The haftarah for the portion of Balak is the only one taken from the book of Micah. Micah was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, and lived about a hundred and thirty years before the destruction of the first Temple. His prophecies are similar to Isaiah’s, in that he foresees the destruction and the terrible exile, but also carries prophecies of redemption and rebuilding. In his rebuke, Micah particularly calls out the people for their failings in the realm of social justice.

The reading begins with prophecies regarding the time of Moshiach. The remnant of the Jewish people at the time will be compared to dew and rain: just as these cannot be hoped for from the hand of man, so too will the Jews not cast their lot with any human power, only with G‑d. According to many commentaries, this is a reference to the time following the “war of Gog and Magog”: the Jews at the time will be subdued and weakened, and will have no one to turn to other than to G‑d Himself.

Following this, however, the Jews will have a meteoric rise. They will rule at will over their enemies, just as a lion does over the animals in the field. The enemies of the Jews will be obliterated, and what will follow will be a time of peace and tranquility. Weapons, chariots or fortified cities will not be necessary anymore. Spiritually, the people will also experience a revival. G‑dliness will be open and revealed, hence there will be no temptation for seeking witchcraft and foreign powers in the form of idolatry.

After this uplifting prophecy, the verses take a change of tone. Micah, on behalf of G‑d, begins to contend with the people. “Listen now to what G‑d says,” Micah calls. G‑d is aggravated. The Jews seemed to totally forget the kindness G‑d had showed them throughout their history. He had taken them out of slavery in Egypt, provided for them, and given them magnificent leaders. Moses gave the Jews the Torah, Aaron atoned for them in the Sanctuary, and Miriam was given the gift and ability of leading the women. In particular, the prophet invokes the story of this week’s Parshah, when G‑d subverted the curses of Balaam and turned them into blessings. Although the Jews had sinned right afterwards with the daughters of Midian, G‑d still kept His word and brought them to the promised land. Now, a great number of Jews had just walked away from G‑d and His Torah. “What wrong did I do to you!” the prophet thunders in the name of His creator.

As if speaking on behalf of the people, the prophet proceeds to pose their probable answer. He wants to bring out a point, and does so in an ingenious way.

The response of the people is posed as their backing down in the face of their great G‑d. But in doing so, they demonstrate their unfortunate spiritual state, one on par with the contemporary pagans whose culture they had so mindlessly imbibed. If G‑d was grieved, then they obviously had to do more for Him. But what might that be? Thousands of rams? Rivers of oil? Their very own children as sacrifices? Just what does He want?

Indeed, they were barking up the wrong tree. The true G‑d is not bought off and “appeased” with gifts and donations, however lavish they may be. “He has told you, O man, what is good: what does G‑d require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G‑d.” That is what He wants.

When to Walk Humbly

The injunction to “walk humbly with your G‑d” has been one of the hallmarks of character that Jews have aspired to for all time. The Talmud1 understands this instruction to be particularly pertinent when performing two mitzvot: providing for the needs of a funeral, and helping with the needs of a wedding. Now, these are mitzvot that are almost impossible to conceal from others: there are usually several people involved with these endeavors, and at least some of them will usually know where the assistance is coming from. What the verse is telling us is that even in such a case, care should be taken that the mitzvah be done in a discreet manner. The Talmud concludes: “If this is the case with mitzvot that are usually done in the open, how much more so does this apply to deeds which are usually done discreetly.”

The Talmud2 records an aphorism that the sage Abayei was accustomed to say: “A person should always be artful in piety.” Chassidic thought interprets this “artfulness” to lie in the quest that one’s own piety not be noticed at all by others. Many stories are told of great sages—as well as ordinary people—who took great measures in concealing their true virtues, and who, if these were discovered, were greatly distressed.3 “There is nothing more beautiful than modesty,” states the Midrash.4

It is important to note, however, a caveat about this virtue. Often the yetzer hara (evil inclination) will push a person in the direction of doing something that on the face of things is pious, but in the long run will be counterproductive. In this case, opting to conceal one’s own mitzvot can have a negative effect in the following ways:

1. People often lead their lives by the example of others. When it comes to a mitzvah cause, people often look towards others and see whether, or to what degree, they should participate. Choosing to remain absent from the public eye may very well weaken others’ view of the importance of this cause. This applies especially to a person who is respected in his or her community. The more influence a person has, the more they have to be careful that their actions should not have a negative effect on their peers.5

2. The yetzer hara is a “master at his work.” Going off the right path begins one step at a time. Human nature is that we feel accountable to others; but if we choose to keep private what we do, then we may have no one whom we feel we have to answer to. Any good resolve which is kept away from the knowledge of others will be highly susceptible to losing momentum, and eventually to total disappearance. On the other hand, if a person is accustomed to doing mitzvot publicly, he can be held to account by his friends and peers.6

In this day and age, we suffer from spiritual weakness. Humility is a virtue; but as with all virtues, it must find its rightful place.