Haftarat Balak: Ethics before Religion

[Michah 5:6-6:8]

The prophet Michah, who lived during a period when ethical ideals were crumbling and idol worship was rampant, called out in a loud voice: There is no religion without ethics!  He bitterly lamented the Nation of Israel's abandonment of Hashem, and  therefore reproved them and demanded an explanation (ibid. v. 2).  If you have a complaint against Hashem, let's hear it!  Hashem has only performed goodness for you (ibid. v. 3-4).  During the course of our lengthy wanderings, from the time of the Exodus from Egypt until entering the Land of Israel, one had only to open his eyes to "know the righteous acts of Hashem" (ibid. v. 5).

But perhaps what frightened the Nation of Israel was the difficulty of observing the Mitzvot.  The prophet therefore explains that Hashem does not demand numerous sacrifices (ibid. v. 6-7).  "And what does Hashem seek from you?  Only the performance of justice, the love of kindness, and walking humbly with your G-d" (Michah 6:8).  At first glance, this seems like a minimal demand, a sort of "religion without religion," a religion of intellect, well-suited for a Reform or Atheistic Jew. 

In the book "The Kuzari," written by Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi, the King of Kuzar tried to present Judaism as something other than a passageway to justice and kindness (2, 47).  But the Sage responded that ethical behavior precedes Torah (ibid. 48).  Thus, Michah’s demand is not a preparatory state but in fact the very foundation of Torah.

This recalls the story of the non-Jew who wanted to convert to Judaism on condition that Hillel teaches him the Torah while standing on one foot.  This Sage's famous answer is: "What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary.  Go and learn it" (Shabbat 31a).  This man was searching for a broad worldview and a rationalistic view of Judaism.  Hillel validated his aspiration by giving him a humanistic view of the Torah, but with the recognition that the next stage requires in-depth learning.

The Torah itself does not immediately present all of the Mitzvot and their details.  The Book of Bereshit deals almost exclusively with the ethical behavior of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov without explicitly mentioning Mitzvot.  This approach teaches us that proper character traits, especially those related to relationships between people, take precedence over the religious mandates of the Torah.  Our Rabbis formulate this ideal as "Proper behavior precedes the Torah" (Vayikra Rabbah 9:3), both on an individual level and on the worldly level.

It says in Pirkei Avot (3:21): "Without proper behavior, there is no Torah," i.e. there is no Torah without ethics.  This is like building a structure without first laying a foundation.  It will collapse during the first storm.  But the opposite sentence is no less true: "Without Torah, there is no proper behavior" (ibid.).  Without religion, there is no possibility of true ethical behavior.  This is what the Maharal explains in his commentary on Pirkei Avot: Without Mitzvah observance a person is stopped in the middle of the road and his work will remain incomplete.  Only through the Torah can a person achieve ethical behavior in its complete form.

Michah therefore warned us that the foundation of every human society must be the ethical relationships between people.  Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi stated in the Kuzari (2, 48) that some level of integrity must exist in every society, even among a group of thieves (see the book "The State" of Plato).

But one question still remains: Michah did not live during the birth of the Nation of Israel, when the universal ethical foundation was laid with the introduction of the religion of Israel.  Why then is he instructing them to go backwards?  We must understand that during Michah's period there was a complete collapse of this foundation.  He therefore called upon the Nation  to return to its source.  Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi (ibid.) explained that the people in this day were lax when it came to the intellectual Mitzvot of proper behavior between people, but strict when it came to Divine Mitzvot such as the sacrificial service.  But, as we know, the Divine Torah is only whole when the societal, intellectual law serves as the foundation for the Divine Mitzvot of sacrifices, Shabbat, Brit Milah, etc.

In this spirit, Michah stated: "And what does Hashem seek from you?  Only the performance of justice, the love of kindness and walking humbly with your G-d."  It is not sufficient for the Nation of Israel to be satisfied with performing justice and kindness, we must also perform the rest of the Mitzvot.  The Divine soul which rests within man cannot be filled solely by ethical and societal sustenance. It aspires to greater heights: to touch the Divine light. And this is only possible when one performs the remaining Mitzvot.