June 30, 2007
This haftarah is associated with this week\’s parashah largely because of one verse in the haftarah: \”My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you, and how Balaam son of Beor responded to him. [Recall your passage] from Shittim to Gilgal – and you will recognize the gracious acts of God.\” (6:5) This verse, in the context of Micah\’s message, seeks to remind the people that forces in the world (Balak and Balaam) sought their physical and spiritual demise, yet God stepped into the picture and foiled their plans. Balaam, a prophet or sorcerer of considerable power, a man who had access to God, was brought by Balak to curse the children of Israel. However, each time he opened his mouth to utter a curse to bring Israel down, a blessing came forth.
Balaam\’s blessings resonated so positively that the rabbis debated including at least some of his words in the recitation of the Shema which we recite each day: \”R. Abbahu b. Zutrathi said in the name of R. Judah b. Zebida: They wanted to include the section of Balak [namely, Balaam\’s blessings] in the Shema’, but they did not do so because it would have meant too great a burden for the congregation. Why [did they want to insert it]? — Because it contains the words, \’God who brought them forth out of Egypt.\’ (Numbers 23:22) [The sages responded:] Then let us say the section regarding the prohibition of usury (Lev. 25:35-38) or the section discussing the just use of weights (Lev. 19:23-27) in which the going forth from Egypt is [also mentioned [instead]? — Rather, said R. Jose b. Abin, [the reason is] because it contains the verse, \’He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? (Numbers 24:9) [This verse reminded these sages of the verses \”when you rise up and when you lie down\” found in two of the passages of the Shema.] Let us then say this one verse and no more? — We have a tradition that every section which our master, Moses, has divided off [made into distinctive paragraphs] we may divide off, but that which our master, Moses, has not divided off, we may not divide off.\” (Berachot 12b)
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (the 2nd Gerer Rebbe – 19th-20th century Poland), known as the Sefat Emet, derived from the verse in our haftarah an additional reason why the Talmud might have wanted to include Balaam\’s blessings as part of the recitation of the Shema. He asserts that the verse from Micah urges us to \”remember\” that the Balaam story teaches that the Jewish people live in a state above nature and time as illustrated by Balaam\’s words: \”Lo, there is no magic in Jacob, no divining in Israel\” (Numbers 23:23). What does this mean? He claims that this means that the Jewish people have the ability to shape their own destinies so that the deterministic powers that are normally at work in the world have no power over them. Living above the natural deterministic state allows the Jewish people to testify to the world that God indeed is the Creator and Master of nature. In other words, the Jewish role in the world is to testify to the nations of the world of God\’s role in it. Balaam\’s blessings, according to the Sefat Emet, remind them of this role and, as a consequence, should have been included in the Shema. (Sefat Emet, Balak 5654-5; Yeshivat Or Etzion ed. p. 252)
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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