Second Day Of Shavuot
Shavuot. “Z’man Matan Torateinu.” And, given that we see these days as the time when we received the Torah’s laws, (when we heard the ten pronouncements directly from Hashem at Har Sinai)) we would expect Chazal to choose a prophetic section that, in some way, connected to that historical event. This is certainly true of the haftarah that is read on the first day of Shavuot, in which the prophet describes his heavenly vision of Hashem’s throne, a vision that links to the theophany experienced by Israel at the foot of Sinai.
But the haftarah we read on the second day of Shavuot seems to have little to do with the chag itself. This selection, taken from the prophecies of Chabakuk, is one quite difficult to understand. The Tanach relates very little about the navi—omitting his parentage, his tribal affiliation or the era during which he functioned—and the message his offers in the three p’rakim is a challenging one. It is for these reasons that I feel it important to try and explain the message of Chabakuk and the significance of his third chapter, the only haftarah we read from his Sefer, and from which we read on Shavuot.
The prophet is a unique and fascinating personality. Scholars agree that he prophesied during the final decades of the Southern Kingdom, as did Yoel and Nachum. It was the time of Assyrian dominance and the navi laments the fact that, despite the evils they committed—God had not punished them. Where, he cried, was Hashem’s justice? God responds by promising that Babylonia would be His rod of punishment, who would conquer Assyria and who would then punish Israel for her injustices.
The navi attempts to defend his people by pointing out that Babylonia’s evils were far greater than Israel’s—that they were more corrupt and more violent! How can a holy God use such a corrupt nation as His instrument of justice??? Where is Hashem’s justice?
The remarkable challenges that Chabakuk places before God, echoes the question of the ages: Why do the wicked flourish while the righteous suffer? And this is what makes Sefer Chabakuk so unique among the sifrei nevi’im. The prophet raises the most basic challenge for any believer and uses it to defend Israel! The navi looks to make sense of the works of Hashem that, to most humans, make no sense. And, like Avraham before him, he wonders why the Divine Judge does not (seemingly) act justly.
God responds, and promises that the wicked empire of Babylonia would eventually fall and suffer punishment. He convinces Chabakuk that He is well aware of their corrupt behavior, even detailing the horrors perpetrated by the Babylonian empire. However, Hashem emphasizes, the devout must have faith that there will be justice, Divine Justice … but not immediate justice. All nations will be accountable to Hashem’s justice—even those who were chosen to be God’s instrument to punish other wicked nations. But the righteous must have the faith and belief in this truth.
So, what does this have to do with Shavuot? Why is this read on the second day of this chag?
Well, it isn’t. Only the third perek is read. And that chapter is the reason why we read this selection.
This final chapter of Sefer Chabakuk is made up of the prophet’s prayer, “Tefillah LaChabakuk HaNavi…” In it, the prophet depicts the great power and might of Hashem, Who controls nature and, due to that, has the ability to punish the sinful nations—a clear link to the earlier p’rakim. And, although he makes mention of “shevu’ot mattot,” that phrase refers to the “oaths” that God made to the Israelite tribes and not to the chag of Shavuot itself. Rather, our rabbinic scholars saw the association of Chabakuk’s prayer to Shavuot within the opening verses that depict the punishing arm of God as coming from Teman, the south, from Mt. Paran. He then continues to describe Hashem’s awesome power that would overwhelm nations and His glory that would fill the earth. And, as Rav Shimshon Rapha’el Hirsch explains, all of navi’s imageries here were meant to hark back to the events at a Sinai: God’s revelation at a mountain accompanied with His great power and His awe-inspiring glory.
It is this portrayal of Hashem’s future revelation that had Chazal establish this haftarah for Chag Shavuot, the anniversary of God’s revelation at Sinai. And, given the prophet’s disclosure that God’s justice is always complete though not always immediate, we must realize how fortunate we are to read this selection—even if only once a year—and challenge ourselves to read and absorb the important message Chabakuk leaves for us.
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.