Weekly Torah Commentary – Balak July 7, 2017

Torah reading: Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Haftorah reading: Micah 5:6 – 6:8

This week’s reading in the prophet Micah ends with this verse:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?  Micah 6:8

This well known verse is a unique summary of what biblical obedience is all about.  Let’s get something straight from the very beginning.  Obedience according to biblical texts is not about meticulously complying with endless man made rules. It is, rather, an attitude of heart which recognizes the eternal love and compassion of the  Holy One of Israel towards us as our Father and our King (Avinu Malkenu) with the result that we want to honor, magnify and emulate Him.  You shall be holy for I am holy.  (Leviticus 19:2)

Over the centuries ‘holiness’ has been described primarily in terms of outward submission to commandments or instructions.  In all of the major religions of the world, issues such as manner of dress, style of worship, and conformity to doctrine and tradition have created the misconception that ‘holiness’ is measured by outward appearance.  Nothing could be further from the essence of biblical holiness.  Even a modern secular quote agrees: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

One of the most outstanding examples in the prophets that illustrates this principle is in I Samuel 16.  After the LORD had torn the kingdom of Israel from Saul because of his disobedience, He told the prophet Samuel to go to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem and anoint a new king from among Jesse’s sons.  Interestingly, the LORD didn’t tell the prophet which son. Jesse had several.

When the first son, Eliab, appeared before Samuel, the prophet looked at him and thought, Surely the LORD’s anointed is before Him. I Sam. 16:6

But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’  I Samuel 16:7

Apparently Eliab ‘looked’ like the perfect candidate but he wasn’t.  The ‘appearance’ of religiosity can be deceiving for mankind has a unique tendency to act one way outwardly while thinking just the opposite internally.  This is the definition of hypocrisy!


God chose the most unlikely of Jesse’s sons – the youngest, David, who was just a teenager at the time…but what a teenager!  David tended his father’s sheep, a lonely and boring task which David transformed into a consistent opportunity for worship.  He sang to the LORD on the hillsides, meditated on God’s Word while the sheep grazed, and wrote the most beautiful songs of praise and worship, the Psalms, which we enjoy to this day.  God called David, ‘a man after my own heart.‘ Wow – imagine such a compliment from the LORD!


David wasn’t a perfect man, but he had the qualities of heart that God loved and which Micah speaks about in this week’s haftorah.

First there is justice. Justice is a willingness to stand up for what is right. From justice comes moral integrity, honesty, a holding to God’s values. Those who are just make sure that all people are seen as valuable in God’s eyes, because they make it a point to look at everyone as created in God’s image and likeness.

The second character trait in Micah’s description is mercy.  When we are merciful we respond to hurts in peoples lives, without deepening their wounds. This motivates us to show forgiveness to those who have hurt you and done you wrong, just as God freely forgives you when you repent of your sins and failures. It also means forgiving yourself for past failures.

The third trait is humility. Humility is not about being a ‘doormat’, neither is it weakness, but it is that quality of heart that recognizes God for who He is.  The humble heart then wants to do all that God asks of you, because of who He is. It requires that we obey God even when our desire is to do otherwise. God’s will comes before our own. Humility also thinks of others more than oneself.  It is not haughty or arrogant but looks for and appreciates the good in other people.  It is the polar opposite of someone who is regularly critical, judgmental and harsh towards other people.

We could say it this way: there’s a major difference between perfectionism and excellence.  Perfectionism is concerned with doing things right (outward observance).  Excellence is concerned with doing the right thing (heart motivation).

In Tune with Torah this week = God has not called us to ‘perfectionism’ but to excellence.  We are not here to ‘perform’ before others in order to be applauded by them.  We are here to serve the living God from the depths of our hearts, loving Him, desiring what He desires and being occupied with His interests above our own.

Keep in mind that the fundamental meaning of the word ‘hypocrite’ is ‘an actor’ – someone who pretends to be someone he is not.

Let us walk before God as Micah urges: being just, showing mercy and living humbly.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Devarim July 31, 2014

Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1-3:22

For this week’s reading, we open to the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, in Hebrew: Devarim. Moses begins his final address to the next generation and addresses a subject of profound importance: justice.

“I instructed your judges at that time as follows: “Listen to your fellow men, and decide justly [tzedek] between each man and his brother or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment. Listen to great and small alike. Fear no one, for judgment belongs to God. Any matter that is too difficult for you, bring to me and I will hear it.”

As we make our way through this book of the Torah over the next few weeks, we will find that Tzedek, “justice”, is a key word. A bit later we read:

Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deut. 16:20)

So what does the Hebrew word, Tzedek, really mean?

It is very difficult, nay impossible, to translate with one word because it has many shades of meaning. The word can be translated as justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness and innocence. Clearly, it has a much broader range than the Hebrew word for strict legal justice, mishpat. For example, we will read later in Deut. 24: 12-13:

If a man is poor, you may not go to sleep holding his security. Return it to him at sun-down, so that he will be able to sleep in his garment and bless you. To you it will be reckoned as tzedakah before the Lord your God. (Deut. 24:12-13)

You can readily see that tzedakah does not here refer to legal justice. Rather it is speaking of the godly way to interact with a poor person who had nothing but his coat to offer as security for a loan. The lender could hold on to the coat til the loan is paid but that would be a harsh “justice”, cold and uncaring about the person. It is simply not the right thing to do. Compassion and kindness towards our fellow man takes priority. In fact, this same issue was already addressed in Exodus:

If you take your neighbour’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. (Ex. 22:25-26)

In situations like these, the word tzedakah, a form of tzedek, is rendered as compassion or charity; or simply stated, the right and honorable thing to do.

In Judaism, justice (Tzedek) must be balanced with compassion. According to Jewish thinking, Justice in this sense is always accompanied by mercy or grace. In Hebrew these two words – justice and mercy are not opposites. Actually the very word, tzedek, expresses the balance between the stricter sense of mishpat and the loving kindness reflective of the nature of God.

Why then does Moses begin his discourse with this topic of Tzedek, justice? Because a right understanding of the true meaning of tzedek is critical to the behavior God expects from His people. Tzedek is impartial; it makes no distinction between rich and poor, Jew or non-Jew, powerful or powerless. The Torah upholds equality before the law as a reflection of our equality before God Himself. We are urged more than once in the Torah to recognize that justice must not be arbitrary or exercised by human whim: “Fear no one, for judgment belongs to God.” Because it belongs to God, it must never be compromised – by fear, bribery, or favoritism. It is an inalienable right.

At Sinai, God gave to His people a religion of love: You shall love the Lord your God; you shall love your neighbor as yourself; you shall love the stranger.

But it is also a religion of justice, for without justice, love corrupts and don’t we see plenty of evidence of that in our world today? Those would not bend the rules to favor themselves or those they love or want to support have no place in Torah thinking.

On Sinai we were also given a religion of compassion, for without compassion the rule of law degenerates into inequity and even tyranny.

Justice plus compassion equals tzedek. No nation will thrive successfully when this principle is ignored, overlooked or denigrated. Neither will any family.

In Tune with Torah this week = Parents, is your discipline with your children just to the offense and is it administered with grace, with compassion? Friends, when you see someone doing wrong, is your first instinct to judge and condemn? When you yourself make a mistake, are you harshly self-critical? Unable to forgive yourself? Or others? This week, let us individually ponder whether or not we have learned tzedek – how to interact with a compassionate justice and a just compassion.

Your thoughts?