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"O My people!" (exhorts Micah) "Remember what King Balak of Moab plotted against you, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him… so that you might grasp the extent of G-d's benevolence." (Micah 6:5)
The Prophet Micah was active during the late eighth century BCE. He was a younger contemporary of Hosea, Isaiah, and Amos. We know nothing of his personal background, except that he originated from Morasha (1:1) - very likely the town of Mareisha, near Latrun and Beth Guvrin. These settlements are in the Shefela region - low hills adjoining the southern coastal plain some fifty kilometers to the west of Jerusalem.
This geographical point is important. Micah knew at first hand the stupendous power of the army of the Assyrian Empire, who were at their peak at the time. Having dominated the land within and to the east of Mesopotamia, they moved west to the Levant. There, within Micah's lifetime, they overran and exiled the Ten Tribes of Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. The next target was the physically much weaker Southern Kingdom, containing the Temple City of Jerusalem. The army of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, did not attack the city of Jerusalem directly, because of its mountainous natural defenses. Instead, the invaders preferred to occupy the lower country of Shefela, well-known to Micah. This included Lachish, whose successful capture is dramatically presented on a huge stone mural now in the British Museum. With that Assyrian base intact, they laid siege to Jerusalem, trapping the Judean king, Hezekiah, 'as a bird in a cage'. Jerusalem however did not fall: its water supply was constantly replenished through the freshly dug aqueduct where the waters of the Gihon Spring were diverted deep under the city walls right into Jerusalem itself. The plans for the final attack on Jerusalem, however, were terminally frustrated when 'an angel of G-d struck the Assyrian camp on that night', (Kings II 19:35) and the Assyrian threat to Judea disappeared forever.
Like Isaiah, Micah addressed both the affluent Northern Kingdom, and poorer Southern Kingdom. He opens with the very powerful: "Look! G-d is coming out of His place. He will descend, and tread upon the heights of the earth. The mountains will melt underneath Him and the valleys will split open - like wax before a flame, like water cascading down a slope." The mountains, explains the Metzudot, are the rich and powerful, the valleys are the common people. 'All this' thunders Micah 'is because of Jacob's sin and the transgression of the House of Israel. Who is Jacob's sin? Surely, Samaria! (the capital of the Northern Kingdom) And who is Judah's altar? Surely, Jerusalem!' (1:3-5)
As other prophets, his dramatic and dire warnings about the fate of the sinning Israelites and Judeans give way to glimpses into the happier and more distant future, including Messianic times. The Haftara itself forms part of that section of the Book. In the passage immediately before the Haftara, the Prophet foresees the defeat of the mighty Assyrian Empire - which actually took place nearly a century after Micah's death. The actual text of the Haftara jumps straight from there into the more distant Messianic Age, when the faithful remnant of Israel will positively influence civilization in general by spreading G-d's message among them. And Man will cease to indulge in and rely on war, paganism, and superstition. G-d will destroy their infrastructures: the horses, chariots, fortresses, sorcerers, and soothsayers. It seems that the Prophet is comparing G-d's sweeping away of the corrupt and faithless kingdoms of Israel and Judah with a similar, larger scale event in the distant future of the Messianic Age. There, He will similarly execute justice 'on the nations that have not obeyed'. (5:9-14)
Micah then pleads G-d's 'case' against the Israelites. "O My People! Just look at what I have done for you! What harm did I cause you? Testify against Me! I took you out of Egypt (under)… Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…" (6:3-4), and saved them from the plans of Balak and his mercenary prophet, Balaam.
He answers in the name of all Israel who say, "With what shall I come before G-d, and bow before Him? … Shall it be with burnt offerings or year old calves?" (6:6) Micah is speaking on behalf of the entire Israelite nation, as if to say: "It is true! G-d has indeed been generous to us. What offerings may we bring to express our gratitude to Him?" (Radak, Metzudot)
The Prophet answers that He is not interested in the offerings. All He wants is for His people to 'do justice, love mercy, and walk modestly with Him.' (6:8) The Alshich (1508-93?) explains that 'doing justice' means observing the Torah in the sincere belief that it is just and fair, rather than merely out of fear of punishment. 'Loving kindness' is not only for those who are rich enough to part with a slice of their wealth, but for even those less fortunately placed, who should urge the wealthier to assist those in need. And 'walking modestly with Him' includes serving G-d when alone, and not just when in the company of others.
Even though Micah's contemporaries delivered the Word of G-d on similar themes, the Talmud (Makkot 24a) indicates that the message through Micah had an especially great impact:
R. Simlai taught: 'Moses was given six hundred and thirteen precepts… Came David and condensed them into eleven precepts… Came Micah and condensed them into three, as the text states: 'Mortal! He told you what is good and what G-d demands of you - nothing more than to act justly, love kindness, and walk modestly with the L-rd your G-d.' (6:8)
The prophet Micah exhorts the Israelites, 'Remember what King Balak of Moab plotted against you, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him… so that you might grasp the extent of G-d's benevolence." (6:5). Indeed, Rashi consistently interprets the text against Balaam throughout his commentary on this Parasha, even in instances where the first-time intelligent reader would draw a more favorable impression. For example, where the text states simply that 'Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw the Israelites…' (24:2), he elaborates with, 'he wished to incite the Evil Eye against them'. And before his death, Moses recalled this narrative as the reason for the Torah's ban on friendly contact with the Moabites (Deut. 23:4-7).
The obvious question is: from their own points of view, their actions could hardly be seen as unreasonable… What special distinctions of the conduct of Balak and Balaam earned their being singled out by Micah.
As the Midrash (Tanhuma: Balak 3) explains and implies, Moab and Midian - traditional enemies - (see Gen. 36:35) - sank their differences, and allied against the perceived threat from the Israelites. Seeing Israel winning spectacular victories over better-armed and technologically superior neighbors, they worried that they might indeed be the next victims on the list. Looking for some way to save themselves, Moab hoped that the Midianites, among whom Moses lived when he fled from Egypt as a man, could supply the key to the strength of the Israelites. The Midianites replied that it was useless to go to war against them: they enjoyed His Contact, His Sponsorship and His Protection. It would be better to sever them from their source of success - namely their closeness to the Almighty - by cursing them and breaking that relationship.
And in so doing, Balak did not hire one of the local sorcerers (c.f. Deut. 18:14), but he sent his messengers on an expensive and time-consuming mission some 800 kilometers to the north - to Petor, in Mesopotamia (ibid. 23:5). For Balak, it seems, wished to use the greatest expertise available - a prophet from the region of Abraham's family (Gen. 24:4.10) - who was close to the very roots of the Israelite nation. Indeed, that was the place where Abraham himself had settled (ibid. 11:31) - until told by G-d to 'go to the Land which I shall show you'.
So it appears that Balak and Bilaam embarked on a brilliant and unconventional scheme to save the nation of Moab. Nations might be sinners, but the Torah does not prevent them attempting to defend themselves - especially by a scheme that would avoid the deaths of any of their own fighting men…
A clue to the Torah tradition's severe antipathy towards the Moabites may be found in looking at some of the machinations of some of the more recent arch enemies of the Jewish people. The following anecdote sums up the attitude:
One day during the early years of the Nazi regime, Rosenberg and Edelstein sat next to each other on a park bench. Rosenberg, numb with fear, was reading the local Jewish weekly - its details of the latest round of anti-Jewish arrests, disappearances, torture, and killings. Edelstein had another publication - Streicher's Jew-hating 'Stuermer' - designed to arouse violent Jew-hatred amongst the 'Aryan' population. And as Edelstein got further into that infamous paper, he smiled more and more…
'Edelstein! You read such a thing! And you gain pleasure from it?'
'Rosenberg, you must understand. You read one thing about the Jews, but I read something else. Your paper shows you how the Nazis humiliate, spit on, and terrorize our people. I now find out that we run world finance, we live in palaces, we employ servants, we run motor-cars, we dictate the businesses and the professions of Europe and America… And in the not too distant future, we might even take the world over. And even those cursed Nazis are afraid of us…' This anecdote shows brings out an important element relevant to the issue discussed. A careful examination of the text and its context suggests that Balak's reason for hiring Balaam was not primarily national security. He did not ask Bilaam to bless Moab, but instead to curse Israel. He promoted the notion of self-defense as a cover to employ his hatred for the Israelites by attempting to destroy them - a tactic that leaders have used to win the support of local populations throughout history - and most emphatically today. In this case he tried to manipulate G-d to find the right moment to turn Him against His people.
Indeed the text implies that Balak himself did not seriously fear the Israelites. For it states (22:3) that 'Moab' - the general population, not Balak - dreaded the Israelites. Like many of the German population who were deluded by skilful propaganda, their leaders talked them into being scared of something highly unlikely to take place, for the following reasons. Firstly, the Moabites had already upset the Israelites - and got away with it - when they refused the Israelites passage on their way to the Holy Land, and they had to take a long detour to skirt Moab on the way to attacking the lands of Sichon and Og much further north (Judges 11:17). Secondly, Bilaam, the prophet would undoubtedly have been able to divine that the Almighty expressly forbade the Israelites to incite war against Moab (Deut. 2:9): 'Do not harass Moab, and do not incite war against them… for I have given (it)… as an inheritance for the children of Lot' (whose eldest son was Moab - Gen.19:37). And finally - the Israelites by then were geographically in the lands of Sichon and Og - further north. If they had not already attacked the Moabites the first time round, they would unlikely to make a special return journey, with the Holy Land lying in front of them for conquest.
As a footnote: today other socially acceptable covers are used to promote Jew hatred, and at the same time make it look respectable in Western society. Recently, I had a long conversation with an intelligent, well-educated American person, with strong Maronite Lebanese connections. She presented herself as a keen promoter of equal opportunities and multi-cultural education for all peoples in the Middle East. When gently quizzed, that meant 'except for the Israelis', who 'did not have a right to lived in peace in their Promised Land…'
This is the implied message of Micah. 'Remember, Israel, to thank G-d for saving us from people and nations cunningly seeking promote their own civilized status by planning to denigrate and destroy the Torah nation.'
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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