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   by Jacob Solomon

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The Prophet Habakkuk declares:

"I heard. My stomach trembled…
The day that was to be my rest,
Will turn to a day of affliction,
When they come against the people, to attack them."
(Habakkuk 3:16)

The short Book of Habakkuk fits neatly complements the contents of the first chapter of Ezekiel, read on the first day of Shavuot. Ezekiel sees a vision of G-d where his intense Presence transfers from Judea to a foreign land with the exiled Israelites. Habakkuk conveys that very Presence returning to the Holy Land, and utterly destroying its invaders. And whereas Ezekiel focuses on the vision of the glory of G-d through His celestial beings, Habakkuk's prophecy center on the effect that G-d has on mankind and the world.

Habakkuk is deeply disturbed by the unparalleled violence of the Babylonians - the nation that overthrew the might of the Assyrian empire and became the great power over the entire Middle East in the late seventh and sixth centuries BCE. Its many victims, of course, included not only Egypt, but also Judea and the First Temple.

He asks the age-old question of why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. "You (G-d), Whose eyes are too pure to behold evil, Who cannot bear to witness wrongdoing - why do You… watch in silence as the wicked devour those more righteous than they?" (1:13) G-d answers that He will dispense justice in good time, and meanwhile, "the righteous will live in their faith." (2:4) The Malbim states that this much-quoted phrase refers to individuals who do not attempt to calculate when the redemption will begin, but rather place their trust in G-d and wait patiently for the prophecies to be fulfilled.

That may help to explain the opening verse of the Haftara: 'G-d is in His holy abode. Let the entire world be silent before Him.' (2:20) G-d is looking all the time. However devastating and unpleasant it is to watch the wicked prospering at the expense of good people, He is still there. And his presence is palpable to those who have the sensitivity of spirit to perceive Him… So wait silently and do not protest…

The Haftara itself is a prayer of the Prophet Habakkuk - indeed it structurally resembles the Psalms, with a heading and a direction for the use of musical instruments. Rosenberg (The Haftara Cycle p.307) argues that it is unlikely that the text is an actual psalm sung in the Temple. It is more likely that Habakkuk adopted this form to stress his hope for the future, and that his prophesies, when realized, would be used as a hymn of praise and faith in the Temple of the future.

In his prayer, Habakkuk asks G-d to bring the downfall of the mighty Babylonian Empire and thus alleviate the great suffering of the Israelites. In reply, G-d will come back from 'Teman, from Mount Paran… although His majesty covers the skies, His splendor fills the Earth.' (3:3) Teman is in the south, and in modern day terms, that name is applied to Yemen. G-d will punish 'the tents of Kush and Midian' (3:7), the tent-dwelling nations of Arabia that stand in His way. Nature will halt in respect to G-d, and submit itself to His will. 'Sun and moon will stand still…' (3:11) as G-d rushes forward to save His people and His anointed (3:13) - the future Messiah, according to both the Radak and the Malbim. G-d's wrath against the nations who harmed Israel is so frightening that the Prophet himself trembles when he sees its extent in his vision. And even nature freezes in its own path: 'the fig tree does not blossom, there is no yield on the vines… flocks are cut off from the folds, there is no cattle in the stalls.' (3:17)

However, destruction and desolation will not last forever. Civilization will settle down to a new order, and Israel will get new strength. 'Yet I will rejoice in G-d… the L-rd G-d is my strength… and directs me upon my heights.' (3:18) Many commentators understand this concluding verse as Habakkuk writing in the name of the entire Israelite nation, who will thank G-d for having saved them in the battles preceding the Final Redemption (Radak).

Unlike other prophets, the text says nothing explicit about the origins and personal background of the Prophet Habakkuk. However he appears to be writing just before Babylon rose to become the great power of the region. He predicts both its rise from humble origins and it cataclysmic fall at the hands of the Almighty. That would place his prophecies in the late seventh century BCE, a few decades before Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

D'var Torah

The text of the Haftara brings detailed illustrations of the nature of the destruction of Israel's enemies before the Final Redemption. Given the background and extent of Israel's sufferings, Habakkuk ought to have been pleased that natural justice would finally catch up with civilization's bullies. True, King Solomon urges 'Do not rejoice when your enemies fall' (Proverbs ). But why should Habakkuk personally fear for the Jews when the events before the Final Redemption take place? Why should his 'stomach tremble', his 'lips quiver'? Why does 'decay enter (his) bones'? And for the Israelites as a whole: why would that 'day that was to be' his 'rest' turn into 'a day of affliction when the enemy come against the people to attack them'? (3:16)

The Malbim explains the background to the passage as follows. Part of the beauty of the Haftara is its timelessness. It may be applied to the fall of the Babylon; it may equally be related, as the Malbim develops, to the Final Redemption. Habakkuk trembled as he was given a glimpse into the future, where he foresaw the great afflictions Israel would endure in the years immediately preceding the coming of the Messiah. He even heard the words the Israelites would intensely pray whilst undergoing deepest suffering - as the Israelite nation have a tradition that affliction foreshadows redemption. Thus the sound of those prayers and the vision of the massacres, and terrible ordeals they would be forced to endure, made the prophet's very soul shudder.

The Alshich went even further. He explains that the Israelites needed to suffer: to undergo trials and tribulations as a preparation for the Redemption itself. Unless a sinner sincerely repents, G-d does not absolve him from Divine justice. So were He even to grant Habakkuk's wish that they would not be punished by the Babylonians (or by extension, their counterparts in later generations), they would nevertheless incur Heaven-ordained afflictions. It was revealed to him that it would come in the form of a severe famine - an even harsher death that the sword (as in Lamentations 4:9). And the actual date of redemption - 'the day that was to be my rest' would turn into a 'day of affliction'. Thus it was shown to Habakkuk that the Israelite return to the Holy Land would not be the end of their suffering: they would go through many painful events until the final arrival of the Messiah.

The following story - within living memory, appears to illustrate the type of vision Habakkuk saw. It was related by Stanislaw Sattler, a survivor of Auschwitz. He recalls a fellow prisoner in that death camp telling him the story of a certain tzadik - righteous servant of G-d. When Sattler asked that gentleman: 'when will this murdering end?' he was told the following story:

(Some time before to Holocaust) … a tzadik lived in an Ukrainian village and before his death as an old man, he revealed what people wanted to know, but should not. Knowing, said the tzadik, inflicts pain, suffering, and distress. Sadness works against hope and hope is 'bitachon' (trust in the Almighty)… It is better when people do not know.

But some people forced him to talk, so he went on to predict the coming of the Messiah. 'The period preceding this, however, would be a bloody time of wars, fire, famine, epidemics, revolutions, and chaos. Periods of violent changes would wipe out the existing order along with the guilty and the innocent alike. The angel of death would ride high during that period… An independent Poland, which would last twenty years, would give way to the most terrible period of death… Innocent men, women, and children would perish, and still death would not be satisfied. Woe to the people of this period!' A stream of tears convulsed the body of the tzadik, and nothing else he said was possible to understand.

Later on he continued: 'After this period, Israel would get back the Promised Land. The survivors would return from exile, but it would take years to settle down and the rebirth would be painful. There are things which we can't understand. The essence of G-d's rule is too difficult for we ordinary people to grasp.' (Sattler S. Prisoner of 68 Months - Buchenwald and Auschwitz 1981).

However the prophet urges people to remain steadfast during those hard times; in the following words:

'The fig tree does not blossom, there is no yield on the vines.

'The olive produce is lean, the fields produce no harvest.

'Flocks are cut off from the folds, there will be no cattle in the stalls.' (3:17)

As the Malbim explains, it teaches that when the Israelite nation's condition will be at its lowest, they will be approaching the Full Redemption: words of great encouragement for today. As Habakkuk continues:

'Yet I (the Israelite nation: Rashi, Radak) will rejoice in G-d… who is my strength.

'He makes my feet like the deer's, and directs me upon my heights' (Jerusalem: Radak, Malbim). (3:18-19) May that be fully realized, quickly, and in our times.

Some of the material was based on Rosenberg S.G.: The Haftara Cycle (2000), pp. 297-305.


G-d spoke to Moses saying, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them, 'A man or a woman who shall dissociate himself by taking a Nazerite vow of abstinence for the sake of G-d… shall abstain from wine… and a razor shall not pass over his head'" (6:1-4)

The long central section of Parashat Naso includes the sections dealing with Sotah (the suspected unfaithful wife) and Nazir (taking on an additional personal status of holiness, prohibiting having a haircut or drinking wine).

The Talmud (Sotah 2a) brings the tradition that the reason the topic of Nazir follows that of Sotah is to teach that anyone who saw the harsh, degrading ordeal that the Sotah was put through should abstain from wine because it can bring a person to commit adultery.

Several problems appear in this very famous and much-quoted statement from Chazal.

Firstly the ordeal of the Sotah ought to have the reverse effect: it should deter, not promote further adultery. The person saw the adulteress' dramatic death from the bitter waters within the Temple precinct, causing 'the thigh to collapse and the stomach to swell' (5:22). That would make the most hardened participant in adultery think twice before ever doing it in the future. Why should he, of all people, have to take on that additional status of being a Nazir?

Secondly, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, the reason a Sotah is put through such a difficult process is for the purpose of restoring trust in the marriage. Since the husband suspects his wife, there is no longer trust between them, and a marriage without trust cannot stand. He proves this with the law that if the husband dies before the woman drinks the bitter waters, she no longer has to go through the process. That shows that the Sotah ordeal has less to do with determining her guilt or lack of guilt, and more to do with restoring the trust and peace between the husband and wife. So if wife died through the ordeal, the witness saw the gravity of breaking the bond between husband and wife. And if the wife survived the bitter waters, the witness likewise saw the seriousness with which the Torah treats an adulteress - even a suspect one. Why does he need that extra reinforcement by being recommended to become a Nazerite?

Furthermore, the Torah appears to view that a Nazerite is holy; to the extent that the 'crown of G-d is on his head' (6:7). Yet when a Nazerite brings an offering for inadvertent ritual contamination, the priest effects atonement for his 'sinning against the soul' (ibid. 11). The Talmud (Nazir 19a) brings the tradition that the actual sin was his own self-deprivation of wine, by becoming a Nazerite in first place. How can the Torah describe something as holy on one hand and as a sin on the other?

In looking at the issues raised by these questions, there is a certain type of sin in the background. This is elaborated below.

Take the case of Chatzke, a traditional Yeshiva bachur, who is also a heavy smoker. He yearns for a cigarette on Shabbat. Such is Chatzke's background that will wait until after Shabbat to light up, even if desperate. It would never occur to him to do anything else - least of all to go inside his room and light up when no-one is looking.

Let us imagine that his chavruta (learning partner) - also addicted to smoking - did actually succumb to the extreme temptation, and - just once - smoked on Shabbat. He was found out, ostracized, disgraced, and thrown out of the Yeshiva. No doubt that would adversely affect any of his future shidduch (matchmaking) prospects. But on the next occasion Chatzke gets the urge, he himself will be tempted to stray from the straight and narrow for the first time. He will think, 'well - my best friend did it' - so the option to actually 'have a quick drag on the quiet' on Shabbat had been brought into existence.

This idea helps us to understand the Torah's endorsement of people taking on the stringency of becoming Nazerites when they saw the consequences of adultery. However dreadful the death was, what lingers in people's minds is the very fact that marital infidelity took place. It exists in the community. It affects the general public as a strike at the very heart of the Torah way of life - the unity of the family and home life - the source of security for the children - with potentially disastrous results.

This situation is far from ideal, but it is the reality. In order to prevent the existence of adultery sliding into a toleration for adultery, the Torah recommends those who saw the sotah's ordeal to 'go the other way' - even to the degree of sinning against the soul - by depriving oneself of legitimate pleasure and activity.

This principle is unfortunately with us today - in an enlarged form. One example: today many people in the wider community recoil at the current practice of mechitzot and segregated seating at weddings within strictly Orthodox circles. [Indeed, to my knowledge, such practices were virtually unknown in the German-Jewish Orthodox community until a generation ago.] Especially since the 1950s, however, the standards of public morality in the general community have fallen. A person today easily contacts messages condoning fornication and even adultery through the mass media, and in the public immodesty of dress and behavior. Given this background, it could be suggested that however sad and regrettable it is to divide families at weddings, it has to be done to avoid other contacts between the sexes for the wrong reasons.

So these mechitzot, it may be argued, reflect a very sad state of affairs in our society. Those who impose them make themselves holier by doing so - creating 'happy gatherings that divide people'. That may be understood in the light of the previous discussion. But it is still a negative product of the moral state of the times we live in… It is a 'sin' - though a necessary imposition - against the soul of the Jewish people.

May we merit in building a Torah society where self-control based on the Learning of Torah and Fear of Heaven, rather that sanctions, guide social relationships and individual practices.

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.


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