Parashat Balak: Justice, Mercy, Humility
Oh, dear Holy Scrollers, this is one of those weeks where it is such a joy to include the Haftarah reading in our Shabbat study. As you will see, it adds a meaningful layer to the already fascinating stories contained within Parashat Balak.
We are in Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9). In it, Balak, the king of Moab, orders Balaam (who is known to be a diviner) to curse the Israelites. Why curse them? Once again, we have become too numerous, and a local king feels threatened by our presence. This is a theme that continues to this day, of course, but that is another story for another day…
As you might recall, Balaam consults with Israel’s God (making him a prophet), who tells him that he can ultimately complete his quest, but he will bless the Israelites, rather than curse them. Along the way, Balaam’s donkey encounters an angel of God, which Balaam does not (or cannot) see. The animal is open to a divine moment in the way that the human being is not (leading one colleague to write a piece entitled, “Is the Ass a Prophet or is the Prophet an Ass?“).
Last year, we discussed the idea that words have actual power, and this year, I want to talk about action. It is one thing to talk about blessings and doing good deeds. It is another to actually do them.
And this is where our Haftarah portion, Micah 5:6-6:8, enters the picture. The Prophet Micah was a contemporary of First Isaiah, living towards the end of the 8th century BCE in Judah. At this point in history, the Northern Kingdom had already been destroyed by the Assyrians, and it was widely feared that they were coming for Jerusalem next. Micah writes from this place of worry – is God actually going to allow our holiest city to be destroyed? How can we possibly stop this from happening?
So, together, we will discuss – what does God want from us? Are there magic words? Or are there actions that God requires? (The Pinchas incident at the very end of the portion complicates these questions even further). I’m sure that our group will have many different opinions on these questions, and I look forward to hearing from you all.