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Haftarah Parshat Balak

Haftarah Parshat Balak (Micah 5:6-6:8)
July 8, 2017 / 14 Tammuz 5777

The prophets Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries, both living during the reign of Hezekiah, a period in which the Assyrian empire threatened the fate of the nation. In one of the prophecies in this week’s haftarah, Micah uses imagery found in a famous prophecy of Isaiah’s in a way which seems to be a response to the latter’s message. A comparison of the two prophecies offers us a window into two theological approaches to the problems which confronted them and perhaps some insight into debates going on in the contemporary Jewish world as well.

If there is one prophecy for which Isaiah is famous, it is this one: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, the calf, the beast of prey and the fating together, with a little boy to herd them.” (Isaiah 11:6) Isaiah, who was the older of the two, seems to have had an idyllic approach to the problems of his day. God would cause the animals of prey, namely Israel’s adversaries, to dwell in peace with their victims, Israel.

Micah offers a contrasting picture: “The remnant of Jacob shall be among the nations, in the midst of the many peoples like a lion among beasts of the wild, like a fierce lion among flocks of sheep, which tramples wherever it goes and rends, with none to deliver.” (Micah 5:7) In this vision, the metaphors are reversed. Israel is identified with the lion and the flocks of sheep as Israel’s adversaries. In this prophecy, it is Israel who would bring about the redemption by overcoming its enemies.

Rabbi Y. ben Nun and Rabbi B. Lau suggest that it is no coincidence that Micah chose the same metaphors as Isaiah. They note that Micah’s message was likely a challenge to Isaiah’s. Where Isaiah presumed that the world’s troubles would be healed by God, who would bring a utopian solution, Micah was pragmatic, asserting that problems were to be resolved on the ground in a realistic fashion. (Yishayahu, pp. 301-2)

The conflict between these two approaches is just as apparent today as it was then. There is a presumption among some that idyllic solutions to problems exist and that they will miraculously cure Israel’s or the world’s troubles. Blink an eye and utopia will appear just like that. If the suggested interpretation is right, Micah is challenging this idea. The solution to problematic situations is a difficult and arduous process which people must make happen without abdicating responsibility and without the expectation that miracles come without toil. Micah’s message is a good reminder that miraculous messianism in all of its ideological permutations may ultimately be an impediment rather than a booster to a better world.

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.

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