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Friday, July 3, 2009
Parashat Balak - the Haftara
Reading date: 4th July 2009 – 12th Tammuz 5769
This weeks highlighted text
“He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does Jehovah require of you but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?”Micah 6:8
Love mercy and walk humbly with YHVH
This week’s haftara portion is so similar in content to the Torah portion that will analyze the two together as a whole. It makes mention of the incident of Balak the king of Moab hiring the sorcerer Balaam to curse the Jewish people -- the main topic of this week's Torah reading.
The prophet Micah prophesies about what will occur after the war of Gog and Magog, the war which precedes the coming of the Messiah and the Final Redemption.
"And the remnant of Ya’akov shall be in the midst of many peoples -- like dew sent by YHVH, like torrents of rain upon vegetation that does not hope for any man and does not wait for the sons of men." The prophet describes how YHVH will remove the idols and sorcerers and how He will destroy the Childre of Israel's enemies.
The prophet Micah then goes on to rebuke the people for not observing YHVH's commandments, calling as witness the "mountains and hills" -- a reference to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs -- and reminding them of the great things YHVH had done for them. He took them out of Egypt and replaced the curses that Balaam son of Beor wanted to utter against them with blessings.
The Jewish people respond by saying that they do not know how to serve YHVH and ask for guidance. The prophet reminds them of the Torah, and that all they need to do is contained within it: "He has told you, O man, what is good, and what YHVH demands of you: but to do justice, love kindness, and walk discreetly with YHVH."
Micah's opening prophecy presents an idyllic time when Israel's needs will be met without the need to rely on others. Israel itself will be considered both blessed and feared by those around it because God will be the source of their strength. (5:6-8) That which follows in Micah's message seems strange: "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 of 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 works of your hands. I will tear down the sacred posts in your midst and destroy your cities." (9-14) These verses appear, at first glance, to be a punishment, but actually their intention is exactly the opposite. The essence of their message is that in idyllic times, there will be no need to depend on anybody or anything other than YHVH. Weapons will be unnecessary, as will fortified cities. Security will be insured and as a consequence, human beings will shed the insecurity which leads them to dependence on false things. This interpretation, which appears to be the correct one, is not without its difficulties. In particular, commentators seem to have had trouble seeing how a number of these promises were really blessing and developed creative interpretations to fit the difficult promises into this particular interpretation. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (13th century Spain felt compelled to explain how removing the wall from a walled city (10) was a blessing since it endangered the inhabitants of the city. He explained that YHVH would bring peace in order that the city dwellers would be able to enjoy fresh air instead of the stuffiness caused by the city walls. Similarly, other commentators found difficulty in the last promise – that "[YHVH would] destroy your cities" since, in part, this seems redundant and it also seems the most difficult to understand as a blessing. Already, Targum Yonatan, the Aramaic translation of the Prophets (7th century), attempted to rectify these difficulties by translating this phrase: "I will destroy your enemies" after finding a reference where the word "eer" means enemy. Ultimately, YHVH's promises in Micah's prophecy remain a profound reminder that the world should be a better place where insecurity will be replaced by Divine guidance, where human weakness will be replaced by divinely inspired assurance and where belief in YHVH will hopefully lead to building the kind of world that would make Him proud.
One might assume that this haftara was chosen because it recalls Balaam, but it's the last verse of the haftara that provides the more interesting connections between the parasha and the haftara.