The closing words of this week’s haftarah are among the most familiar in all of Tanach. The navi Micha’s statement that Hashem demands no more of you than “……asot mishpat v’ahavat chesed v’hatz’ne’ah lechet im Elokecha,” “doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God,” is a cry well-known even to those who have a minimal acquaintance with Biblical text. And yet, as dramatic and well-known as it is, it appears to have little to do with this week’s parsha of Balak.
The obvious connection that links our haftarah with the parsha is that, among the kindnesses that God had done for Israel, the prophet mentions how Hashem had protected the people from the schemes of Balak and Bilam, the very topic of our parsha. Additionally, Micha compares the future nation of Israel to a lion and lion cub that will trample and destroy her enemies, just as Bilam does four times in our Torah portion.
Upon further study, however, we can indeed find a very important connection of our parsha to the haftarah’s well-known concluding verse, a connection that might be considered even more basic than these “obvious” links and one that leaves us with an important lesson that is well worth remembering.
The famous words of the prophet Micha were not meant in any way to dismiss or trivialize ritual observance but rather to denounce those who believe that ritual alone is all that Hashem cares about. The prophet decries people who go through ritual without seeing it as an essential tool meant to bring us closer to the Divine One and lead us to the moral life that He demands. Mitzva performance, the navi teaches, must create a moral personality. In studying the story of Bilam we read of the care he takes to offer the proper sacrifices, build the proper altars and go through the proper rituals, all the while ignoring God’s imperative: “You shall not curse the nation for it is blessed.”
The contrast seen by Chazal is powerful, for while Micha called for justice, compassion and walking humbly with God, Bilam pursued injustice against an innocent people, acting with cruelty instead of compassion and walked defiantly against God’s word in order to fulfill the wishes of a mortal king.
The haftarah’s message resounds in our ears today for it calls for us to make sure that our ritual observances are not devoid of meaning, intent and impact but that they shape our very personalities, sensitizing us to the needs of others, connecting us to our people and granting us the moral fortitude to live an ethical, God-inspired life.
By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.