Parashat Balak: What Hardship Have I Caused You?

Parashat Balak: What Hardship Have I Caused You?

(Torah Study led by Rabbi Sacks on July 16, 2022)

 We just read today’s haftarah from the prophet Micah, who lived roughly between 740 BCE and 690 BCE. Micah, like Amos, is from a small southern town in Eretz Yisrael, evident in his use of imagery borrowed from farming and shepherdry. He, like Amos, pleads for justice. He is especially concerned with the wealth gap happening in society, and corrupt leadership who acquiesce in this or, worse yet, enable it. This week’s selection began with condemnation and ended with consolation.

Earlier I mentioned that most people focus upon the haftarah’s conclusion, where Micah asserts that what G!d really cares about is the doing of justice, the dispensing of kindness, and that we bear ourselves with humility.

I wish to focus elsewhere. I was most intrigued by the verse 6:3

עַמִּי מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ

 My people! What wrong have I done you?

For Consideration:

G!d might be tender, or frustrated, or angry, or feeling another emotion, or even a combination of emotions.

  • What kind of emotion do you feel HaShem is bearing when stating this?
  • How might we decide here?
  • To what degree does your understanding of G!d influence how you view the passage, and to what degree does your interpretation of the passage affect your understanding of G!d?

The Hebrew does not contain the word “wrong;” that translator felt it was implied. The Hebrew more literally means, “What did I do to you?” It’s something we use today, often rhetorically. Think of a time when you started off a conversation or responded to someone who started their conversation with, “What did I do to you?” or “What did I ever do to you?”

  • Were you/that person asking an open-ended question, or did you think there was really only one answer to that question?
  • How did the person respond to your question (or how did you respond to theirs)?
  • In the haftarah here, is G!d asking a real question to our ancestors?

 

The question that G!d asks might remind us of the question that the donkey asks Bilaam in Numbers 22:28:

מֶה־עָשִׂ֣יתִֽי לְךָ֔ כִּ֣י הִכִּיתַ֔נִי זֶ֖ה שָׁלֹ֥שׁ רְגָלִֽים׃

What wrong have I done you that you have beaten me these three times?

In fact, it’s the same three words. It seems that Micah is purposely placing the words of the donkey into G!d’s mouth? By putting the language of the donkey into the mouth of HaShem, Micah is at least implicitly comparing G!d to the donkey.

 

For Consideration:

  • How might G!d be similar to a donkey, or at least this particular donkey?
  • Are there qualities of donkeys that are G!d-like?

 

In order to consider these questions, let’s consider what we know about donkeys.

  • What qualities do you associate with donkeys?
  • What do donkeys symbolize, especially for Jews?

 

Among the positive associations of donkeys:

  • Donkeys are known to
    • possess an emotional quotient better than dogs, gorillas, or chimpanzees
    • to have great memory and have a tremendous capacity for learning
    • to have great intuition, an innate sixth sense, to sense what lies ahead
    • have great instincts for self-preservation and self-care
    • be altruistic and to show solidarity
    • be well-grounded, knowing what they can and cannot do, even if called “stubborn.”
  • While in the ancient Near East horses are associated with war, donkeys are associated with peace (as is G!d). Indeed, the ass must be given rest on Shabbat.[1]
  • Donkeys are positively associated with industriousness, determination, and labor. Jacob blesses all his children on his deathbed. Issachar is praised for being a modest farmer and is called “a strong-boned ass,” a person who “bends his shoulder to the burden,” that is, is willing to do what must be done and works assiduously until completion.[2] G!d similarly labored to create the world in seven days.
  • The ass symbolizes royalty. Saul, David, Solomon, and Absalom all rode asses.
  • Just like Bilaam’s donkey, donkeys are
    • considered symbols of humility, just as Bilaam’s donkey was
    • patient and
    • symbolic of those with good manners.
  • The Messiah is also depicted as riding an ass, and thus it is also a symbol of redemption.

 For Consideration:

  • On learning of a donkey’s nature and donkey symbolism in Judaism, how do you understand Micah’s passage?
  • How do you understand the implicit comparison of G!d with a donkey?

Finally, in the same verse we are exploring, G!d also states to our ancestors:

מָ֣ה הֶלְאֵתִ֑יךָ

What hardship have I caused you?

 According to Numbers Rabbah, G!d made the mitzvot easy to follow so as now to weary us. The midrash cites as an example that G!d requested animal sacrifices in ancient times. Yet G!d is depicted as exclaiming to Israel,

I did not put you to any trouble, and I did not bid you weary yourselves among the mountains in order to bring a sacrifice to Me from those that run wild, but I asked only for domesticated animals for sacrifice, from those which you find in your own yard.”

  • Today, is it easy or difficult to be a Jew?
  • Give examples of things that are easy or difficult about being Jewish.

O.K., being Jewish is not always easy and can be difficult. Would you expect any less from an authentic spiritual tradition? Isn’t part of what makes Judaism such a privilege and a blessing is that it not only helps us to meet the challenges of life but helps challenge us to think more clearly, live more dearly, and to reflect upon our purpose, passions, and processes more deeply, and with some regularity. At the end of the day, if we are serious about Judaism in this way, in not letting it become too easy, we will have a better chance to live out Micah’s dictum–that we live for and balance better our urge toward acts of social justice, increase our love for kindness so that we dispense our sweetness more regularly, and that we learn to live with humility.

 

Kein y’hi ratzon. So may it be!

Shabbat shalom.

 

[1] Exodus 23:12.

[2] Genesis 49:14-15.

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