On the wall of my office, there’s a large poster which features the Hebrew text of a quote from the Book of Michah (Chapter 6, Verse 8):
הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
You have been told, mortal, what is good– and what God wants from you: to ensure justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with your God.
I have this there because of a very old and bizarre tradition. Our Sages believed that when one died, they would be summoned up to a sort of celestial Beit Din where they would have to give their name and recount the events of their life. However, they were afraid that, at that critical post-death moment, one might forget their name! To help allay this anxiety, they suggested a daily practice: that after every recitation of the Amidah (thrice daily traditionally), one should recite a verse from the Tanakh which contains their name in it.
As a result, years ago, I started reciting Michah 6:8 daily to remember my own name, because the third word in Hebrew is adam (mortal). But I didn’t just choose this verse because I was worried about having an identity crisis– I also chose it because of the message which it contains, one that I think is absolutely central to the project of Judaism.
We’re going to read this passage this Shabbat, as it is contained within the assigned Haftarah for Parashat Balak. What does this message of moral clarity have to do with Balak, though? Our parashah contains a fumbling, misguided prophet, a comically-frustrated king, and even a talking donkey who can see angels! As is often the case, the connection between the Parashah and the Haftarah is not about content, but about context.
In Bil’am’s attempt to curse Israel, he recites that famous line: mah tovu ohaleikha ya’akov (How good are your tents, Jacob!). That is precisely the connection. There, in the Parashah, Bil’am says mah tovu (How good…); here in the Haftarah, Michah tells us mah tov ([God has told you] what is good…).
Whereas Bil’am is descriptive, Michah is prescriptive. Bil’am suggests that the Israelites are already good, just by looking at their encampment from atop a mountain. Michah suggests that mortal beings are yet to be fully good– but can achieve such a state through love, mercy, and humility. Although it’s tempting to read parashat Balak and give ourselves a nice pat on the back, mocking Bil’am and savouring the fantastical story of a foreign prophet accidentally blessing us, we’d do better to look at the counterpoint provided by the Haftarah. The tents of Ya’akov and dwellings of Yisra’él can still be good, must be good even– but probably only with a bit of work by us to guarantee it– work to ensure that we do justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with God.