Background to the Haftarah

The prophet Habakkuk lived during the time of Menashe (Manasseh), king of Judea.1 During this period, G‑d decided that the Temple would be destroyed and the Jewish people would be exiled. In this small but penetrating book, we read of Habakkuk’s reaction to the Jewish suffering that he foresaw.

Different prophets reacted in different ways to visions of an ominous future for their people. Habakkuk was one of those who initially could not bear to see it. The first chapter of his book is a deep protest, a painful demand as to how it is possible that the good suffer and the wicked prosper.

Our sages2 tell us that Habakkuk was one of those challenged the Almighty in an open and unrestricted way. “He saw [with prophetic vision] Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah go into the fiery furnace and be saved,3 but then he saw R. Chanina ben Tradyon and his colleagues be burned in fire [by the Romans].4 Upon seeing this, Habakkuk cried out in anguish and said: Master of the universe, both these groups of men are righteous, both these groups of men are pure; but these are saved and the others are burned! ‘Why do you allow me to see iniquity, and You look at evil deeds! That is why the Torah is weakened and justice never emerges!’”5

Even if the righteous are not subject to torment, it is still often the case that the wicked have the upper hand. And so, says the Midrash, Habakkuk continued haranguing his Creator: “Take Nebuchadnezzar, an uncircumcised and defiled being, and Daniel, a holy and pure individual. Yet it is Nebuchadnezzar who is [promoting Daniel by] dressing Daniel in purple.6 Take Achashverosh, an uncircumcised and defiled being, and Mordechai, a holy and pure individual. Yet it is Achashverosh who is [promoting Mordechai by] dressing Mordechai in purple.7 The same is true with Pharaoh and Joseph. ‘Since the wicked surround the righteous, therefore justice emerges distorted!’”8

At the end of it all, the prophet states in no uncertain terms that, after posing the challenge of all time to G‑d, he is expecting an adequate response: “I will stand upon my watch… and I will wait to see what He will speak to me, and what I can answer my reproof.”

The response doesn't take long to come. In classic biblical style, there is no justification given. Instead, G‑d allows him a glimpse of the more distant future when Babylon, the oppressive and wicked kingdom, will have a decisive downfall. It will take patience and endurance, but in the end it will surely come.

The Midrash records the response of G‑d in this way: “The Almighty revealed Himself to Habakkuk and said: Is it against Me that you are quarreling? Does not the verse state,9 ‘[He is] a G‑d of faith, without iniquity’?”

Either way, Habakkuk realized that he had gone too far, and offers a prayer “for erroneous utterances.” This prayer of Habakkuk comprises this haftarah. It is profoundly evident from the prayer that the soul of the prophet remains astir. His prayer is an outpouring, a cascade of emotion and ecstasy, of trepidation and—of joy.

One Prophet Prays

The connection of this reading to the holiday of Shavuot appears in the beginning of Habakkuk’s prayer. He begins by appealing to G‑d that He remember his love for the Jewish people and fulfill His covenant never to forsake them. “In wrath,” the prophet pleads, “remember to be merciful.”

He then proceeds to recall some of the great moments between G‑d and His people, the times when the love of G‑d to them was apparent in all its glory. The first of these was at the giving of the Torah. At this time the most lofty and intense levels of G‑dliness were revealed to the entire people. Reference to this is made in terms such as the “glow,” “rays of light” and “hidden strength” that was experienced at this event.

The descriptions above are prefaced by the fact that “G‑d came forth from the south, the Holy One from Mount Paran.” The Talmud10 explains that before the Jews were given the Torah, the Almighty “offered” this priceless gift to the other great nations of the time—in particular, to the descendants of Esau and Ishmael, who lived in the south (of Israel) and in the desert of Paran, respectively. In whichever way the “offer” to accept the Torah was made, the response of the nations was a flat refusal. This repeated itself, says the Talmud, with every nation and group on earth.

Now, had the Jewish people not accepted the Torah, the entire purpose of creation would have been jeopardized. According to one interpretation, Habakkuk refers to this by stating that a “plague” and “pestilence” accompanied G‑d at the giving of the Torah: had the Torah failed to win acceptance, G‑d would have destroyed the world as we know it.11 Just for this, said Habakkuk, the Jews are worthy that G‑d should be merciful to them.12

Other glorious instances that Habakkuk invokes include the Jews’ defeat of the Midianites against overwhelming odds, the splitting of the Jordan River upon their entry into the Land of Israel, the splitting of the sea at the Exodus, the stopping of the entire solar and lunar orbit in the days of Joshua, and the Jews’ salvation from the Assyrian onslaught in the days of Hezekiah.13 All these events, and others, demonstrated G‑d’s intense love for His people.

After all this, Habakkuk dreadingly looks once again into the uncertain future. The events of the “War of Gog and Magog,” the frightful times right around the coming of Moshiach,14 torment the righteous prophet to no end. His people, already ravaged by the long exile—how will they cope with this new tidal wave threatening their survival?

But in his penultimate stroke, Habakkuk places his trust in G‑d and rejoices in the salvation that will surely come. Just as it was in the past, miracles will take place again. G‑d will give His weak and hurting people the swiftness of a hart and the might of a powerful army.

Overcome with feeling, Habakkuk breaks out in song.