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Parashat Huqqat-Balaq

June 30, 2009

Judaism’s Prime Directive

By Irwin Huberman

There have been many attempts in our tradition to boil down the
entire Torah into one clear directive.

Over the generations, Jews and those from other faiths have wrestled with the difficult question, “what exactly does God want from me?”

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells the story of three persons who wished to convert to Judaism. In each case, they were initially rejected by the scholar Shammai, known for his strictness, but they were later accepted and converted by the more lenient Hillel who, when asked to describe the essence of the Torah “on one foot” responds, “What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

While Hillel’s famous words are indeed wise and inspiring, they largely pertain to person-to-person relationships.

What about our relationship with God? Indeed, is there a directive in our tradition which can serve as a Jewish mission statement for every day living?

A candidate for this prime Jewish directive is presented to us at the close of this week’s haftarah, as we complete the reading the double parashah (Torah portion), Huqqat-Balaq. And these words, attributed to the prophet Micah twenty seven hundred years ago, resonate today as we strive to establish and maintain a moral center in our lives.

Indeed, what does God want from us?

According to the closing sentence of this week’s haftarah, “Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
(Micah 6-8).

The statement is so powerful, that the Talmud implies (Makkot 24a), that when organizing and considering the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot (commandments), all roads lead to Micah. In “reducing” the number of mitzvot to these three principles, the Talmud sends us a clear message that the living of life and the performance of mitzvot are based on decency, kindness and discreet activity.

Influencial Jewish theologian and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1887 -1929) wrote that while justice and goodness are goals yet to be accomplished, humility before God is the unconditional starting point of true living.

We live in a world where religion often serves as a basis for conflict and disagreement. Human beings are often prone to public religious displays, or to imply that one’s own religion or denomination is superior to another. But as Micah’s words remind us, one’s relationship with God is a personal one which begins with modesty and humility.

There exists within Judaism and within all religions a collective richness within our diversity. As the founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi suggests, each religion represents a unique organ of the global human body.

The key therefore is mutual respect, and to achieve and perfect our own relationship with God, before we fix our attention on others.

As we work individually and collectively within Judaism to repair a damaged world, the words of Micah send a clear message that the pursuit of justice and a perfect world begins in our hearts, and in our reflective relationship with God.

While public displays and the performance of rituals are important components of religious expression, Micah’s words indeed inspire us that true piety begins in places which are invisible to the world.

It begins with a modest relationship with God.

And from this prime directive lies the key to the pursuit of justice and goodness, and the repair of an often imperfect world.


Irwin Huberman is a rabbinical student at AJR, and spiritual leader at Congregation Tifereth Israel, Glen Cove, New York.