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Haftarah: Balak: Variations on a Theme

Micah 5:6 – 6:8: The composer William Walton, who, having been commissioned to write a Theme and Variations, remarked to a friend that he had written all the variations but hadn’t yet found the theme. The recent weekly Sidrot and Haftarot have been dealing with variations on a theme: How do we balance the spiritual and the practical? Micah, a contemporary of Hosea and Amos, addresses a generation that chose the latter, the practical and had lost sight of their spiritual lives. “With what shall I approach God? Shall I humble myself before the Power of the Upper Worlds? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, with calves in their first year? Will God find favor in thousands of rams, in tens of thousands of streams of oil? Shall I give over my firstborn to atone for my transgression, the fruit of my womb for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7)

“O My People, remember now what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered him.” (6:5) Balak and Balaam understood that the battle against Israel was a spiritual war. Balak understood the spiritual nature of the confrontation with Israel and that he needed a prophet, Balaam to confront the perceived threat. He withdrew from a military confrontation and turned to the gentile equivalent of Moses.

Balaam too understood the nature of the battle and offered numerous sacrifices to God in order to accomplish his mission. He failed at cursing the Jews and suggested that Moab corrupt the spiritual integrity of the holy nation in order to destroy them. Our enemies understood the strength of Israel, but Micah’s generation did not.

Micah begins with words of consolation: “And the remnant of Jacob shall be among the nations, in the midst of many peoples, like a lion among the forest animals. Your hand shall be raised over your adversaries, and all your enemies shall be cut down. “ (5:7) The “consolation” takes an interesting turn: “I will cut down your horses from your midst, and I will cause your chariots to be lost. I will cut down the cities of your land, and I will raze all your strongholds.” (5:9) Micah’s words of comfort promise that Israel’s dependence on the practical will end. They will be forced to live as the spiritual nation they were destined to be, as the force of God appreciated by Balak and Balaam their enemies.

The Children of Israel had no idea that Balaam was watching them from afar calling on God to allow him to curse God’s nation. They did not know of the danger of their situation. As long as they lived spiritual lives they did not even need to know when they were in danger. They were not even passive. God protected them from the unknown danger. There was no need to turn to worldly swords and spears, horses and chariots.

How spiritual must we be in order to merit such Divine Providence? What does God ask in return for such protection? “ He has told you, O man, what is good, and what God seeks from you: only the performance of justice, the love of kindness and walking modestly with your Lord.” (6:8)

The modesty mentioned by Micah is the modesty of Israel protected by God from Balak and Balaam: They were not participants. They were entirely in the Hands of God. Micah asks that we live with that awareness. He wants us to function with the understanding that God will care for and protect those who perform justice and love kindness. Micah describes the humility of those who understand that our practical efforts are not what ultimately matter.

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