Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
The Torah portion this week has a great cast of characters including God, Balak, king of Moab, and Balaam, the diviner of blessings and curses, and an enlightened ass. The Israelites appear but they have no speaking part in this portion. God represents them. Now, whereas the Torah portion leaves the Israelites out of the events taking place between God, Balak, Balaam, and a talking ass, the Haftarah (the Prophetic reading for this Shabbat), makes the Israelites not only aware of God, it also makes them immediately grateful for God’s role in their journey.
The Prophet Micah (8th c BCE) said to the Israelites, “Remember what Balak, king of Moab, plotted against You, and how Balaam responded to him, and you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord.” Seeing that their safe journey in the past and now in Judah could be due to God’s handiwork, Micah addresses the Israelite’s response with increasingly powerful rhetorical questions, “With what shall I approach the Lord: Do homage to God on high?” “Shall I approach him with burnt offerings? Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriads of streams of oil? Should I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my own sin?”
Micah builds this literary tension and then delivers the punch, “It has been told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you — only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
The brilliance of Micah’s contribution to Israelite life and Judaism’s future is an unprecedented departure from personal and physical sacrifices to God. Now the unblemished deed is as important as the unblemished sacrifice. After the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, the southern kingdom of Judah was now threatened. Micah believed that if Judah’s leaders didn’t mind God, they would be destroyed. Their salvation wouldn’t be found in sacrifices, but in deeds, and not magnanimous deeds, but in deeds of social justice.
Justice. Mercy. Humility. These three values would be enough to assuage God’s wrath and earn God’s love. These three values are timeless and timely. They are the way forward for us, too. In our complex world of insurgencies and war, we cannot expect to rid the world of them with mere acts of human kindness. But, I would contend that we can extinguish disharmony in families and communities where there isn’t bloodshed and war with nothing more than justice, mercy and humility. The issues that tear apart our own city, including homelessness and hunger, are served by leaders who face issues like these squarely and then serve them honestly and fairly. They don’t seek God’s input or wait for God’s call; rather, they consider the human capacity for goodness and then, even under duress of political and economic circumstances, make decisions that serve most of the people most of the time.
On the 4th of July, we celebrate our nation’s freedoms and our keen ability to come together especially in changing times by holding fast to enduring values spoken by a prophet like Micah. Justice for all, mercy/compassion for our fellow human beings, and, humility to be ever mindful that only God is God, allows us to be wonderfully, wholly human and nothing more.
Judaism’s contribution to civilization is profound. The Hebrew prophet, Micah, is one of the simplest to comprehend. He speaks for God and demonstrates that serving God requires not much more than striving to reach our highest human potential through deeds. It’s just as we learn in Pirkei Avot (Saying of the Fathers), “If one’s wisdom exceeds one’s deeds; one’s wisdom will not endure. If one’s deeds exceed one’s wisdom; one’s wisdom will endure.” It’s all about deeds. What example will you set this week? How will you do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?