Saturday, May 30, 2009

Incredible Cosmic Power:
a Shavuos ShulDrasha

Our הפטרה this morning, for the Second Day of שבועות, was תְּפִֿלָּה לַחֲבַֿקּוּק הַנָּבִֿיא — the Prayer of the Prophet חבקוק, one of the ‘12 Minor Prophets’ called such not because they were less important to the spiritual history of Israel, but because so little of their prophetic-literary output was preserved for later generations.

All we have of חבקוק is three short chapters.

But תפילה לחבקוק is a hard-hitting masterpiece of praise, describing God as a divine warrior — the אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה of the Song at the Sea — whose power and glory cover the heavens and fill the earth, who shatters mountains and raises storms in both the upper and lower waters.

Reminiscent of the imagery used by our ancient polytheistic neighbors, חבקוק describes God as a wrathful storm-god, riding a divine ‘chariot of rescue’ into battle, casting flashes of lightning like arrows and spears, with plague and pestilence swarming along with God's heavy crushing steps.

But the battle that God is going out to fight is not a divine war or a metaphysical struggle. חבקוק asks rhetorically, הֲבִֿנְהָרִים חָרָה ה'؟ אִם בַּנְּהָרִים אַפֶּךָֿ؟ אִם בַּיָּם עֶבְֿרָתֶֿךָֿ؟ Is God angry at the rivers?
 Is God raging against the sea?


This is not a skirmish in some eternal struggle between Order and Chaos; this is not the Creator forcefully asserting authority over the untamed rebellious Ocean, although such motifs do periodically occur in our tradition.

הֲבִֿנְהָרִים חָרָה ה'؟
No. God is not angry with the waters.

The rays of light bursting from God's hand; the rent earth, the rushing torrents, the smashed mountains, the crackling lightning — what are they all for? What is the purpose of all this awe-inspiring violent pyrotechnics?

יָצָאתָֿ לְיֵשַׁע עַמֶּךָֿ לְיֵשַׁע אֶתֿ מְשִׁיחֶךָֿ
מָחַצְתָּ רֹּאשׁ מִבֵּיתֿ רָשָׁע עָרוֹתֿ יְסוֹדֿ עַדֿ צַוָּאר

חבקוק addresses God, answering his own question — “You have come forth to rescue your people; to rescue your anointed — you smash the head from the villain's house, razing it from foundation to neck.”

These tools of cosmic warfare, God's world-wrecking weapons, are not being used against cosmic enemies, against natural forces — but against the enemies of עם ישראל.

בְּזַעַם תִּצְעַדֿ אָרֶץ
“You tread the earth in rage”
— but God's enemy is not the earth —
בְּאַףֿ תָּדֿוּשׁ גּוֹיִם
“You thresh nations in fury.”

חבקוק speaks of his trembling fear, the rot in his bones at the enemy's approach — but אָנוּחַ לְיוֹם צָרָה he says, לַעֲלוֹתֿ לְעַם יְגֿוּדֶֿנּוּ “I wait calmly for the day of distress, for the arrival of the massing foe.”

It doesn't matter how powerful the enemy appears, because he is confident in God's power — incredible cosmic might brought down to earth, brought to bear against those who would do us harm.

וַאֲנִי he says, ,בַּה' אֶעְלוֹזָה אָגִֿילָה בֵּא'-ֵי יִשְׁעִי “I will rejoice in God, I will exult in God who rescues me.” וַיָּשֶׂם רַגְֿלַי כָּאַיָּלוֹתֿ וְעַל בָּמוֹתַֿי יַדְֿרִיכֵֿנִי “God makes my legs sure-footed as a deer, guiding my stride on my heights.”

It's not God standing there victorious over the slain body of some cosmic foe — it's חבקוק, it's the Jewish People, surveying deliverance from above and giving thanks for God's awe-inspiring power.

This isn't some cosmic metaphor —
it's the struggle of our own lives.

In the 89th Psalm, אֵיתָֿן הָאֶזְרָחִי sings of “God's eternal kindness” and he brings in this motif of God vanquishing the watery chaos. Only a few פסוקים later, though, he shifts the focus to דוד המלך to King David. Speaking in the voice of God, he says מָצָאתִֿי דָּוִדֿ עַבְֿדִּי “I have found דוד my servant” ... and then later, אַףֿ זְרוֹעִי תְֿאַמְּצֶנּוּ “my arm shall strengthen him.”

But what kind of strength is this, that God promises דוד?

וְשַׂמְתִּי בַֿיָּם יָדֿוֹ וּבַֿנְּהָרוֹתֿ יְמִינוֹ
Enough divine strength to have power over the sea and the rivers.

That same image of cosmic power — the strength of God the Creator and Commander of Nature, whom not even the most untamed force imaginable could resist — that is the power that God gives over to דוד, to a human being.

In חבקוק, God brings God's own power to bear to rescue us from our foes, and we stand there with the prophet, awestruck, as lightning rains down from heaven, the mountains quake, and the earth splits — as משה said before the Splitting of the Sea, ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶֿם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן God will fight for you, while you remain silent.

In תהלים, though, God takes a step back.

God hands us the power, the strength, the cosmic force; the encouragement, the inspiration — and we become partners with God in fighting our own human battles and in confronting cosmic struggle.

However, this is not how Rabbinic Tradition reads תפילה לחבקוק. The reason we read this הפטרה today is because all the awe-inspiring pyrotechnics are not the sound of battle. As משה said, coming down from הר סיני —
אֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹתֿ גְּבֿוּרָה וְאֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹתֿ חֲלוּשָׁה
“It is not the voice of a call of victory,
and it's not the voice of a call of defeat” —
according to חז"ל, our Sages, תפילה לחבקוק is the voice of
וַיַּעַן כָּל הָעָם קוֹל אֶחָדֿ וַיֹּאמְרוּ
כָּל הַדְּבָֿרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר ה' נַעֲשֶׂה
The call of the Israelite nation answering with one voice when they said ‘Everything which God has said, we will do.’

חבקוק's ‘wrathful storm-god’ imagery — the heavenly bolts — were the thunder and lightning, the heavy cloud that wreathed הר סיני at the Giving of the Torah.

The rays of light bursting from God's clenched fist — were the revelation of God's presence before the assembled people, and the glow of משה's face when he came down from the mountain after communing with the divine.

חבקוק's description of God's glory and power filling earth and heaven when God comes from פָּארָן — is the same as משה's reminiscing at the end of his life at the end of the תורה about God's appearance at סיני and פארן in the wilderness, when God came to give a living ‘firey law’ to עם ישראל.

And just as חבקוק stands awe-struck as heavenly power changes the world around him, קבלת התורה the acceptance of Torah by the people was an utterly passive act.

ר' אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא in מסכת שבת says that God lifted up the mountain and held it over בני ישראל and told them, ‘either accept the תורה or there you will be buried.’

The power was overwhelming; the evidence was overwhelming; the gratitude was overwhelming — God had just saved them from Egypt and from עמלק, sustained them in the wilderness through miraculous means — it was literally an offer they couldn't refuse, whether the mountain over their heads was physical, or ‘just’ psychological.

And then, when God did speak to בני ישראל, they were overwhelmed by the experience, and had to ask משה to be their representative, because they weren't strong enough to hear God's voice directly.

However, just as God in תהלים gives דוד the power to fight divine battles, to make a mark on the universe, so too God brings us in as partners in מלחמתה של תורה the “war of Torah” — the spiritual struggle to learn, to teach, to integrate, and to be creative. One of משה's final messages to בני ישראל at the end of his life is לא בשמים היא — the Torah is not in Heaven. It's not some faraway ideal or impossible feat, something whose divinity is limited to supernal realms.

It's right here, ready for you to take it and make your mark on it and let it make its mark on you.

בני ישראל needed to hear that message, after their passive, upturned-mountain acceptance.

רב יהודה in מסכת תמורה says that 3000 laws were forgotten during the days of mourning after משה's death. The people turned to his successor, יהושע, and told him to ask Heaven for answers. But יהושע refused. לא בשמים היא. It's not in heaven anymore. Figure it out yourselves. 3,000 laws were forgotten in just a few days, along with 1,700 rules of implication.

Our passive hands were too weak to hold on — until עתניאל בן קנז restored the laws and restored the rules through his own logical deductions.

He took hold of this cosmic power, this תורה, and became a partner with God.

We've just received the Torah once again.
We stood at the burning mountain,
wrapped in thunder and lightning,
and we heard God's voice.

And that burning mountain — that firey law — is ours now.
It's our responsibility.
It takes effort, and it takes struggle, to learn, to understand, to create to integrate and to apply.

This power was given to us so that we can impact it, ourselves, and all creation.

Just receiving Torah isn't enough —
it's time to take that next step.

And we have the whole rest of the year for that.

So let's get started.


Blogger The back of the hill said...

Back with a thoughtful post. Shkoiach!

6/01/2009 4:19 PM  
Anonymous sister miryam said...

very nice! you should post more often.

6/02/2009 3:51 PM  
Anonymous Mar Gavriel said...

One can hear the force and power even in the words themselves:

mɔḥaṣtɔ ʀʀʀʀʀʀʀʀʀʀʀʀʀʀoš mibbeθ rɔšɔ‘ ...

6/04/2009 8:49 AM  
Anonymous Mar Gavriel said...

And why not assimilation to [mɔḥaṣṭɔ] or [mɔḥastɔ]? Oh, right -- because assimilation is BAD.

6/04/2009 8:51 AM  

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