Reading date: 27th June 2009 – 5th Tammuz 5769
Our Highlighted Haftara Text
“Japheth swore an oath to YHVH: 'If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from the Ammonites shall be YHVH's, and I shall offer it as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)
Humility before YHVH must be the starting point.
For the last few weeks, we have been out of sync with the Diaspora but with this week's combined portion of Chukat-Balak, we are all now 'back on the same page,' so to speak. When these portions are combined, the haftara of Balak, a prophecy from Micah is read. We read the Haftara for Chukat this year- the story of Japheth “Yiftach”.
The introductory image of dew makes me feel like this would be a fitting haftara for Moses' final poem recorded in the portion Haazinu, which begins: May my discourse come down as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, Like showers on young growth, Like droplets on the grass (Deut. 32:2). But Micah's prophecy connects to our portion as well. Besides the explicit reference to Bilaam (or Balaam) and Balak, king of Moab (Micah 6:5), the haftarah ends with the answer to the question of 'what is good' ‘mah tov’, echoing Bilaam's famous speech: ‘mah tovu’. (which begins the morning prayer service).
Micah lived around the time of the prophet Isaiah (8th century BCE) in a small town of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed, and now the Assyrians threatened the southern kingdom of Judah. The prophets believed that social injustice was at the root cause of this political/ military calamity, and that ethical living could reverse the fortunes of the Israelites.
The earliest source for there being 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah is brought in the name of R. Simlai (Makkot 23b). There, the number seems to be derived from 365 negative commandments (don't do this...) corresponding to the days of the year, and 248 positive commandments (do this...) corresponding to the number of body parts (as counted by the rabbis). Rav Hamnuna explains that the number is derived from the gematria of the word Torah which is 611 (400+200+6+5) plus the first two (of the ten) commandments that were given directly by YHVH to the Israelites.
The whole concept is somewhat controversial, and although many Midrashim refer to this number, it is an 'aggadic' (ie. midrashic) device as opposed to a legal, halachic category (such as the 39 categories of work on Shabbat- see below). A number of different lists of the 613 mitzvot exist (Rambam, Ramban, etc.) which suggests that there actually are more than 613. Additionally, although we still refer to ‘Taryag mitzvot’ (in Hebrew gematria the number 613 is written as 'tuf-reish-yod-gimel'), today, many of the mitzvot are no longer in force since the Temple has been destroyed and sacrifices are no longer made. In addition, no one person could ever fulfill all the mitzvot, as some can only be performed by exclusive and incompatible categories, such as the Cohen Gadol or the king, priests or lay Israelites, men or women, etc.
On the other hand, even a fragment of the 613 balloons out to an enormous number of smaller rules and more specific prohibitions. So, for example, the one mitzvah of 'not working on Shabbat' is clarified in the Mishnah to refer to 39 types of 'work' (melachah) which are then further subdivided into a myriad of further restrictions. The Gaon of Vilna expresses this point of view:
“The mitzvot are thus multitudinous beyond enumeration, to the point that one
who has a discerning eye and an understanding heart can conduct every detail of
his behavior and affairs, both great and small, according to the Torah and the
mitzvot. One is then able to fulfill the mitzvot at every time and every moment
beyond enumeration. The 613 mitzvot mentioned are only roots, but they spread
forth into many branches. Which of them are roots and which of them are branches
is actually a matter that is concealed from us. However, there is no need to
know this because every mitzvah and every utterance of the Torah includes the
entire Torah and all the mitzvot, their principles, their details and their fine
At the same time, there exists an opposite trend in rabbinic thought, to try and reduce the number of rules. Instead of memorizing a page of physics' formulas, if you know the basic principles going into the exam, you can generate the whole page. Similarly, if we could reduce the 613, or thousands of rules into a few principles, wouldn't that be great?! And so in the passage of Makkot (24b), R. Simlai continues: King David reduced the number to 11 (Psalm 15), Isaiah condensed the number to six (Is. 33:15-17) and Micah, in probably one of the most famous and quotes verses from the prophets, compressed the number to three: "It has been told you O mortal, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you-- only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." (6:8). (The passage continues, reducing the Torah to two and even one (Habakuk 2:4).
There is a tension between these two directions represented by the Vilna Gaon (every detail is a mitzvah) on the one hand, and R. Simlai's reduction of Torah to a single principle on the other. Many orthodox prefer the former approach while early reformers were attracted to the latter view. They agreed with the prophets' criticism of external observance accompanied by unethical behavior, and the emphasis on social justice over ritual. Micah's threefold summary emphasizes justice, loving-kindness and inward piety.
The usual translation of our haftara’s final verse reflects biblical poetry: 'It has been told you O mortal what is good' parallels the second phrase, 'and what Adonai requires of you.' But the subject of the first phrase is not clear. The verse could also be translated: Mortals have told you what is good, BUT what does Adonai require of you. The modern thinker Rosenzweig sees the first two (as yet, unaccomplished) goals of justice and goodness as 'works in progress.' We can't work for justice or be committed to acts of loving-kindness without walking humbly before YHVH.
In our society we may be constantly bombarded with messages of "what is good", but humility before YHVH must be the starting point.