Haftarah The Second Day of Shavuot (Habakkuk 2:20-3:19)
Outside of Israel
June 13, 2016, 7 Sivan 5776
The sages often turned a critical eye to the messages imparted by the prophets. At times there were unusual words in a prophecy which caught their eyes, while at other times, prophets expressed messages which bothered them. In the case of Habakkuk, they were struck by both. In the second verse of the haftarah (3:1) which is the first verse of new prophecy, the message is introduced as “shigionot”, a word whose meaning is unknown. In addition, there are a number of verses in Habakkuk’s three chapters which were seen as provocative because they challenged God.
The following midrash builds upon these elements to create a dialogue in which Habakkuk prays before God after having chided Him: “Habakkuk directed his prayers to God, as it is written: ‘A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet’ (3:1) But what had he said previously? ‘I have heard your report and I was afraid’ (3:2) … Habakkuk came before God and God asked him what he wanted. Habakkuk replied that he had spoken mistakenly. He had foreseen that Hananel, Mishael, and Azariah would be cast into the fiery furnace and would be saved while Hananiah ben Teradyon and his companions would be burnt for the sake of the Torah and would not be saved. Habakkuk complained, saying before God: ‘Master of the World, these are righteous and those are righteous, these are pure and those are pure, these are holy and those are holy, these will be saved and those will not be saved. [The midrash then quotes a plaint from an earlier prophecy of Habakkuk:] ‘The law has failed and justice never emerges.’ (1:4) … At that point, God reveled Himself and said to Habakkuk: ‘You complain against Me? Isn’t it written: ‘A God of faithfulness and without iniquity’ (Deut. 32:4). To wit, Habakkuk replied: ‘I have been mistaken, as it said: ‘A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, upon words spoken mistakenly’ (Habakkuk 3:1)” (Midrash Tehillim 90:2;7)
Habakkuk calls God to task for the apparent inconsistency in how justice is meted out in the world. He asks why Daniel’s biblical friends are treated one way while sages who similarly stood up to proclaim God’s truth in a latter generation were treated otherwise. This seeming injustice irked the rabbinic author of this midrash who in turned used Habakkuk as his mouthpiece. It is a question which troubles sensitive souls in every generation. The midrash has God answer this question with a verse from the Torah proclaiming God’s ultimate justice which the midrash presumes is beyond human comprehension, implying that the believing human being must ultimately accept this as a caveat of existence. The word “shigionot” which can be read to include the root letters: shin, gimel, heh, meaning “to err” is taken to imply Habakkuk’s acknowledgement of the error implicit in his question.
The take away message for us is that the question is a valid one for which we may never be privy to an answer. Nevertheless, it is a question the sages felt religiously comfortable enough to have a prophet pose for God.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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