Micah, Balak, Balaam and what the Lord requires of us

(Photo: Unsplash/Tim Wildsmith)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the lessons in Micah and how they tie in with the story of Balak, Balaam and his she-donkey. 

What does the Lord require of us and what do we require of ourselves?

Are we expected to follow the mitzvoth (commandments) because of some external agency known as G-d, or are we supposed to have some inherent knowledge of appropriate action in any given circumstance? In the coming months I hope to be reviewing a new book on this question, which has exercised great Jewish and Christian thinkers throughout the ages.

However, one clue may lie in this week's Torah reading, taken in conjunction with the prophetic reading which accompanies it.

The Parsha of Balak (Numbers 22:2 - 25:9) is followed in Shul by the Prophetic reading taken from Micah 5:6 - 6:8.

On the surface of things, the Parsha of Balak is ludicrous. Why have a biblical book devoted to a 'baddy' like Balak who wishes Israel ill. After all, we don't even have a Book named after Moses, Miriam, or Aaron, heroic figures all of them and role models of our people.

Come to think of it, though, neither do we have Books named after David or Solomon. These two great monarchs, who between them were responsible for the final building of the 1st Temple (of which the 2nd Temple was a mere shadow), have to make do, both of them, with inclusion in the Books of the Prophet Samuel and Kings. What is more, the Prophet Samuel even warned the people against having a King, especially someone who might, one day, wish to become 'World King'. You never know, such a monarch might prove to be self-destructive and thus bring down the entire kingdom, as we have recently witnessed quite close to home.

But, wait a minute, don't we have the Book of Ruth, named after a female convert from Moab, born in incest and promising not very much? And yet she, the descendant of our present anti-hero, Balak, King of Moab, came from negligible beginnings to become the ancestor of the Messiah, and more importantly maybe, the prototype of the ideal convert to Judaism.

And there are many other biblical books, named after people and events which might astonish the complacent and narrow. But let's stick with Balak at present, whose greatest claim to fame is that through him we will, one day, experience the Messiah. Mind-boggling really, and totally unexpected.

Balak, King of Moab, was scared of Israel, jealous. Like so many before and since, he therefore joined forces with other nations, in order to remove the Jewish people from his vicinity. According to the great mediaeval commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, the 'prophet' chosen to carry out this task, Balaam, was the descendant of Laban, uncle of the patriarch, Jacob and arch-trickster of the Jewish people.

G-d specifically told Balaam not to curse the Jewish people, because He had already blessed them. Through being economical with the truth, however, Balaam ended up desecrating the Name of G-d. The Midrash tells us that before G-d destroys the enemies of the Jewish people, he first elevates them. G-d therefore allows Balaam to go to 'curse' the people, even though G-d had specifically ordered him to bless them, as G-d had already done.

Balaam couldn't wait to get on his way, but G-d put various impediments in his path. The angel 'impeded' the she-donkey carrying Balaam. The word for 'impeded' is the verb 'satan', from which we derive the word 'Satan'. Originally Satan was the power of impediment, adversarial behavior and, sometimes, destruction. Biblically, the 'devilish' strain of Satan doesn't really exist, but rather, originally, Satan represents an object in our path.

The she-donkey is said 'to see' the angel of the Lord'. As we now know, often animals have an instinct that we can only call 'second sight'. In fact, another book I would like to review in the near future is a call (supported by many Jewish scholars and environmentalists) to reintroduce the autumnal 'New Year for Animals', which fell by the wayside in diaspora, even though we have more recently reinvigorated the New Year for Trees, but that is another story.

So, let's not dismiss the idea of the she-donkey being more aware of the situation than was the great soothsayer himself, Balaam the 'prophet'. Even when Balaam repeatedly beat the she-donkey, she refused to budge on the issue, and even 'spoke' to her master, Balaam. Then G-d 'uncovered' Balaam's eyes and he began to see the light on the issue. In fact, the actions of the she-donkey had saved Balaam's life!

Balaam's first blessing on Israel (Numbers 23: 7-10) includes the famous words: 'From its first beginnings, I see it rock-like ... Behold it is a People that will dwell alone, and among the nations it will not be counted for much.'

And, isn't that the truth! Look at how Israel is constantly cursed by Western governments, political institutions, churches, universities and other spheres of influence. And yet, Israel goes her own way, proudly different in so many ways from the rest of the world, and truly open at the same time. A mere dot on the landscape, fewer than 0.2% of the world's population, but you wouldn't think so, listening to Western pundits. Yet the hatred she faces, you would think the Jewish people were powerful – perish the thought.

Balak's second blessing (Numbers 18-24) states: 'He saw no iniquity in Jacob; neither did he see any perversity in Israel.' In other words, try as one might, when one really looks (visits the country personally, for instance), actually all the accusations made against Israel are false.

Balaam's third blessing (Numbers 24: 1-9) is different in kind from the others. Having done G-d's deed, even despite himself, he has now come nearer to internalizing the words coming out of his mouth, and no longer wishes to use divination as a tool: 'But he set his face towards the Wilderness.'

As both Jews and Christians are aware, the idea of 'wilderness' is replete with symbolic imagery. It is the place where people go to be alone in themselves – often when they have to make a huge decision. The Jewish people themselves had to travel in the wilderness for 40 years in order to be capable of entering the Promised Land. And, ironically maybe, the Hebrew word midbar denotes wordlessness – 'away from words'. Words had been Balaam's raison d'être, but now he realizes that it is time to contemplate in silence the next step in his journey towards doing G-d's will, even in spite of himself.

Balaam now 'saw Israel dwelling according to her tribes.' The tribes of Israel were able, even in those ancient days, to live in close proximity, but nevertheless still retain their individual tribal identities. But (and this is really important) at times of trouble, these tribes would all come together as one. In our own time, this mode of existence is still not the case in some parts of the world, as recent civil wars demonstrate. As for the various 'tribes' in the West, even, one might hasten to add, within our own country.

And then Balaam pronounces the words that have become the core part of our synagogue service (yes, the words of our enemy were deigned to be worthy of inclusion in the most sacred of Jewish services):

'How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwelling places, oh Israel.'

Later, the Jewish sages extended the meaning of 'tents' (an anagram in Hebrew of the word for G-d) to encompass 'spiritual tents', or places of learning. And 'dwelling places' now includes the idea of the Shekhinah, or G-d's Presence, i.e. the synagogues where we pray to this day. So, what this non-Jewish prophet is stating is that for Judaism, learning comes first, and then prayer. The two go together, but one without the other is incomplete. And the early tribal formations and living set-ups were a paradigm for the later emphasis on learning and prayer, often conducted in the same building, but in different rooms.

Not only have Israel now learned something about themselves that is unique from someone who was not one of them, but unlike Jethro (mentioned in my previous joint article on leadership with Lord Williams of Oystermouth, and who also has a biblical Book named after him), Balaam was actually the enemy, both through his parentage, and through his own predilection towards divination.

But, unlike Pharaoh of Eygpt, Balaam's heart wasn't hardened to the extent where he simply couldn't unbutton and let go. He allowed himself to be influenced by his serving animal, the angel of G-d acting as adversary, by G-d Himself, and finally by the behaviour of the children of Israel in tribes, which he now saw in their true light for the first time. Very different from both Pharaoh and Jethro – his was possibly the hardest task. Between evil people and good people come those in the middle, the ones, like most of us, who constantly struggle. And it is the ones who struggle who eventually reap the greatest reward.

But what on earth does our truly noble Parsha reading have to do with its partner Haftorah, Micah (5:6 - 6:8).

Well, the Micah passage starts like this: 'The remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples.'

The most obvious interpretation is that there will be Jews living in diaspora. These other peoples and these other 'nations' will eventually heed the words of the Jewish people and learn from them. And those who refuse to learn will thrive no longer. The implication is, however, that the Jewish people will also learn bad habits from the peoples and nations within which they dwell, and will therefore have to be purified from materialism, superstition and self-aggrandisement.

G-d therefore reminds the Jewish people of everything he has done for them in the past, including (Micah 6:5) the machinations of Balak, King of Moab, and how Balaam responded. Israel then asks for guidance. They are guilty as charged.

How to make amends? The implication is that the burnt offerings of old are no longer what is required. These sacrifices were obviously not carried out in the correct way, because people still carried on as before, even while offering animal sacrifices in the Temple. It is the people themselves who realize that the animal sacrifices of the past are no longer adequate to living the life that G-d requires of them now, in the present.

No, G-d's sublime demand for the days that come are as follows (Micah 6:8):

'It has [already] been told you, human beings', or '[mere] human beings have already told you what is good. And what the Lord does [in fact] require. Nothing more than to practice justice and the love of mercy, and to walk modestly with your G-d.'

Many non-Jewish people have grasped eagerly at this verse, seeing it as a criticism of Judaism per se. But nothing could be further from the truth. At the appropriate time, when the Temple was being set up and beyond, the Levites were given their roles, which included animal sacrifice and also singing. It is easy to forget that at that time, surrounding peoples and nations practised sacrifice of their own children (which is even hinted at in Micah 6:7). So, animal sacrifice was at least one step beyond child sacrifice. However, whenever slaughter becomes ingrained, it can have a deleterious effect on those who carry it out. And, in any case, as Micah points out in verse 8, the Jewish people had always known, even if deep down in their subconscious, that the motivation for physical rituals in Judaism is always the pursuit of justice, together with the love of mercy, as well as not to act ostentatiously in carrying out acts of justice, love of mercy and/or the physical rituals which are often the subject of mockery by other peoples and nations.

The Hebrew of Micah 6:8 is particularly ambivalent, with punning galore. It is not obvious if G-d is telling the human being (not 'man') what to do, or if other human beings have already told their fellow humans how to behave. But the thing is that Micah is emphasizing that he isn't saying anything new at all.

What is necessary to do G-d's will is constantly pursuing justice. Not for nothing are there so many lawyers and judges in Israel and in the Jewish diasporas of north America, the most famous of course being the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose motto was the biblical 'Justice, justice will thou pursue' (Deuteronomy 16:20).

And we don't need the anti-Semitic judge, Portia, hero of The Merchant of Venice to tell us that 'the quality of mercy is not strained'. The quality of mercy, which Micah (dated around 700 BCE) describes a good 2,300 years before the time of Shakespeare's play (around 1600 CE) constitutes an intrinsic part of the Jewish Bible, as well as of post-biblical Jewish teachings.

If we took revenge on everyone who was and is anti-Semitic, be they Church people, writers, politicians, professors and all those others who wish us dead, there wouldn't be many people left in the world. Jews are always turning the other cheek.

This was, in any case, the view of one person who certainly deserved the accolade bestowed on him by the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, when bestowing on his colleague the 1989 Israel Prize for Tolerance (actually Patience would be a better translation of Savlanut). These are the prize-winners, Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of Haifa and his former colleague in Haifa, subsequently Sephardi Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu.

The book Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace includes a story told by Rabbi Eliyahu about the meaning of savlanut as he bestowed the honour on Rabbi Cohen. The story spoke of another rabbi who had taken his students to a railway station and asked the driver of a steam engine how it worked: 

"Astonished at rabbinic interest in the subject, the driver nevertheless explained to them that: 'You have to fill the tank with water, stoke it with charcoal, heat it up and only when the water boils, do you start moving.' The rabbi then asked: 'But what happens if you open the tank?' The driver answered: 'If hot air escapes, then the engine woun't budge.' The rabbi told his students: 'That's the moral. The journey can only begin where there is warm empathetic engagement between one another, while at the same time our very human tendency to 'boil over' is kept well under control.' Rabbi Eliyahu continued:

"Rabbi Cohen is following in the path of his father, the Nazir of Jerusalem, who suffered great hardship, which he bore (saval) with patience and restraint. The Nazir schooled himself to pursue a life of holiness and sanctity, immersed in studying and teaching. By ignoring the slings and arrows of his opponent he lit up the world by his presence, carrying it forward onwards and upwards." 

The passage then goes on to explore in more detail what a 'savlan' is. According to Rabbi Eliyahu, a savlan is "not someone who is soft or who constantly compromises". Nor is it someone who "always give in".

No, rather a savlan is "a person endowed with the gift of 'empathetic engagement', which helps him meet others in their own place, wherever they are at the time".

Rabbi Eliyahu continued, "No-one expresses this better than the prophet Micah, who shares with us three seemingly simple rule of life. These three encapsulate the entire 613 mitzvot (commands) incumbent upon us... Micah says: 'What does the Lord require of you? You should behave justly, love chesed (kindness) and walk humbly with your G-d.'" 

It was these three attributes that Rabbi Eliyahu saw "internalized" in the personality of Rabbi Cohen. Rabbi Cohen's rulings as a senior religious judge were "always unswervingly just, in accordance with Jewish Law" and he was someone who "constantly penetrates the very heart of Torah, without deviating to the right or to the left".

"He also embodies 'love of chesed', not only by nurturing countless students through education and training, but also by always putting himself out to find them work. He further demonstrates the injunction to 'love chesed' by giving charity to others in such a way that they do not even know that he has done so. And all these things he does by 'walk[ing] humbly'," said Rabbi Eliyahu. 

So, to sum up, Micah's words should be taken in parallel with the story of Balak, Balaam and his she-donkey. People can be turned around. Repentance is possible, and love of justice, mercy and lack of ostentation are their own reward.

Deep down we all know these things. It's up to all of us, especially our political and religious readers, those who constantly read from the Hebrew Bible and/or New Testaments, to internalize all these teachings and put them all into practice – not yesterday, not today, but always in the eternal NOW.

If our tents are really 'good', as they are according to Balaam, then Micah reinforces this point. We all know, either from G-d Himself, or as part of our intrinsic knowledge, what is good, so let's go out and practise it.