Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
HABAKUK CHAPTER 1
Our text gives no indication of the identity of Habakuk's father, tribe or city. The Holy Zohar teaches that he was the son of the Shunemite woman born through the blessing of Elisha and later revived by him (II Kings 4:8-37; Zohar I, 7a). He was called Habakuk because "you will embrace (HOBEKETH) a son" (II Kings 4:16). This would place Habakuk in the time of Yehoram son of Ahab. However, Seder Olam states that Habakuk prophesied considerably later, in the time of Menasheh son of Hezekiah. In accordance with this, Rambam (Intro. to Mishneh Torah) states that Habakuk received Torah from the prophet Nahum and was the teacher of Tzephaniah. It could be that the Zohar is hinting at the provenance of Habakuk's soul while Seder Olam is telling us when he lived.
HABAKUK'S ARGUMENT WITH GOD
"How long shall I cry and You will not hear.?" (v 2).
Habakuk was oppressed with the problem of why the wicked prosper while successfully oppressing and inflicting suffering on the righteous. This is a question that continues to vex us until today because it seems like an affront to faith and belief in a just God.
Our sages teach that even in the reign of Menasheh, when Ashur was in the ascendant, Habakuk already saw prophetically that Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar would become the world power and treat all the peoples under their dominion with the utmost cruelty, especially Israel , whose Temple they destroyed. "For lo, I am raising up the Chaldees, a bitter and impetuous nation." (Habakuk 1:6).
Just as in recent generations the Holocaust and other evils have baffled even those who want to have faith in God's justice, so too in the time of Habakuk, the prospect of the impending doom that was being prophesied by leading prophets was baffling even to the believers of the generation. As Habakuk says (1:4): "Therefore Torah is slackened' - people see no more point in observance - "and justice does not go out triumphantly, for the wicked man besets the righteous so that justice goes out perverted (ME-UKAL)". Rabbi Nachman of Breslov points out that ME-UKAL is made up of the letters of AMALEK, who led the nations in barbaric attacks on Israel (Likutey Moharan II:5).
Just as today, Habakuk's cry is over HAMAS (v 2) - violence, as exemplified in cruel terror attacks on innocent men, women, children and little infants. (It is enough to glance at some of the Tisha Be-Av KINOS, the mournful dirges recited in the synagogue annually on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple, to get a glimpse of the bloodthirsty, sadistic cruelty of the Chaldean Babylonians as well as Israel's other persecutors through the ages.
Vv 5-9 evoke the specter of the rise of Babylon to world dominion, sweeping through country after country on a rampage of conquest, slaughter, robbery and plunder.
V 10: As a world conqueror whose power-crazed arrogance dwarfed even that of Julius Caesar or Napoleon, Nebuchadnezzar would laugh at the many kings and rulers he was to capture.
V 11: Seeing his great success, Nebuchadnezzar would be overcome by a spirit of madness that would make him attribute all his success to his false god (Rashi). The picture of Nebuchadnezzar that emerges from Daniel chs 1-4 confirms and complements Habakuk's evocation of the Babylonian ruler.
V 12-13: After having described the menacing specter of Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldeans as he saw it in his prophetic vision, Habakuk now defines the issue of faith which this is arousing in him. Granted that God is eternal and that we, the people of Israel shall not die - for we shall never be wiped out - and granted that God has only ordained and established the coming ascendancy of Babylon to judge and punish those who rebel against Him, the question remains: "You are of eyes too pure to behold evil and cannot look upon iniquity. Then why do You look upon them that deal treacherously and hold Your peace when the wicked devours the man that is more righteous than he?" People are often expressing the same bafflement when they ask where God was during the Holocaust and other evils.
V 14: "You make man like the fishes of the sea." - "Why are men compared to the fishes of the sea? To tell you that just as the fishes of the sea die as soon as they go up onto dry land, so people who separate themselves from the study of Torah and practice of the mitzvos immediately die" (Talmud Avodah Zarah 3b).
Vv 15-17 express the conclusion of Habakuk's presentation of the challenge to faith. If the wicked conqueror enjoys such success and prosperity, sacrificing to and worshiping his own net and trap as if they were the gods who bestowed his ascendancy upon him, how will the wicked ever cease from their evil rampages against all the nations?
"I will stand upon my watch and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what He will say to me and what answer I shall give to those who argue with me" (v 1, see Rashi). As spiritual leader of his people, Habakuk felt obliged to answer those in perplexity, who were raising with him the very arguments he set before God.
The rabbis taught that Habakuk, like Choni HaMe-agel after him, traced a circle in the ground and declared that he would not move out of it until he received an answer from God (Ta'anis 23a). Of course only a complete Tzaddik is permitted to do such a thing!
Vv 2-3: "And HaShem answered me and said, Write the vision. For there is still a vision for the appointed time." God's answer was that the ascendancy of Nebuchadnezzar's dynasty would come to an end, and that another prophet would arise who would foretell exactly when this would be (Jeremiah 29:10). RaDaK points out that Daniel also foresaw and lived to witness the fall of Babylon , as well as being the channel of God's chastisement of Nebuchadnezzar over his arrogance.
Habakuk's prophecy of how God's righteousness and justice will eventually be vindicated applies not only to Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldees but to all the wicked persecutors of Israel . "For there is still a vision for the appointed time, and it speaks concerning the end, and does not lie: though it tarry, wait for it, because it will surely come, it will not delay" (v 3). Phrases from this verse are included in the Thirteen Principles of Faith # 12: "I believe with perfect faith in the coming of Mashiah, and even though he tarries, even so I will wait every day for his coming."
V 4: "Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright in him." Even though the oppressor may remain incorrigibly arrogant, ".the just shall live by his faith". The rabbis said that 613 commandments were given to Moses, King David reduced them to eleven basic principles, Isaiah to six, Micah to three. Amos to one. And Habakuk based them all on one foundation: "The just shall live by his FAITH" (Maccos 23b).
Verse 5 begins a new PARSHAH SETHUMAH which amplifies the general answer given to the prophet in vv 2-4 by showing him visions of the downfall of Nebuchadnezzar's dynasty and the taunting parables which the nations will invoke against him.
V 5 alludes to the drunken intoxication of Nebuchadnezzar as well as that of his grandson Belshazzar, who drank from the Temple vessels, only to be killed on the same night by Darius the Mede, who conquered Babylon . Nebuchadnezzar had a voracious appetite for conquest, but in the end all the nations he conquered would sing dirges over the destruction of his empire.
V 6: "Woe to him that increases that which is not his." In the coming sections (vv 6-20) the word "Woe" (HOY) is repeated five times like a chant in a dirge. Each HOY introduces a new aspect of the reproof against the wicked Babylon (vv 6, 9, 12, 15 and 19).
"Woe to him that increases that which is not his" (v 6). This is a reproof that could also justly be directed not only against Babylon but also against former colonial powers like Britain , France , Italy , Holland etc. as well as the neo-colonial powers that still continue to ravage weaker nations and plunder their wealth and resources under the guise of "development programs" and other noble-sounding projects.
Vv 7-8: Just as Babylon ravaged other nations, so the time would come when she would be ravaged, ".because of the blood of ADAM (= Israel , Ezekiel 34:31) and the violence done to the land (of Israel ), to the city (= Jerusalem ) and all its inhabitants" (v 8, see Rashi).
Vv 9-11: If a person steals, it is bad for his house and dynasty, for even a stolen brick or wooden beam built into the structure of the house cry out that they were acquired through crime (RaDaK on v 11).
Vv 12-14: Building an empire on blood and iniquity are a futile endeavor, for eventually God's glory will be revealed to all the world and everyone will see that His Justice rules (cf. Isaiah 11:9).
Vv 15-18: The Talmud relates that Nebuchadnezzar would get the exiled kings he held in captivity in Babylon very drunk and then make sport and sodomize them (Shabbos 149b). This expresses the Babylonian method of pretending to be very friendly and getting their victims to feel so relaxed that they would reveal their most sensitive secrets (cf. II Kings 20:12ff). MIDDAH KE-NEGED MIDDAH, "measure for measure", Babylon 's shame would also be revealed in the eyes of all and she too would drink the cup of poison. "Because of the blood of ADAM (= Israel ) and the violence done to the land (=of Israel ), to the city (= Jerusalem ) and all that dwell therein" (v 18, Rashi ad loc.). Of what use then would be Nebuchadnezzar's idols?
Could it be that the bloody carnage in Iraq in recent years, which is still increasing, may not also be an expression of God's vengeance for the crimes of Babylon ?
"Woe to him that says to the wooden idol, 'Awake!' to the dumb stone, 'Arise!' Can it teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver and there is no breath at all in it. But HaShem is in His holy Temple ; let all the earth keep silence before Him" (vv 19-20).
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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