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Tehilim/Psalms 149:6 ... the praises of G-d in their throats and a two-edged sword in their hand ...
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The set readings for the second day of Shavuot1 are D'varim 15:9-16:17 (the seventh aliyah of parashat Re'eh), B'Midbar 28:26-31 and Habakkuk 3:1-17. The first piece from the Torah discusses the offering of first-born males from the flock and the herd, the observance of Pesach and the festival of Matzah, the counting of the days of the Omer, the celebration of Shavuot - the Feast of Weeks - and the seven-day autumn festival of Sukkot. It concludes that "three times a year -- on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths -- all your males shall appear before the L-RD your G-d in the place that He will choose. They shall not appear before the L-RD empty-handed" (D'varim 16:16, NJPS). The second piece from the Torah emphasises that the day of Shavuot is a day of shabbat - "On the day of the first fruits, your Feast of Weeks ... you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations" (B'Midbar 28:26, NJPS) - and lists the festival offerings that are to be brought in addition to the normal daily offerings. The Haftarah portion (from the Prophets) records a prayer of the prophet Habakkuk, relating the mighty and awesome ways in which HaShem has responded in anger and wrath again those who oppress His people - "You have come forth to deliver Your people, to deliver Your anointed" (Habakkuk 3:13, NJPS) - before the prophet's amazing statement of faith in his G-d: "Though the fig tree does not bud and no yield is on the vine, though the olive crop has failed and the fields produce no grain, though sheep have vanished from the fold and no cattle are in the pen, yet will I rejoice in the L-RD, exult in the G-d who delivers me. My L-rd G-D is my strength: He makes my feet like the deer's and lets me stride upon the heights" (vv. 17-19, NJPS).
Nevertheless,Pesikta de Rab Kahana reports a disagreement between Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Nehemiah and the Rabbis concerning this verse from the Psalms for the festival to commemorate the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai in the third month after our people left Egypt. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman has just said that words of Torah are like weapons, who stand up - in the same way as physical weapons in battle for those who know how to use them - for those who have invested the labour they require to be understood. Our text is given as the proof, with - the plural of , "exaltation, praise" from the root , "to be high, lofty, raised up" (Davidson) - meaning the praises, exaltations or glories of G-d. The disagreement arises because Rabbi Judah takes the word to mean 'two-mouthed' and connects it to the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. Rabbi Nehemiah takes to mean "two-edged" so it is "depicting the Torah as a blade which cuts with both edges and is therefore capable of assuring life in this world as well as in the world to come." The Rabbis use it to empower the Sages who are thus said to be able to "issue decrees for angels in heaven, which the angels obey, and decrees for Israel on earth, which Israel obey." Rabbi Aha counters by asserting that, "Words of Torah are mighty to retaliate against him who does not give them the labour they require to be understood" (Pesikta de Rab Kahana Piska 12.52).
How can we apply the Sages' ideas to the three readings selected for Shavuot in the Diaspora? In the first reading, the command is clear: all the male Israelites are to appear beforeHaShem three times each year, at the appointed festivals of Pesach/Matzah, Shavuot and Sukkot and they are to bring an offering with them. The labour or investment required is considerable; not only does this cover the offering, but the cost of time away from the farm, travelling and staying in Jerusalem. There is also the risk of leaving the wives and children alone at home, unprotected. Another cost is the effort that must be taken to study the texts and count the days and months so that one arrives at Jerusalem on the right day. The reward? Being obedient and so reaping the blessing that flow from that, having one's offering accepted, knowing that one is right with G-d. The penalty of disobedience or not doing it properly? The scorn of neighbours (and possibly family) for not having obeyed, the curses that flow from disobedience, the embarrassment of arriving at Jerusalem on the wrong day or the wrong week.
In the second passage, the instruction is to have a sacred occasion, - also translated "holy convocation" (ESV) and "holy assembly" (NLT). What is one of those when it is at home? Who is invited and what does everyone do? The verb most often means "to call, proclaim, shout", but also "to meet"; more unusually, it is also used for "to read aloud, recite." Which is in view here? Or is it all? Does it really mean to have a meeting where the Torah is read out loud? That is possible but is specifically enjoined for every seventh year at the festival of Sukkot, rather than Shavuot. Clearly some investment is needed to find out exactly what is meant by this instruction. Contemporary Jewish tradition satisfies this by groups of people staying awake all night studying texts together. This can be done by a group of people meeting together in one place and studying together; it can be done by people all over the world studying separately, but working on the same text at the same time. Some groups do both! Sometimes it involves just reading the text; other groups study and debate it furiously all night, rehearsing both the ancient arguments and modern ones of their own.
Habakkuk's prayer requires the investment of time to appreciate the background of his context: who was he speaking to and why? Was G-d his only audience, or was this acted out loud for others to join in and understand? Performance criticism opts for the latter: that this was an orchestrated piece of theatre in which the true state of reality is portrayed against the backdrop of the wickedness in Judah in the decade approaching the Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem. Jeanette Mathews suggests that the whole of the Haftarah reading forms the second act in a two-act performance: after words addressed directly to HaShem comes "a poem referring to Yahweh in the third person and therefore intended to be heard by an audience."3 Noting the prophet's glorious affirmation of faith as the final twist in the plot, she records that, "in view of the description of a fearful future, the response of the prophet is almost completely unexpected.. The closing sentiment is one of faith and trust, in striking contrast to the opening scene of the performance where the prophet's response to a troubled situation was bitter complaint."4 Habakkuk is a cult prophet, performing no miracles but calling the people back into relationship with their G-d. His words - probably repeated many times - are a performance designed to attract the attention of the (errant) people and draw their focus back to G-d in the midst of the impending judgement.
Our New Covenant authors were well aware of the power of words and often used word-pictures or images, both old and new. Alluding to a well-known image gained additional traction, drawing the audience into a familiar story and then surprising them with a different ending. A powerful example is where Yeshua re-tells the story of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-41), borrowing the original theme from Isaiah (5:1-7). Many rhetorical devices and structures can be found in Rav Sha'ul's writing as he employs the language and speech of his day to extend the reach and impact of his letters. The writer to the Hebrews picks up the connection between G-d's word and a two-edged sword that is very close to Rabbi Nehemiah's quoted above: "For the word of G-d is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12, ESV). Here God's word - which must refer to the Tanakh since the New Covenant Scriptures were at that time either not written or not accepted as canon - is the sword that is capable of accurately dissecting our inner thoughts and intentions. Yeshua Himself, as the Living Word, is portrayed as the living embodiment of that word: "In His right hand He held seven stars, from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength" (Revelation 1:16, ESV). This word-picture connects the image of the two-edged sword with the way Yeshua's face "shone like the sun" (Matthew 17:2) at the transfiguration.
At this feast of Shavuot, celebrating both the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the outpouring of the Ruach in Jerusalem, we need to pay attention to the importance of words and the investment we must make in fully understanding and obeying them. Why? Because Yeshua said, "If anyone hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects Me and does not receive My words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day" (John 12:47-48, ESV). Let us both study and learn so that our lives may be informed and our obedience bring glory to our Father in the name of Yeshua!
1. - The second day of Shavuot is celebrated in the Diasporabut not in the Land of Israel.
2. - Translated by William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002, 0-8276-0679-6).
3. - Jeanette Mathews, Performing Habakkuk - Faithful Re-enactment in the Midst of Crisis (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), page 143.
4. - Ibid., page 156.
Further Study: Matthew 7:24-27; John 3:31-36; John 8:14-16
Application: Are you a committed student of the word, spending sufficient time with it to know what it means and allow the Spirit to bring it to life in your heart, or do you struggle to find five minutes with the daily notes booklet as you rush out of the door on the way to work? Perhaps it is time to start making a serious investment and making sure that you know what G-d is saying to you through His word today!
Comment - 25May20 00:39 Edward Bishop Sr: I have made it a daily practice to study the Word each day for at least one hour. The only way I am able to ensure time alone with the Master Rabbi of my soul is to rise by 6:00 am. Many nights I have left the comfort of my bed at 3:00 am to spend time alone in prayer, meditation on His Word and praising Him from the depths of my soul.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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