Assyria. After the fall of Assyria, the Babylonians laid siege to the city. Micah prophesied during the reign of Kings Yotam, Ahaz, and Hezekiah and anticipated the destruction of Jerusalem as well as its eventual rebirth. He predicted that the city would be destroyed because of the corruption and cruelty that resulted from widespread avarice. Specifically, he criticized the wealthy who enhanced the city through corrupt business practices. Gentrification perpetuated by the rich exploited the homeless and the poor. In his words, Ah, those who plan iniquity and design evil in their beds; When morning dawns, they do it, for they have the power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away. They defraud men of their homes, and people of their land. (Micah 2:1-2) Rashi explained that the phrase, “design evil in their beds,” means that they spend all night planning ways to exploit the population for their own gain, and then in the morning, they execute those intentions. This opening criticism will become important for the speeches included in this haftorah. I will return to this opening below.
In this historical context, the selection from Micah for parashat Balak can be divided into two sections, including a direct reference to the confrontation between Israel and Balak and Bilaam. In the first speech, Micah describes the Jewish people in exile:
“The remnant of Jacob shall be among the nations, In the midst of the many peoples, like a lion among beasts of the wild, like a fierce lion among flocks of sheep, which tramples wherever it goes and rends, with none to deliver. Your hand shall prevail over your foes, and all your enemies shall be cut down! In that day —declares the LORD— I will destroy the horses in your midst and wreck your chariots. I will destroy the cities of your land and demolish all your fortresses. I will destroy the sorcery you practice, and you shall have no more soothsayers. I will destroy your idols and the sacred pillars in your midst; and no more shall you bow down to the work of your hands. I will tear down the sacred posts in your midst and destroy your cities. In anger and wrath will I wreak retribution on the nations that have not obeyed.” (5:6-14)
It is difficult to tell who Micah identifies as the remnant of Israel amongst the nations. Perhaps he is forecasting the exile of Judea after the destruction of Jerusalem. An inter-textual reference to this “remnant” in the Book of Isaiah suggests that this “remnant” is a small group of Israelites who will survive the invasion of the Assyrian army under Tiglath-Pileser III (Isaiah 10:20–22). One day that group will return to the land of Israel. (Isaiah 11:11–16). Once that occurs, Micah is saying, the Jewish people in Judea remain strong and secure. Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and the Abrabanel all understand these verses as a prophecy of Israel’s strength. In Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel’s words (15th-16th century, Portugal and Italy):
Know that you will no longer need to rely on the instruments of war to defend yourself against your enemies. You will no longer need horses, chariots, or even fortified cities. Quite the contrary! For on that day and in that time, I, God, shall destroy your horses from your midst along with your chariots. You will need them no more.
Micah proclaimed that when the remnant returns to the land, the Jewish people will no longer need to defend themselves against hostilities. In that future time, God will demilitarize Israelite society. No longer will Israel require tanks and artillery in the form of horses and chariots. Cities will be able to dismantle their walls and become open places. God will remove “sorcery” and other methods of foretelling the future, i.e., sources of strategic military intelligence will be disengaged. In the absence of military threats, these will no longer be needed. The world as God imagines it for all creatures, is an environment without weapons, a world that would not require gun control because there would be no need for weapons. As the Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 19th century Ukraine, explained, whereas Assyria had rendered the kingdom of Israel like sheep among wolves, the day will come when Israel shall then have the strength and position of a lion amongst a flock of cattle According to Micah, once this circumstance obtains, all of the trappings of safety and protection that military power represents shall disappear and the world will transcend its need for protection against violence. This first of the two speeches in the haftorah describe the mechanics leading to his earlier vision of a utopian society. A dystopian world relies on military power to secure a form of protection that is alien to God’s hope for humanity. A world as God imagines it dismantles its military might. Both Micah and his more robust contemporary, Isaiah, described this utopian vision for humanity in parallel speeches. In chapter 4, Micah described this future utopia:
“In the days to come, the Mount of the LORD’s House shall stand firm above the mountains; and it shall tower above the hills. the peoples shall gaze on it with joy, and the many nations shall go and shall say: “Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the LORD, To the House of the God of Jacob; That God may instruct us in God’s ways, and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. Thus God will judge among the many peoples, and arbitrate for the multitude of nations, however distant; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; But every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him. for it was the LORD of Hosts who spoke. Though all the peoples walk each in the names of its gods, we will walk In the name of the LORD our God forever and ever. In that day —declares the LORD— I will assemble the lame and will gather the outcast and those I have treated harshly; and I will turn the lame into a remnant and the expelled into a populous nation. And God will reign over them on Mount Zion Now and for evermore.” (Micah 4:1-7; cf. Isaiah 2:3ff)
This grand vision is profoundly universalistic. Micah described not only the condition of Israel, but of a shared humanity living harmoniously in a world that by its nature, remains safe from cruelty, bloodshed, and oppression. The vision also contains a deep recognition of spiritual diversity. Every nation will transform weapons of destruction into tools of development and sustainability while retaining a commitment to their gods. Israel will do the same, without abandoning our commitment and loyalty to the God who redeemed our ancestors from Egypt. Most commentators (Rashi, Malbim, Ibn Ezra, Metzudat David, Rabbi David Altschuler of Prague, 17th century, and Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, 12th century, Narbonne, France) take that verse as praise of Israel for having remained steadfast in a commitment to God without becoming corrupted by the pagan influences surrounding them. The utopian imagery of this passage is so universalistic and inclusive, however, that I believe the verse can also be read as recognition that despite deeply different ways of imagining the divine, all of humanity can participate in maintaining a safe, shared world for all humanity.
In our haftorah, though, Micah then turns his attention to the character of the Jewish people, and not their transformed, utopian geo-political circumstance. His second speech of the haftorah concerns the people’s spiritual condition, not their physical safety and well-being. God not only envisions a shared world that is safe and non-violent, Micah says:
“Hear what the LORD is saying: Come, present [My] case before the mountains, and let the hills hear you pleading. Hear, you mountains, the case of God, you firm foundations of the earth! For God has a case against the people, God has a suit against Israel. “My people! What wrong have I done to you? What hardship have I caused you? Testify against Me. In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. “My people, remember what Balak king of Moav plotted against you, and how Bilaam son of Beor responded to him. [Recall your travel] from Shittim to Gilgal— and you will recognize the gracious acts of God.” With what shall I approach the LORD, do homage to God on high? Shall I approach God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Would Hashem be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my sins?” (6:1-7)
I read this second speech in light of Micah’s opening I quoted above from chapter 2. Micah is saying here, “How can you, Jewish people, advance the world towards My utopian hope for a world without military danger, violence and bloodshed, if you continue to perpetuate acts of oppression and cruelty against the poor and powerless in your society!?” Of course God’s hope for humanity will not be realized as long as people, motivated by arrogance and avarice, justify their behaviors with hollow acts of piety. Sacrifices when you renovate neighborhoods to increase your own wealth but cause homelessness? You were once powerless and I cared for you. You were once at the mercy of a powerful prophet who would have cursed you, and I turned those curses into blessings! How can the Jewish people take blessings, and turn them into curses by causing pain and suffering to other human beings? God instructs Micah to teach the authentic foundation of all human behavior: “God has told you, O human being, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice and to love compassion, and to walk modestly with your God.” (6:8) These are three cardinal values, three habits of mind, spirit and action to humanize people: be fair, be compassionate, and be humble. Rabbi Yosef Albo, 14th century Spain) explained that these three values are a philosophical way of describing general principles for all 613 mitzvot. (Sefer haIkkarim 3:30) All the mitzvot, according to Rabbi Albo, if performed authentically and properly, would develop the human character so that people would be fair in their actions, compassionate in their interactions, and humble in deference to each other. The utopian future of a peaceful world starts in the heart, mind and body of each of us.