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Haftarah Parshat Balak

Haftarah Parshat Balak (Micah 5:6-6:8)
July 4, 2015 / 17 Tammuz 5775

In the second prophecy of this week’s haftarah, God challenges His people for their rebellion against Him. He decries their lack of gratitude and loyalty after the many acts of redemption that He has performed for them. This encounter takes the form of a courtroom scene: “Come, present [My] case before the mountains and let the hills hear you pleading… for the Lord has a case against His people; He has a suit against Israel. My people, what wrong have I done you? What hardship have I caused you? Testify against Me.” (6:2-3)

The ultimate purpose of this prophecy, like many other prophetic messages was to make the people realize their improprieties, correct them and restore their relationship with God. Still, throughout the ages, those who saw themselves as adversaries of the Jewish people have used these prophecies to challenge the credibility of the relationship between God and Israel. The following midrash utilizes Micah’s prophecy and several others to thwart these challenges:

“Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman observed: On three occasions the Holy One, blessed be He, came to dispute with Israel, and the nations of the world rejoiced, and said: ‘Can these people dispute with their Creator? He will now destroy them.’ At the time when He said to them: ‘Come now, and let us have a disputation, said the Lord’ (Isaiah 1:18), the Holy One, blessed be He, on seeing that the nations of the world rejoiced, reversed his intended rebuke to Israel’s advantage, as it says:  ‘Though your sins be as scarlet they shall become snow white’ (ibid.)! Thereupon the nations were astonished and exclaimed: ‘This is some reply?! This is some rebuke?! He has surely come to assuage Himself with His children, (namely, to rebuke them so that they might change their ways but not to do them harm)!’ Again, when He said to them: ‘Come, present [My] case before the mountains’ (Micah 6:2), the nations of the world delighted and thought: How can they dispute with their Creator? Now, He will most certainly exterminate them!’ When the Holy One, blessed be He, saw that the nations of the world were glad, He changed the intended rebuke to their favor, as it says:  ‘My people, what wrong have I done you?… My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab devised… (ibid 3). (God saved them in this instance.) They all wondered and said: ‘This is some reply!? This is some rebuke?’ One statement does not logically follow from the other. He has surely come only to assuage Himself with His children!’ And again, when He said, ‘The Lord once indicted Judah and will punish Jacob. (Hosea 12:3) The nations rejoiced and said: ‘How can these people dispute with their Creator? He will now destroy them! He immediately changed the intended rebuke to their favor. Thus it is written, ‘In the womb he took his brother by the heel’ (ibid 4). (This is an allusion to the birth of Esau and Jacob. Jacob ultimately supersedes his brother.)  Rabbi Judan son of Rabbi Shimon explained this by way of a parable. It is like the case of a widow who lodged a complaint with the judge against her son. When she saw the judge sitting and sentencing people to be punished with fire, with pitch, and with lashes she said: ‘If I make known my son’s misconduct to that judge he might kill him now.’ So she waited until the judge finished. When he had finished, he asked her: ‘What offence has your son committed against you?’ She answered him: ‘Sir, when he was in my womb he kicked.’ The judge replied: ‘But does he do you any harm now?’ ‘No’, she replied. ‘Go your way then‘, he said to her, ‘for there is no offence whatever in this act.’ Similarly, when the Holy One, blessed be He, saw that the nations of the world rejoiced [in Israel’s troubles], He changed His intended rebuke to their favor, as it says, ’In the womb he took his brother by the heel.’ (This recounts the story of Jacob and Esau where Jacob became preeminent.) Immediately, the nations of the world were astonished and exclaimed: ‘This is some reply! This is some reproof? One statement does not logically follow upon the other! He has merely come to assuage Himself with His children! ‘” (Leviticus Rabbah 27:6 Margoliot edition, pp. 733-736)

The bottom line of this midrash is to remind Israel and its enemies that the intent of these prophecies was to make Israel a better community and not as a sign of God’s abandonment of His people. Consequently, there is no room for pessimism, only to focus on building a society that will be pleasing to God.

About This Commentary

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.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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