The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. What is its attraction? Most likely, it is due to the periodic interjection of small but highly noticeable quips exhorting the people to the most basic of all human traits – to be a good person. These quips come up so often, in the Chumash, in the Prophets, in the Writings – everywhere, that they seem almost like a Biblical version of advertisements. They are there to remind the millions of future readers of the Good Book that this is what it’s all about.
Among the numerous quotes stressing righteousness, we have selected one in particular, not because it hits the nail on the head more than the others, but because it emphasizes the centrality of the issue. The prophet Micah, who lived about the same time as Isaiah (around 700 BCE) and witnessed great destruction among his wayward people, belonged to the somewhat obscure group of prophets known as the 12 Minor Prophets. Many on this list, including Micah, are hardly known even among Jews who are otherwise well educated in Torah knowledge. If one were to take a random stroll into a modern yeshiva (institute of higher learning for Jewish men) and ask about some intricate detail of Jewish law, there is no question that not only would an answer be forthcoming, but a debate would probably ensue over the different interpretations. However, if one were to close the encounter with a request for a quote from Micah, the response would likely be a blank stare. It is simply not on the recommended reading list.
If one of the guys does manage to dig deep into his memory, the following (6:6-8) is probably what he’ll quote to you: “With what shall I come before Hashem, and bow before the high God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? Does Hashem desire thousands of rams and tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my sin, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, Man, what is good, all that Hashem seeks from you – do justly, and love of righteousness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah was in the midst of one of the typical harangues that are found all over the Prophets. The Israelites were again straying from their task - whoring after false gods and the like, delving into witchcraft, ignoring the plight of the widow and the orphan, and just being overall jerks. The standard atonement for all these grave sins was to bribe Hashem with an overwhelming assortment of sacrifices, as if God were some meat-hungry deity who could be distracted from the real issue if He just had some fat dripping from his divine chin. Well, Micah put an end to that one. But what was he really saying? What is Micah’s eternal message? What is good? What does God seek from us?
Let’s look at what Micah actually says is God’s singular demand of us. There are exactly three requirements: do justly, love righteousness, and walk humbly with your God. Let’s take these three one at a time, starting with doing justly. This is neither as easy nor as complicated as it may seem. To ‘do justly’ one need not be involved in law enforcement or judging monetary claims. It is something that every single one of us has to confront at virtually every single waking hour of our lives. Are you being fair? Are you being straight? Or, are you playing games and hoping to get away with it? There is not one small aspect of our lives that does not involve some issue of being fair, just, or straight in some manner. It’s pretty easy to find injustice in almost every corner of modern society, but it’s entirely different when it comes to looking ourselves in the mirror to see if the reflection we see staring back is straight or crooked.
What about the second item on the list – love of righteousness? This odd phrase does not stress the act of kindness but the attitude towards kindness, stating unequivocally that God desires us to truly love kindness. So we’re not talking about simply performing some random act of kindness every once in a while. It’s not about helping somebody out when the mood moves you or it happens to be convenient. Micah is not pushing ‘feel good’ experiences. He means loving kindness – being so into it that you can’t go a day without some genuine giving of yourself to others. Loving it means really feeling drawn to it, almost desperately craving it, hoping that others share your intense longing for it. Putting it in a nutshell, it is the choice between being selfless versus being selfish. To whatever degree you choose the former over the latter, this is the degree that you love kindness.
As far as Micah’s third item – ‘walk humbly with your God’ – there is much room for speculation. Why is this on this list in the first place? It seems to have nothing to do with classic ‘goodness’. In a way it appears almost as an afterthought, like, ‘Oh yeah, and while your at it, don’t let it get to your head.’
Perhaps that is exactly what Micah did mean. Genuine humility is a precious commodity, doled out in small measure to those who truly seek it. We all suffer from ego trips at various times of our lives. For some of us, it’s a minor inconvenience; for others, it’s a way of life. The biggest ego trip of them all, for those who have made it this far on the ‘goodness’ scale, is letting one’s own goodness infiltrate the ego. While the ‘feel good’ sensation is a marvelous bonus for a random act of kindness or a simple act of fairness, it does run the danger of becoming the real motivation for doing such acts. “Walk humbly with your God” – when you are ‘doing justly’ and ‘loving kindness’, don’t let it get to your head. Ultimately, it is God who demands these noble acts from you; it is God who tells you what is the true good in life. So when you manage to succeed in truly being fair and sincerely loving kindness, make sure you remember that you are not God.
These three items paint a picture that only becomes complete when all three are combined. ‘Doing justly’ is wonderful, but it sometimes must be tempered with the need to ‘love kindness’. The same is true in the other direction. Both of these, however, make no impact on the ‘doer’ or ‘lover’ if that person cannot ‘do’ or ‘love’ in a humble manner. By the same token, humility is very nice but ultimately worthless without a genuine and active concern for the welfare of others. All three together do indeed paint a portrait of the exact person Micah says that God is seeking – a person who is righteous. Righteousness is not just being ‘just’, nor is it bestowing indiscriminate love on others. Sometimes, being ‘just’ isn’t the right course; and sometimes the love of kindness needs to be tough love. The righteous person is the one who knows when the situation calls for justice, and when it calls for kindness. But this person also knows that though such wisdom may be godly, it does not make him or her God.
The person who is able to navigate through the social and emotional minefields demanded of true righteousness has achieved something else that is suggested in the verse from Micah – walking with God. This very Biblical expression is as succinct a statement of the purpose of life as can be found. We saw a similar expression in that parallel verse from the Chumash – ‘What does God ask of you’. There it was described as ‘walking in God’s ways’. This statement of Micah is an expansion of that phrase. This is the way God walks. To walk with God means to do deeds in a hidden manner, to achieve without needing to be recognized and praised. The truly righteous person shuns the limelight, seeing it as a distraction from the true goal. Walking humbly with God is the only way to walk with God, being as God walks along hidden roads.
It seems pretty difficult to walk with God, difficult enough that most of us would be turned off before we even got started. Who really wants to pursue some elusive goal that has vague rewards, an unclear path, and the odds are heavily stacked against success? Well it turns out that things may not be as difficult as they seem. We have buried within us hidden powers that we generally call upon only at certain moments. These are the ‘moments of truth’, when we sense some glimpse, however, fleeting, of ultimate purpose in our lives. It is at these moments that the true person emerges, even if only for an instant. The ability to withstand social pressure, the strength to overcome laziness, the will to go the extra mile for someone who wouldn’t or couldn’t return the favor – these are those hidden powers. Some people use them all the time until it becomes a kind of second nature. These people have genuinely earned the title ‘walking with God’, whether they want to be called so or not.
Perhaps Micah himself has provided us with a kind of key to opening up the ‘gates of righteousness’. They key is that last phrase, ‘walk humbly with your God’. Maybe that phrase is pointing out an answer to some very relevant questions. How does one actually achieve righteousness? How in the world am I expected to love doing kindness when hardly anybody around me values such an attitude, and I myself am not too thrilled with it, except when I am the recipient? Well, here’s the answer: be humble. The major obstacle to righteousness, to being a good person, one who is fair and just, one who sincerely wants to help others, may very well be that thing right smack in the middle of our personalities – the ego.
Are you looking for a good challenge in life, a solid hill that you can look back at someday and tell yourself that you climbed? Well there’s one waiting for you right in your own back yard. Try deflating your ego a bit. It’ll probably be the most meaningful thing you’ve done in many a year. It’s an essential step on the road to righteousness. God is always looking for walking partners, who are willing to help make the world a better place with no agenda of getting recognized. Think of it as taking a stroll with God.
Food for Thought
Biblical goals like righteousness and walking with God are not popular today. It is not clear if they were ever very popular, even during Biblical times. Why are they so uninteresting? What can we, the 21st century heirs of Micah and his cohort prophets, do to make these unpopular and uninteresting goals more popular and interesting?
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