Second Day of Shavuot – Diaspora
At first glance, the association of this haftarah with the festival of Shavuot seems strange. Habbakuk’s prophecy ostensibly is a prayer for redemption from the oppressive hands of the Chaldeans. It begins with a prayer by the prophet to revive His redemptive powers and to recall His compassion for His people. Then the prophet presents an exalted vision of how God will conquer Israel’s enemies. This vision begins with the verse: “God is coming from Teman [the south], The Holy One from Paran [also the south]. His majesty covers the skies, His splendor fills the earth.” (verse 3)
This verse, which describes God as an exalted redeemer, is radically transformed by the rabbinic tradition from its peshat (simple) meaning and becomes for the rabbis a portrayal of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This is especially evident in the following midrash: “The Rabbis told [the following parable: This can be compared] to a king who wanted to marry his daughter to someone from a foreign country. The citizens of his country said to the king: ‘Our master, the king, it would be more praiseworthy and appropriate that your daughter should stay near you within the realm of the kingdom.’ The king replied to them: ‘What does it matter to you.’ They answered: ‘Perhaps you will go to visit her and go to live near her in the other kingdom because of your love for her [and we will be without our beloved king]. The king said to them; ‘I will nevertheless marry my daughter to someone from another kingdom, but I promise you that I will continue to dwell among you in this kingdom.’ So too, when the Holy One Blessed be He decided to give the Torah to [the children of] Israel, the ministering angels said to Him: ‘Master of the Universe, whose glory [the Torah] is in the heavens (see Psalms 8:2). Is it not a joy, is it not glorious, is it not praiseworthy to you that the Torah stay in heaven.’ God asked them: ‘What does it matter to you?’ They responded: ‘Perhaps tomorrow You will cause the Shechinah [Your divine presence] to dwell in the world [together with Your beloved Torah, leaving the heavens without the divine presence].’ God said to them: ‘I intend to give My Torah to those who dwell in the world, but I shall continue to dwell in the heavens. I intend to give my daughter [the Torah] with her ketubah – her wedding contract [Israel’s guarantee to observe the Torah] – to someone in another country [the children of Israel who dwell in the world] so that she [the Torah] will be honored together with her husband [the children of Israel] for her beauty and for her loveliness, for she is the king’s daughter and they will honor her [for this reason], but I [God] will continue to dwell with you in the heavens.’ Who explained this? The prophet Habbakuk, as it is written: ‘His [God’s] glory remained in the heavens, but His praise [the Torah] filled the earth” (Habbakuk 3:3) [see above for its simple translation] (adapted from Song of Songs Rabbah 8:11)
The transformed interpretation of this verse provides the impetus for this midrash to express an important message for Shavuot. The Torah, God’s most precious possession, is His gift to us so that we constantly share His presence. Our commitment to a life of Torah is the greatest gift that we can give God in return.
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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