This is Shabbat HaAtzma’ut – the Shabbat of Independence, at least in the US. This could be a week when we pray for freedom. This could be a week when we pray for joy. This could be a week when we pray for hamburgers, or for fireworks to stop terrifying our pets. But it seems that the world had a different idea for this week. This week our prayers are not so fluent; they are as broken as our hearts. Teenagers Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and now 16-year-old Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir are the latest victims of extremist violence in Israel. On this Shabbat, we see the values we treasure as Americans twisted and distorted abroad – three teenagers taken in the name of freedom, liberty, independence; "justice" claims a fourth. When answers cannot be found in our hearts, we look to our sacred texts for guidance.
This week we read parashat Balak from the Book of Numbers (Bemidbar, or "In the Desert" in Hebrew). For a book that skeptics criticize as the repository of miscellaneous unwanted stories and law, we have arrived at an oasis in this desert. Our parasha tells a dramatic tale, and it leaves us with one of the most famous quotes from the Book of Numbers. It is a gaffe so precious and succinct that if a politician said its equivalent today, cable news would loop it for a week. When the foreign prophet Balaam sets out to curse the Israelites, he says instead: “mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov” – “How good are your tents, O Jacob!” How foreign and distant is Balaam’s message this week.
An ancient master-orator long ago wrote the perfect sermon to accompany this parasha, and the rabbis set it as this week’s Haftara. Included are the first eight verses of chapter six of the prophetic book Micah. In a week like this, we need a prophet – someone who Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described as one who can inspire others to rethink their lives, one who can rage with anger against wrongdoing. Micah teaches, in his own age of wickedness, “mah tov” – what, exactly, is “good”?
The prophet begins:
קוּם רִ֣יב אֶת־הֶהָרִ֔ים וְתִשְׁמַ֥עְנָה הַגְּבָע֖וֹת קוֹלֶֽךָ׃
– Come, present [My] case before the mountains, and let the hills hear you pleading.” From the prophets’ rhetorical arsenal, Micah uses a lawsuit of divine proportion. The covenant between God and humanity is examined while the rest of creation serves as judge and jury.
שִׁמְע֤וּ הָרִים֙ אֶת־רִ֣יב יי וְהָאֵתָנִ֖ים מֹ֣סְדֵי אָ֑רֶץ
כִּ֣י רִ֤יב לַֽיי עִם־עַמּ֔וֹ וְעִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל יִתְוַכָּֽח׃
– Hear, O mountains, the case of God! Listen, firm foundations of the earth! For Adonai has a case against God’s people, a suit against Israel.” As one scholar so aptly describes it, “The earthly cosmos, which outlasts human nations, is called to be witness to [God’s] dialogue with his people.” When violations of our covenant with God are so severe, and when humanity is lost, the land itself is called to arbitrate. The lowest depths of the earth and the heights of the highest mountains can no longer stand idle, so when we fail to pursue justice they are summoned.
Surprisingly, God’s argument opens with “עַמִּ֛י – my people! –מֶה־עָשִׂ֥יתִי לְךָ֖ – what wrong have I done you?” Who is on trial? Why is this a speech of self-defense? God is angry – the covenant has been violated, after all! Rabbi Heschel hears “reluctance and sorrow in that anger. It is as if God were apologizing for His severity, for His refusal to be complacent to iniquity.” Here, both parties of this sacred covenant stand trial in their own way: God and humanity.
Micah truly understands us. Who among us has not asked, “Why, God?” when searching in vain for meaning in tragedy. And so God responds, “What hardship have I caused you? Testify against Me.”
As the trial comes to a close, God invokes this week’s parashah. “עַמִּ֗י – My people – זְכָר־נָא֙ מַה־יָּעַ֗ץ בָּלָק֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מוֹאָ֔ב – remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you – וּמֶה־עָנָ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּע֑וֹר – and how Balaam son of Beor responded to him.” Remember: “Mah tofu ohalecha ya’akov – How good are your tents, O Jacob!”
In Micah we are shown something that we’ve missed: goodness. Seeking justice without goodness is precisely what leads us from one tragedy to the next, as Muhammad Abu Khdeir was murdered in reaction to the murder of Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal. When we are urged “tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue,” we cannot forget the words that follow: “l’ma’an tich’yeh – so that you may live.” These deaths, then, are truly the perversion of justice, devoid of any trace of goodness.
The grieving family of Naftali Fraenkel issued a statement shortly after the funeral: "אין הבדל בין דם לדם – There's no difference between blood and blood." Murder is murder, whatever the nationality and age.
"אין הצדקה, אין סליחה, ואין כפרה – There is no justification, no forgiving, and no atonement for murder." Muhammad’s father echoed, "Whether Jew or Arab, who can accept the kidnapping and killing of his son or daughter? I call on both sides to stop the bloodshed.”
We are lost. We are so lost that “Mah tovu – how good” is no longer a proclamation, but rather it is a question which Micah answers for us. “הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב – God has told you human beings what is good, וּמָֽה־יי דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ – and what Adonai requires of you – כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ– only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.”
As our Rabbi and 36 of our congregation arrived in Israel today, we pray for our holy land. We pray because this was a week when the world could not answer “mah tovu?” – what is good?
D'var Torah originally delivered July 4, 2014 at Temple Beth Tikvah.
 See, e.g., Martin Noth, Numbers: A Commentary, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968).
 Hans Walter Wolff, Micah: A Commentary, Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990), 173-74.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007), 100.