July 16, 2005
Micah\’s second prophecy in this week\’s haftarah ends with his sublime statement of the essence of religious life: \”It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.\” (Micah 6:8) This grand piece of advice on the essence of true piety is preceded, however, by a confrontation between God and Israel, framed in the context of a lawsuit. God acts as plaintiff and the children of Israel are the defendants. God accuses the people of gross ingratitude: \”O My people, what wrong have I done you? And hardship have I caused you? Testify against Me.\” (Verse 3)
The prophet\’s words, in this passage, were intended to lead the people of Israel away from sin and to instill in them the essence of religious living. For some among the enemies of Israel and those who sought to defame the Jews, this divine confrontation stood as just another indication of the divine rejection of Israel because of their waywardness.
This controversy is captured in the following midrash: \”When God opened his case against Israel and said to them: \’Hear you mountains, the case of the Lord [against Israel\’ (Verse 2), the nations of the world rejoiced and said: \’How will they [the people of Israel] be able to defend themselves against God, surely now He will destroy them and remove them from the world.\’ When God took notice that the nations of the world were rejoicing over Israel\’s plight, He overturned His previous message and instead reinterpreted it in a way that was favorable to Israel, as it is written: \’My people, what wrong have I done to you\’ (Verse 3) \’My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you and how Balaam son of Beor responded to him… [and how I (God) saved you from them) and you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord.\’ (Verse 5) The nations of the world were taken aback and said: \’This is [God\’s] answer to His reproof and what kind of reproof is this in the first place. God only meant to guide His children the way a parent guides his children, [first reproving and then responding with love].\’ (Adapted from Leviticus Rabbah 27:6)
This midrash responds to those who would use Micah\’s prophecy to impugn Israel\’s relationship with God by creatively reaffirming the original intent of the passage. It takes verses that were intended as part of God\’s rebuke – \”What wrong have I done you…I have only done good for… I redeemed you from Egypt…I saved you from Balak and Balaam… How come you do not show gratitude?\” and turns it into a positive message: \”What wrong have I done you… Look, I only do good things for you so do not be afraid… I will only do gracious acts for you.\” This rereading of Micah\’s message reinforces the idea that God is a beneficent parent whose desire is for His children to take the right path in life. Only in this context does Micah\’s message make sense.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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