I am in the midst of wedding season right now: I co-officiated one wedding on Monday and next Saturday, I will officiate the 2nd of 5 weddings…
On Monday, the priest with whom I co-officiated told a priest/rabbi joke, and Bob commented that I need to learn more jokes – a question of style of course, but here’s the one he shared with us…
A priest and a rabbi co-officiate a wedding, it goes well, and after the lovely ceremony, the priest tries to entice the rabbi to have some of the delicious ham at the reception. Of course, the rabbi demurs, but the priest, supposedly good-heartedly persists… Really you should try some, it’s so yummy… The rabbi replies, “Sure, I’ll have some… at YOUR wedding.”
I’m not sure those two things are exactly equal, but they do have some bearing on the torah portion – or rather on the haftarah associated with this week’s torah portion, Balak, has to do with the laws we follow to be good Jews.
Balak and its haftarah, from the prophet Micah are linked explicitly, because Micah actually refers to Bilaam, the prophet sent by Balak to curse us. Bilaam was prevented from carrying out his task, and instead tells us Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov…How lovely are your tents, Jacob… an easy connection…
Micah, in his prophecy, utters one of the most stirring verses in the entire Tanakh:
Adonai has told you, human, what is good,
And what Adonai requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love mercy,
And to walk humbly or modestly with your God.”
The rabbis of the Talmud, that compendium of our traditional wisdom, included this verse in their efforts to boil down the 613 commandments to something people could remember. We all remember Hillel’s effort to do this: Don’t do to your neighbor what is hateful to yourself. The rest is commentary; go and study.
Here the rabbis offer shortened versions of the commandments, something we can carry in our pockets, or our memories, longer than a sound bite, but shorter than all ten commandments. They are offering us some basic precepts, as well as some underlying philosophy. They identify Psalm 15, some verses from the prophet Isaiah (33:15-6 and 56:1), and this verse from Micah (6:8), taking us from 613 to 11 to 6 to 3 to one. Someone pointed out during Tea and Torah yesterday, that the smaller the number got, the more it seems that the reality is, to follow God is to have to do all 613.
The rabbis make some interesting comments on our haftarah verse…
First, ‘To do justice,’ is, according to our sages, about maintaining justice; and to love mercy,’ is about rendering every kind office. These seem pretty straightforward: we want a society that balances justice with kindness, what the kabbalists saw as the balancing of din (another word for justice) or gevurah (strength), with chesed, this same word that Micah used that we translate as loving kindness, mercy… Throughout Jewish tradition, we continually hearken back to this concept –one important goal is to strike a balance between these two things – limit setting or boundaries and kindness. Any examples you can think of? Any parent knows this instinctively. Don’t let your child touch the stove. Too many limits stifle their growth, unlimited kindness leads to its own issues, like an inability to deal with someone saying No. Either one not tempered by the other leads to chaos, something we Jews have tried to avoid forever.
Shakespeare might have been quoting Micah in the Act IV of The Merchant of Venice (IV:1), when Portia told Shylock:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
It’s in the air, available to all, and blesses both the one who shows mercy and the one the needs it. Portia continues, showing the relationship between kings, ruling in her day by divine right:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
This tells us that the sceptre of justice and power may be the power that instills fear and dread in the rest of us. Dread, fear, awe and majesty – all words connected to me to High Holy Days, and to the biblical conception of God. But then Shakespeare makes the link that is as though Micah himself were speaking, and then a modern interpretation of God:
It [mercy] is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
When we show mercy, and seasoning it with the power of justice, we are acting at our most Godly. This recognition, in Elizabethan England, when Jews were not present at all, that the Godly thing is to season the two, balance the two, is a quintessentially Jewish concept.
But, on to the last phrase of Micah’s: ‘and walking humbly with your God.’ This is most interesting to me this week. The rabbis tell us that this phrase specifically refers to walking in funeral and bridal processions. It’s a very curious concept for humility – or modesty. (the word is vgmv- hiphil). With weddings on my mind and funerals recently past, the idea that walking humbly or modestly with God is exemplified by participation in these two lifecycle events is fascinating.
On one hand, it seems strange to lump weddings and funerals, even despite British films like Four Weddings and a Funeral. But we do it all the time. In a part of the morning liturgy derived from the Talmud – that we looked at a few weeks ago – we learn that among the duties whose worth cannot be measured are both celebrating with brides (hachnasat challah) and accompanying the dead for burial (valyat ha’met).
I think it has to do with those moments of transformation: that in the face of such liminal states as kiddushin, the Jewish wedding – when two people commit to making a life as one family, and death, when we move from the realm of this world to the next place, we are in the presence of a holiness we generally miss in our day to day lives. There is something truly holy that happens at a wedding, as words – vows and blessings – transform people from the single state to the married state, and the happiness that fills the room is raw and bubbly. Remember, in our creation story, God creates the universe with words.
At a funeral procession, we too feel the power of something much beyond ourselves, and all we have are words – and our humble presence – to comfort.
At the same time, in both processions, we, the community serve as witnesses – to the transformation, to the comfort and joy. We watch the transformation occur, we are there to support and assist, as we can.
As Shakespeare said so eloquently – we act most Godly when we do what God does: just as God is holy, we are holy – as God feeds the hungry, so must we; as God clothes the naked, so must we; as God keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust, so must we. As God witnesses the vows people make that makes them partners in a kiddushin, a holy marriage, so do we. As God comforts the mourners, so must we.
But moments of transformation are all around us. They may not be as dramatic as a wedding or a funeral. They may be a new insight that changes how we treat our sisters or think our sisters treat us. Or the recovery from an illness. Or the awe of a beautiful sunset. Or winning – or losing – an all star game. Or starting a new camp. Or making a new friend. Or coming to a new synagogue for the first time. And so, walking humbly with our God, suggest the rabbis, means that we carry ourselves with that same humility or modesty we display at a wedding or funeral in our daily lives, recognize the power of the holiness present at each moment. May we feel that presence, and may it urge us to be present for others. Shabbat shalom.