Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Ethics of the Prophets

By Rabbi Oury Cherki, Machon Meir, Rabbi of Beit Yehuda Congregation, Jerusalem
Bible critics insist that the prophets guided the people of their generation about moral principles only and were not interested in religious rituals. Their proof, as is quoted by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari (Volume 2, 47), is from a verse in this week's Haftara: "Does G-d want to be appeased by thousands of rams, by tens of thousands of streams of oil, shall I give Him my firstborn as an atonement, the fruit of my womb to appease my soul? He tells you, mankind, what is good and what G-d wants from you – merely to do justice and to love kindness, and to go in humility with your G-d." [Micha 6:7-8].
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi gave the critics a worthy response. The prophets were talking to a society which had not even observed the most basic moral requirements. In such a culture, to become involved in exalted heavenly pursuits is nothing more than a travesty, which can be described by the verse, "a sacrifice by a wicked person is an abomination" [Mishlei 21:27]. This is not true for one who has acquired a basic level of morality, and a sacrifice by such a person is very welcome. "They will favorably be brought up on My Altar, and I will glorify My House of Splendor" [Yeshayahu 60:7].
And this makes it clear why the criticism of the sacrifices is juxtaposed to the actions of Bilam and Balak. "My people, just remember what Balak, the King of Moav, advised, and what Bilam replied to him" [Micha 6:5]. Bilam and Balak thought that offering sacrifices is something that is good in its own right even if it would serve such a terrible purpose as eradicating Yisrael, and they therefore brought more and more sacrifices. But in the end it was clear that the ethical principles that were upheld by the nation of Yisrael were much more important in setting the actions of the Divine guidance than the sacrifices by Bilam and Balak.
The exalted values operate within history through the nation of Yisrael, and they are the justification for its existence for all eternity. But they do not depend on the extent to which the nation remains loyal to them. Just the opposite may be true – at times it may seem to the casual observer that Bnei Yisrael do not adhere to the restrictions of general ethical behavior. However, one who sees the general viewpoint that can be seen from the tops of the mountains, "I will view him from the tops of the cliffs" [Bamidbar 23:9], can still say "How good your tents are, Yaacov" [24:5], even when Yisrael are camped in Shitim and turn to vain actions. Evidently this is what the prophet hinted at when he wrote, "From the Shitim to Gilgal" [Micha 6:5] – both when the people are their lowest level, that of Shitim, and when they are occupied with the exalted service in the Tabernacle at Gilgal.
The moral values which Yisrael is passing on to the world begin first of all with, "to do justice." That is, justice is a precursor that validates the trait of kindness. That is how the nation of Yisrael acts in its wars, whose purpose is to get back the land from those who stole it and to avenge the blood of those who were exploited. This then leads to "love of kindness," referring to a desire to do good to all of the creatures. And going in "humility with your G-d" is an expression of the highest possible role, to form a link between the world and the Divine. The secrets that are hidden from all the other creatures, which are the exclusive heritage of Bnei Yisrael, are what make them an appropriate channel for revelation to the entire world.

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