Parashat Balak – Erev Shabbat 8 July 2022 (5782)
Week of 3-9 July 2022
Torah portion: Num. 22:2-25:9 Haftarah: Mic. 5:6-6:8
Theme: Do what is good
This week’s parashah begins by stating that Balak, king of Moab, had been overcome with great dread and fear of the people of Israel (Num. 22:3). On their journey to Moab, they have defeated three neighbouring kingdoms and the ruler of Moab is envisaging that Moab will be the fourth. He consequently engages Balaam, a pagan soothsayer, to curse the Israelites so that the Moabites might gain some advantage over them (Num. 22:5-6). Whilst this is indeed a fascinating story—replete with oracles, talking donkeys, a pagan augur with a direct line to The Eternal (YHWH), and curses turned to blessings—I will instead focus on the Haftarah (Mic. 5:6-6:8 JPS. I will use the NRSV numbering 5:7-6:8, in this commentary for ease of access for Christian readers).
The haftarah begins with two prophesies (5:7-9) addressed to the remnant of Jacob in exile in Assyria and elsewhere that highlight “divine sustenance” (5:7) and protection against enemies (Fishbane, 180-1). In the following verses, the prophet expounds a vision of the destruction of Israel’s weapons of war and idolatrous practices (5:10-13).
Micah 6:1-5 presents the relationship between The Eternal and the people of Israel using the metaphor of a lawsuit (Jewish Study Bible, 1202). Micah does not name the acts that the people have committed against the divine, but Fishbane (180) alludes to the idolatrous practices mentioned in the previous chapter (5:10-13) and the unnamed sin for which they seek forgiveness (6:7).
As the legal proceedings unfold, The Eternal invites the people to plead their case before the mountains, the hills, and the enduring foundations of the earth, who stand as witnesses to God’s fidelity (vv. 1-2). The Eternal then reminds the people of Israel of the divine redemption from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (6:4), of the story of Balaam—which provides the link between the parashah and its haftarah—and other acts (tzidqot) of divine righteousness (tzedaqah, 6:5).
In the face of this, the people of Israel ask how they might approach The Eternal, paying homage and seeking forgiveness (6:6-7). The divine response (6:6-8) gives primacy to “morality over sacrifice” (Fishbane, 181), a theme echoed in Amos 5:21-24, Hosea 6:6 and Isaiah 1:10-20. The prophet reminds us that The Eternal requires only three things: to do justice (mishpat), to love kindness (‘ahavat chesed), and to walk humbly (hatznea’ lekhet) with the Divine (Mic 6:8). These three principals were considered a summary of all 613 mitzvot (commandments) by Rabbi Simlai and are amongst the most quoted words of the prophets (Berlin, 1203).
Humanity does not need to seek after soothsayers (Num. 22:5-6, Mic. 5:12), nor should it rely solely on sacrifice or acts of piety to do what is good. Rather, it must orient itself towards the good of the entire community of creation, which is infused with the breath of life (nishmat chayyim, see Gen. 1:30 & 2:7) in a stance that is just, kind and humble.
For Reflection and Discussion: (1) How are we being called to do justice and love kindness (Mic. 6:8) today? (2) How might we walk humbly with the Divine and the community of creation for the good of all? Bibliography: Berlin & Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible: 2nd Edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002).
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Mark David Walsh,Australia, Bat Kol Alumnus: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013