07 Jul 2017

Haftara for Balak 5777: Be Consistent | WITH AUDIO READING

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When you look at people who are successful, you will find that they aren’t the people who are motivated, but have consistency in their motivation.

— Arsène Wenger

(Manager, Arsenal Football Club)

Mikha 5:6-6:8


Parasha: The children of Israel are encamped in the desert after having defeated the Amorite and Bashan nations. Balak, king of Moab fears Israel, knowing that he is not likely to fair any better against them militarily. He therefore, tries a novel approach and attempts to hire a master soothsayer to curse them. Bil’am Ben Be’or is the man for the job as it is known that ‘that which he blesses is blessed and that which he curses is cursed’. Bil’am obliges warning king Balak that he will only be able to speak the words that God permits him. In the end God turns all of his proposed curses to blessings.

 Haftara: It is believed that Mikha lived during the mid-eighth century BCE. The Assyrian power was expanding its empire and would later exile ten of the twelve tribes of Israel throughout its domain. Yet, looking beyond exile, Mikha ultimately predicts great fortune for the nation of Israel internationally. The prophecy is poignantly addressed to the ‘remnants’ of the house of Jacob. This reference is used twice at the beginning for emphasis.

 Mikha speaks of the great renewal of Israel among the nations. Renewal is said to be extensive and divinely guided. Renewal will include a final end to the people of Israel’s need for weapons and their proclivities towards  false or foreign worship.  The nation is called to remember God’s care and commitment to it with two examples:  The exodus from Egypt and the salvation from the attempted curse of Balak and Bil’am in the desert.  Mikha ends affirming that it is not sacrifices that God looks for, but justice, love and modesty.


God — omnipotent and omniscient — is not bound by any rules. By definition, God is utterly above any compelling factors that would dictate how He might or should behave. This is unsettling to us because it means that He is unpredictable, which in turn, makes relating to Him extraordinarily difficult.

Yet, the Torah tells us that there was one person, Bil’am ben Be’or, who indeed lived his life in a way that he thought was most in line with God. Bil’am knew that God was beyond any constraints and unpredictable. He therefore expected nothing of God and, in turn, was sure that God expected nothing consistently of him. He worked on reducing his sense of patterns and assumptions to the most minimal levels in order to be fully engaged with life’s true randomness. After all, there were no specific ways in which God did anything. God could not be ‘pinned down’ to any specific system. There was therefore no intended consistency, hence no meaning in perceived patterns. There was no predictability, thus no basis for elaborate assumptions. He concluded that there was no consistent ‘personality’ that God expressed nor a system within which God worked. God was simply not confined by anything at all, meaning that anything was possible at any moment. In a sense, this opened him up to engaging with God in ways few others could.

There was nothing in the world that God did not reveal to Bil’am (Tana Debei Eliyahu Rabba, 28)

Bil’am is therefore seen by the hakhamim as a unique and remarkable character. He is said to have attained levels of prophecy and interaction with God that rivalled Moshe’s[1], and to have been a greater intellectual than Moshe[2]. His credo of utter randomness, however, was antithetical to normal human psychology.

Most human beings tend to need patterns in order to make sense of the world. We abhor chaos and love order. We hate the unknown and adore the predictable. Even anarchists have uncanny organisational skills![3] We yearn for these patterns because we seek meaning above all else and we are wired to find it in everything we experience. In his classic work Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl maintained that finding meaning in the world was so central to human survival that it was the defining characteristic of those who were able to survive the longest in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. He maintained that finding meaning in life is the line of hope by which we live and thrive.

Bil’am, however, had relinquished his need for meaning. He brought himself to live in chaos with the most minimal assumptions and therefore, the most minimal set of rules. With his understanding of God this was the only real way to serve. He had such openness to reality that he defined himself as having the highest levels of knowledge.

So speaks Bil’am son of Be’or…who knows the knowledge of the Most High  envisaging a vision of God. (Num., 24:15-16)

Indeed, he believed that he was the one who would be chosen to give God’s Torah!

Bil’am believed that he would redeem Israel and that the Torah would be given to Israel  through him….(Midrash Batei Midrashot, 268)

Bil’am was great in his own eyes because he was the one who accepted God on God’s terms. By not imposing his own readings and patterns onto the world he remained open to a genuine experience of how God might be interacting with the world at any given moment.

But the natural human propensity for meaning does indeed have its place even in the Divine order. The ‘Bil’am approach’, starkly sensitive to the nature of reality as it may be, lacks one important ingredient. It is the only ingredient that would bring even God Himself to act within a set of ways and means that are sensitive to human terms in full care and relationship. That ingredient is love. For the sake of love and sharing, God — omnipotent and omniscient — restrains Himself, abides by rules and covenants and commits to a shared future with human beings. All of that was antithetical to Bil’am’s understanding of God. But it was, in contrast, how our forefather Abraham understood God. Bil’am and Abraham are seen by the Hakhamim as opposites.

Anyone in whom are found these three traits is one of the disciples of Abraham, our father; but [if he bears] three other traits, he is one of the disciples of Bil’am the wicked…(Abot, 5:19)

Abraham saw God’s creation as the basis for building a loving relationship with Him.

But you, Israel…whom I have chosen, seed of Abraham who loved me. (Isaiah, 41:8)

It is that love that Mikha presents in the haftara. Of all historical occurrences between God and Israel, there is nothing like the Bil’am episode that displays His care for us. It is in that episode that God clearly restrained Himself and His ‘freedoms’, so to speak, for the sake of His relationship with us.  And thus, aside from the great exodus from Egypt it is all that Mikha mentions.

My people! Remember please what Balak king of Mo’ab plotted and how Bil’am ben Be’or responded to him…that you well recognise God’s charities! (6:5) 

Said the Holy One to Israel, ‘You should only know the scope of the charities I extended to you,  that I did not anger once all the time of that evil Bil’am. If ever I would have raged, not a single survivor or escapee from Israel would have made it!

This is the reason that Bil’am said to Balak: How shall I enrage where God will not rage?! (Num., 23:8) for during that time there was no rage….(Berakhot, 7a)

That covenant and commitment with Abraham is what Bil’am overlooked. Yet for 4,000 years, we have maintained that very covenant.

God’s word came to Abram in a vision, saying: be not afraid Abram, I am a shield of deliverance to you,  your reward is exceedingly great…He brought him outside and said: Pray look at the heavens  and count the stars, can you count them?…So shall your seed be. Now he trusted in God and he deemed it as righteous-merit on his part…On that day God established a covenant with Abram. (Gen., 15:1, 5-6,18)

Moshe was chosen to give us the Torah for the sake of fortifying the covenant of Abraham with his descendants.

Out of God’s love for us and in keeping what he swore to Abraham our forefather, He made Moshe our master,  master of all prophets, and sent him…to show us the way of His service. (Rambam)[4]

Abraham knew God and rather than seeing only His infinity like Bil’am, he also saw His commitment to creation. He saw God’s ways. 

Now God said: … Abraham is to become a great nation and mighty…Indeed I have known him, in order that he may charge his sons and his household after him: to keep the way of God, to do what is right and just, in order that God may bring upon Abraham what he spoke concerning him….(Gen., 18:19) 

God curtailed Himself, so to speak, for the sake of bringing out a system, for His love to be manifest and shared with human beings. The ways of life-affirming kindness and justice are God’s expression in Creation; they are His ways. He shows His care through the very systems that He imposed. We are therefore commanded to walk in His ways as Abraham did.

‘You shall walk in His ways’ (Deut., 28:9) – This mitsvah commands us to liken ourselves to God to the degree  that we are able… just as the Holy One is merciful you be merciful, He gives grace, you give grace. He is righteous, so should you be righteous. He is kind, you be kind. (Rambam, Sefer haMitsvot, Aseh 8)

The covenant ensures that in a random and uncertain environment we, together with God, commit to being true and faithful to each other. God therefore commits to a level of consistency within randomness. It is upon that consistency that we depend and that the covenant abides.

Thus said the Lord: If it were not for my covenant [standing] daily and nightly, I would not have employed  the laws of heaven and earth. (Jer., 33:25)

This commitment by God to abide by ‘rules’ and commit to a way for the sake of love and sharing was the one Divine move that undermined Bil’am’s entire premise. To him it was most un-godlike to engage in the confines of covenant. Yet, it is in the parasha of Bil’am that God’s love for us stands most clearly. He is willing to condense and adjust His expression in order to live and share with us. This is so powerful a show of love that Moshe proclaims it in his account of the story.

But God your Lord was not willing to hearken to Bil’am, and God your Lord turned for you the curse into a blessing, for God your Lord loves you. (Deut., 23:6)

The haftara is read for its presentation of this. Our mitsvot are not used as homage, tribute, or manipulation in any way, therefore, all attempts at ‘appeasement’ as service are rejected. 

With what shall I approach the Lord, Do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him  with burnt offerings,  With calves a year old? Would God be pleased with thousands of rams, With myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, The fruit of my body for my sins?

He has told you, O human, what is good, And what God requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness  And to walk modestly with your God[5].

What God seeks are the cardinal attributes of commitment that went into Creation’s foundations: life and justice; the essential paving of God’s way as expressed early on in His commitment to Abraham.

Personal acts of love and kindness hold the greatest meaning because they are direct, aimed and guided. They are the antithesis of random, arbitrary occurrences. Bil’am was surprised to learn that God cared more about love and meaning than His own infinite freedom.

Now Bil’am saw that it was good in the eyes of God to bless Israel, and so he did not go forth as time and time (before) to encounter divination….(Num., 24:1)

All of our religiosity, service and devotion moves from the mundane into the holy when it is imbued with dedication and meaning. The meaning that is rightful to it is that of covenant, love and relationship as was originally set up with our forefather Abraham. It is therefore of utmost importance that we hone ourselves and our own capacity for consistent, moral behaviour so that we can commit to engaging in that love wholly and consistently. This is what it truly means to walk in His way.

Unless we have faith in the persistence of our self, our feeling of identity is threatened and we become  dependent on other people whose approval then becomes the basis for our feeling of identity.  Only the person who has faith in himself is able to be faithful to others, because only he can be sure  that he will be the same at a future time as he is today and, therefore, that he will feel and act as he now expects to. — Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

Bil’am is the anti-Abraham. He only knew a world of randomness and a God removed from all commitment and consistency and so he himself mirrored this. Abraham knew a world of meaning and a God of love — a God he and his descendants could rely upon and trust in spite of the random realities within which they found themselves. They needed no greater security than God’s love and covenant. Indeed, we include this in our prayers three times daily.

The King who helps, saves and shields. Blessed are You, the shield of Abraham. (Daily Siddur, Amida)

We are the children of Abraham and he has charged us with the legacy of His covenant. All of our morality, ethics, religiosity, social justice and integrity only has meaning for us within it. We have lived by it and died for it for over 4,000 years. It is an ancient and splendid crown that awaits us. Blessed is the head that truly wears it.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] Bemidbar Rabba, 14:20

[2] Bereshit Rabba, 65:20

[3] https://afed.org.uk/ – The humour of their oxymoronic slogan says it all: ‘Organise! For revolutionary anarchism’

[4] Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Aboda Zara, 1:3

[5] Modesty and reserve are the incubators of love. They protect what is unique and special reinforcing that it is not random, but quite deliberate and intended and thus, safeguarded. When we share something significant with someone we intuitively feel that it should be held as private. The exposure of a song, place, experience or event that you share with someone special itself is special and it is testament to that preciousness. Exposing it cheapens it.

The same is true of our relationship with God. The sign of our covenant and commitment is expressed most in our reserve and modesty — in our secret service. It is the manner in which we walk in the way of God that He shares with us.

Parasha Perspectives

VII  Balak

72b              Bilaam, backed by Balak, tries to curse Yisrael
The first deputation to Bilaam (22:5-14); A second
Deputation (22:15-20); Bilaam and the ass (22:21-35);
Arrival and reception (22:36-41); Preparations for the
curse (23:1-6); Bilaam’s first prophecy (23:7-10);
                    New cursing arrangements (23:11-17); Bilaam’s second
prophecy (23:18-24); Remonstrations and new cursing
preparations (23:25-24:2); Bilaam’s 3rd prophecy (24:3-9);
Balak’s anger (24:10-14); Oracles concerning the nations
73                The sin of Ba’al-Peor  (25:1-9)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS