by Lewis John Eron
My father grew up in a time when students were still expected to memorize and recite texts. He knew by heart many English poems, long passages in Latin, bits of the Talmud, and many biblical verses. He had his favorites, however, which he would sometimes recite to impress or educate us. But perhaps his favorite was a biblical verse from the Prophet Micah, which begins with the Prophet’s rhetorical question; “With what should I approach the Eternal?” (Micah 6:6-8)
My father cherished Micah’s answer that when we come close to God, we need not bring gifts but present a way of being, an attitude towards life. In the prophet’s words, “God has told you, Adam (Human Being) what the Eternal requires from you: Only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
These words were so dear to my father that he asked for them to be placed on his gravestone. I know that for him, they encompassed the spiritual legacy he wished us to inherit. For him, justice, kindness, and humility were fundamental elements of a virtuous life.
A few weeks ago, on Shabbat Balak, I, once again, encountered Micah’s proclamation. It forms the concluding lines of the haftarah, the passage from the Prophets that parallels in imagery or theme the weekly Torah portion. Every year, at this season, as we go through the annual cycle of scriptural readings in the synagogue, my thoughts return to Micah’s words and my father’s teachings.
The Jewish tradition cherishes Micah’s pronouncement. Rabbinic literature and later authors cite them frequently, often as a summary of the teachings of the Torah. Micah’s three virtues, justice, kindness, and humility, encompass all of the mitzvot, those discreet actions that make God’s word real in this world. They describe the pattern of life.
As I reflected on these words over the past few weeks, I began to think of them not only as general principles for living, but also as principles for interpreting our scriptures, the foundational documents of our various and diverse spiritual traditions. For Western Religion, at least, and probably for all traditions that have a text at their core, knowing how to understand the text, often cherished as the repository of God’s word, is central to the individual’s and the community’s moral and spiritual lives. Through the teachings embedded in our sacred texts, we develop the patterns of thought and action that guide us in our understanding of ourselves, our relationships with others, and our place in creation. How we read scripture structures the way we live our lives, and the way we live our lives patterns the way we read scripture.
In Western Religion, Scripture speaks to us with authority, no matter how we might understand it, its history, its transmission, and its interpretation. To be honest with our faith traditions, we must bind ourselves to our respective scriptural heritages. We need to hear them, respond to them, and find ways of using them. As we read the sacred texts, we try to listen to the Divine voice behind the words and attempt to live in response to that voice.
But we have different scriptures, and our sacred texts are anthologies. In them, God seems to be speaking with many distinct voices to many different people. As individuals and communities of faith and practice, we come from different places, with different backgrounds, and at different moments in our life journeys and throughout history. The Divine One speaks many languages; all humans hear and understand things differently according to their unique talents and experiences.
How can we make sense of all this? How can we use our scriptures to guide our lives so that we may live in harmony with others both physically and spiritually, near and far? It is here that Micah’s prophetic words can be helpful. They can help us answer our fundamental question when we read our Scriptures: How do I come close enough to God to hear clearly what the Holy One is saying to me? Gifts and sacrifices will not work. Prayer itself is limited. But God only wants three things – (1) do justice, (2) love mercy, and (3) walk humbly with our God.
So, we need to ask ourselves:
First, does my reading and interpretation of sacred text promote tzedek – justice? Does it establish a situation that is fair to all people, to all who are created in the Divine Image, or does it favor or privilege some at the expense of others? Does it enable me to honor others as I seek to honor God? Does it enable me to find space for those different from me and those I already know and love?
Second, do my reading and interpretation of this text allow me to express chesed – that is, to be merciful, kind, loving, and loyal? Does it strengthen my bonds with others, or does it pull people apart? Does it help me support others? Does it foster peace, harmony, trust, and understanding?
Finally, am I reading this text with a sense of humility or arrogance? Do I think I can fully understand the Divine word, or is my comprehension necessarily limited by my fleeting moment in time and space? Does my scripture reading confirm what I already believe, or does it challenge me to expand my vision of myself and my world?
Scriptures serve to build and preserve communities. In Western religion, they are an essential part of our cultural and spiritual heritage. Tanak, the Two Testaments, and the Quran are foundational documents for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, respectively. These texts live within our respective communities in the stories we tell, the values we pursue, the celebrations of our lives, and the hopes that sustain us. We read them through the insights of the past and our own lived experiences.
But we live them in relationship with others, with some who share our texts but read them differently and with others who cherish other texts and stories. Our challenge is twofold. We must be honest with ourselves, our communities, and our traditions. The other is to honor those relationships and build a world of peace. How we do so depends on how we read our texts. Does our reading promote justice for all? Does our reading strengthen our ties to others? Does our reading open us to conversations with others as together we seek to discover the sustaining truths that we all need to hear? If “yes” is our answer, we are coming closer not only to other people but to God. Micah’s insight into what God truly wants can guide us.