Whether you’ve known me for a while, or are new to my musings, I do believe my penchant for redeeming so-called irredeemable texts is evident. Well today, this week, this month, this year, this annual repetition of the parasha, this hafatarah I may have met the limits of my passion for trying to redeem a portion of sacred Jewish Biblical text.
It’s not that this text is particularly heinous, perverse, bloody, or any such thing. It’s just that, in my encounter with the haftarah for parashat Ha’azinu this year, which comes from II Samuel chapter 22, I did not feel that usual tug that often draws me to look for something redeemable in an otherwise troubling text. I read it, repeatedly, waiting for the moment when something would jump out at me, or an idea would form in my mind that could lead me into potential ways to redeem the text. A few times a verse, or a part thereof, grabbed my attention, but alas, in moments the “aha” feeling was gone, my hopes for a path to redemption for the text dashed yet again.
Part of what troubles me with this haftarah is its focus. It is essentially a hymn of praise from David, thanking and praising G”d for helping David to defeat his enemies. In contrast, in parashat Ha’azinu, Moshe is praising G”d for all that G”d has done for the all the children of Israel. From what we know of these two great, yet flawed leaders, I suppose we should not be surprised that Moshe’s hymn is community-themed whereas David’s hymn is more individual. Moshe certainly managed to stay a lot less self-focused throughout his life than did David.
David paints a very anthropomorphic picture of G”d is his hymn.
8 Then the earth rocked and quaked,
The foundations of heaven shook —
Rocked by His indignation.
9 Smoke went up from His nostrils,
From His mouth came devouring fire;
Live coals blazed forth from Him.
10 He bent the sky and came down,
Thick cloud beneath His feet.
11 He mounted a cherub and flew;
He was seen on the wings of the wind.
12 He made pavilions of darkness about Him,
Dripping clouds, huge thunderheads;
13 In the brilliance before Him
Blazed fiery coals.
14 The Lord thundered forth from heaven,
The Most High sent forth His voice;
15 He let loose bolts, and scattered them;
Lightning, and put them to rout.
16 The bed of the sea was exposed,
The foundations of the world were laid bare
By the mighty roaring of the Lord,
At the blast of the breath of His nostrils.
17 He reached down from on high, He took me,
Drew me out of the mighty waters; (JPS, 1985)
I admit that I don’t take to anthropomorphism well, so that prejudices me from the start. This text also strikes me as one of the least sincere hymns of praise I’ve ever read. I don’t, for one second, believe that David really believes what he is writing. It is all poetic imagery for the masses. It is all metaphor and simile. It is contrived, superficial, and not that well written. To me, it has the feel of David thinking to himself “hmmm…I won. I guess I’d better write a nice hymn of praise to G”d so I can appear humble and not be perceived as believing the victory was because of what I did and not what G”d did. Yeah, that’s what the people and the priests will like.”
Yet David still reveals a bit of his smarmy self:
20 He brought me out to freedom,
He rescued me because He was pleased with me.
21 The Lord rewarded me according to my merit,
He requited the cleanness of my hands.
22 For I have kept the ways of the Lord
And have not been guilty before my God;
23 I am mindful of all His rules
And have not departed from His laws.
24 I have been blameless before Him,
And have guarded myself against sinning —
25 And the Lord has requited my merit,
According to my purity in His sight.
To quote Bill Cosby: “….riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.”
Oh, to be sure, there are some wonderful, sweet snippets that can be taken from this hafatarah. Yet only out of context do they appear as sweet and wonderful.
29 You, O Lord, are my lamp;
The Lord lights up my darkness.
says David. only to spoil it with:
30 With You, I can rush a barrier,
With my God, I can scale a wall.
We can pretend this may refer to other situations, but we know David is talking about war and battle.
David even seems confused about where the credit belongs. One moment it is all “I” as he is saying:
38 I pursued my enemies and wiped them out,
I did not turn back till I destroyed them.
39 I destroyed them, I struck them down;
They rose no more, they lay at my feet.
Yet in the following verse it is the capital y You
40 You have girt me with strength for battle,
Brought low my foes before me,
In the following verse both sentiments mix:
41 [You] Made my enemies turn tail before me,
My foes — and I wiped them out.
(the insertion is mine for clarity)
So which is it? “Thank G”d for doing it” or “I Did It…with a little help from G”d, of course.” Those are different sentiments indeed.
Even the one bit of text in this haftarah that I like, and which has some seeming possibilities for redemption and use:
26 With the loyal You deal loyally;
With the blameless hero, blamelessly.
27 With the pure You act in purity,
And with the perverse You are wily.
28 To humble folk You give victory,
And You look with scorn on the haughty.
is an inaccurate description of the reality of life,even as it is described on our holy Jewish texts, for sometimes G”d is disloyal to the loyal, faults the blameless, is impure to the pure, is hard on the humble and is nice to the haughty. Would that G”d’s actions were always as balanced as David says.
If only David had stopped after these initial 7 verses:
1 David addressed the words of this song to the Lord, after the Lord had saved him from the hands of all his enemies and from the hands of Saul. 2 He said:
O Lord, my crag, my fastness, my deliverer!
3 O God, the rock wherein I take shelter:
My shield, my mighty champion, my fortress and refuge!
My savior, You who rescue me from violence!
4 All praise! I called on the Lord,
And I was delivered from my enemies.
5 For the breakers of Death encompassed me,
The torrents of Belial terrified me;
6 The snares of Sheol encircled me,
The toils of Death engulfed me.
7 In my anguish I called on the Lord,
Cried out to my God;
In His Abode He heard my voice,
My cry entered His ears.
Not great, but not bad for a short hymn. Now, to be fair to David, Moshe also praises G”d as a warrior G”d – though Moshe also dwells on G”d’s treatment of the Israelites when they disobeyed, before he moves on to G”d’s vengeance upon the enemies of Israel. Moshe offers a reminder that perhaps David could have heeded:
Deut 32:26 I might have reduced them to naught,
Made their memory cease among men,
27 But for fear of the taunts of the foe,
Their enemies who might misjudge
And say, "Our own hand has prevailed;
None of this was wrought by the Lord!"
Moshe’s hymn in parashat Ha’azinu is also a troubling text, for many reasons, but I have and still feel compelled to try and redeem it. The passion to do so with David’s hymn in the haftarah remains absent for me at this time.
So again I ask myself “why is that?” There are far more troubling pieces of texts than this haftarah. Is it simply because the hymn feels disingenuous to me? Is it all just gut feeling? Is it the warrior G”d? (That’s certainly not unique.) Is it my discomfort with G”d as “rock?” Many like that image-I find it troubling. A rock may be strong, and last seemingly (but not at all in reality) forever, but all a rock does is sit there. That’s a bit too passive a G”d for me. I need a G”d that is both rock and Jell-O. Luckily for me, while Judaism doesn’t exactly provide a G”d who is like Jell-O, it certainly allows for a G”d who can be be firm and steadfast as well as soft and pliable.
Is it my disaffection for the monarchy? The haftarah ends with David thanking G”d with :
51 Tower of victory to His king,
Who deals graciously with His anointed,
With David and his offspring evermore.
As I have imagined G”d saying: “You Israelites wanted a monarchy despite My misgivings about that? OK, you got one. Deal with it.” Wasn’t such a successful experiment, was it. If David’s rule was the apex-and we can’t be sure it was-was it really that great? It was certainly pretty much all downhill (with a few, brief shining moments) after Solomon. It ended with the Hasmoneans. Need I say more?
I am still not sure what about this haftarah troubles me so. I still cannot say why I feel no compulsion to try and redeem it.
Others do not see the haftarah as I am experiencing it this year, this month, this day.
In the JPS Haftarah Commentary, Michael Fishbane, in connecting and contrasting the parasha and haftarah, criticizes the people that Moshe is addressing as ones who turn against G”d and suffer for it. He lauds David as being faithful to G”d and constant in that faith even when success could lead him to do otherwise. He redeems the haftarah by having it illustrate clear choice in religious practice, G”d-centered or self-centered. I do agree with Fishbane’s assertion that all religious people confront this choice:
“a God-centered way of remembrance and humility, and a self-centered way of forgetfulness and pride.”
Fishbane, M. A. (2002). Haftarot. The JPS Bible Commentary (324). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society.
I’d like to agree with Fishbane’s assessment of David’s humility and faithfulness, as it would give me a path to redemption for this haftarah. Alas, I do not. David’s own words (if they are indeed so, yet even if they are not) betray him. There is an awful lot of self-congratulatory lauding mixed in with David’s praise for G”d.
Perhaps another week, another month, another year, another annual repetition of the parasha and this hafatarah I may yet find a way to redeem, at least for myself, this portion of sacred Jewish Biblical text. The journey continues.
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5570-Pur Prayers Aren't Bull
Haazinu 5766-Trifles (Updated from 5762)
Haazinu 5765/5763-How would It Look If...
Haazinu 5764-More Bull From Our Lips
Haazinu 5760-Bull from Our Lips