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Shavuot (second day) 5769

2nd Day Shavuot (in the Diaspora)
(Habakkuk 2:20-3:19)
May 30, 2009
7 Sivan 5769

The Second Day of Shavuot (Habakkuk 2:20-3:19)

It is difficult for us to comprehend Habakkuk\’s response to the dire conditions described at the end of his prophecy: \”Though the fig tree does not bud and no yield is on the vine, though the olive crop has failed and the fields produce no grain, though sheep have vanished from the fold and no cattle in the pen; yet will I rejoice in the Lord, exult in the God who delivers me.\” (3:17-18) How can someone rejoice over such circumstances? Such a situations would seemingly prompt despair or at the very least a plaintive cry for relief!

This same ironic optimism is echoed in a midrash which associates these verses from Habakkuk with Abraham and Sarah\’s tragic childlessness: \”\’Though the fig-tree does not bud, etc.\’ (Hab. 3:17). This alludes to Abraham, as in the verse, \’I saw your fathers as the first-fruit in the fig-tree in its first season (Hos. 9:10). \’No yield on the vine\’ (Hab. 3:17), alludes to Sarah, as you read, \’Your wife shall be as a fruitful vine (Psalms 128:3). \’Though the olive crop has failed\’ (Hab. 3:17): the faces of those angels who gave the good tidings to Sarah shone like an olive: were they lying? No, but \’The fields (shedemoth) produced no grain\’ (Ibid.), which means, the withered breasts (shadayim methin) yielded no food. \’Though sheep have vanished from the fold\’ (Ibid.) has the same connotation as in the verse, \’And you, My flock, the flock that I tend, are men\’ (Ezek. 34:31). \’And no cattle in the pen\’ (Hab, 3:17), has the same meaning as in the verse, \’And Ephraim became a trained heifer, but preferred to thresh\’ (Hos. 10:11). [Here this would mean that Sarah thought that she would have no children in her home.] Sarah, however, exclaimed, \’What, am I to lose faith in my Creator! Heaven forbid! I will not lose faith in my Creator, for I will rejoice in the Lord, exalt in the God who delivers me\’ (Hab. 3, 18). The Holy One, blessed be He said to her: \’Since you did not lose your faith, I, too, will not give you cause to lose faith.\’ But rather, \’And the Lord remembered Sarah\’. (Genesis 21:1) (Bereshit Rabbah 53:3 Theodore Albeck ed. P. 556)

This message is a quintessentially Jewish message. In the face of all odds, we remain optimistic and, like Sarah, draw strength from our faith. This message infuses Shavuot – zeman matan Torateinu – the time of the giving of the Torah – the festival where we are all gerim – converts to the truth of God\’s Torah. Habakkuk\’s message perhaps lends new meaning to the question asked of converts: \”Our Rabbis taught: A (potential) convert who approaches to be converted at this time, they say to him: “Why have you decided to approach (us) to be converted? Do you not know that the Israelites at this time are pained, oppressed, harassed, and torn, and that afflictions come upon them?” If he says: “I know and am unworthy,” they accept him (or her) immediately.\” (Eruvin 47a)

About This Commentary

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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