I’m recycling this musing from six years back because of my recent encounters with this text while working with a student preparing to celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah this Shabbat. As I sought to find ways to help the student engage with this particular haftarah, I really struggled. Cherry-picking out a few good nuggets entirely out of context seemed the only thing that worked. Well, sort of. I don’t really think it worked for her, and I know it didn’t work for me. This haftarah deserves being in the list of potentially irredeemable texts. So I share with you my thoughts from six years ago with a little updating, editing, and a few additions.
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 (if indeed, he is the author, and even existed) paints a very anthropomorphic picture of G”d is his hymn.
וַתִּרְעַשׁ֙ הָאָ֔רֶץ מוֹסְד֥וֹת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם יִרְגָּ֑זוּ וַיִּֽתְגָּעֲשׁ֖וּ כִּֽי־חָ֥רָה לֽוֹ׃ עָלָ֤ה עָשָׁן֙ בְּאַפּ֔וֹ וְאֵ֥שׁ מִפִּ֖יו תֹּאכֵ֑ל גֶּחָלִ֖ים בָּעֲר֥וּ מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃ וַיֵּ֥ט שָׁמַ֖יִם וַיֵּרַ֑ד וַעֲרָפֶ֖ל תַּ֥חַת רַגְלָֽיו׃ וַיִּרְכַּ֥ב עַל־כְּר֖וּב וַיָּעֹ֑ף וַיֵּרָ֖א עַל־כַּנְפֵי־רֽוּחַ׃ וַיָּ֥שֶׁת חֹ֛שֶׁךְ סְבִיבֹתָ֖יו סֻכּ֑וֹת חַֽשְׁרַת־מַ֖יִם עָבֵ֥י שְׁחָקִֽים׃מִנֹּ֖גַהּ נֶגְדּ֑וֹ בָּעֲר֖וּ גַּחֲלֵי־אֵֽשׁ׃ יַרְעֵ֥ם מִן־שָׁמַ֖יִם יְהוָ֑ה וְעֶלְי֖וֹן יִתֵּ֥ן קוֹלֽוֹ׃ וַיִּשְׁלַ֥ח חִצִּ֖ים וַיְפִיצֵ֑ם בָּרָ֖ק ויהמם [וַיָּהֹֽם׃] וַיֵּֽרָאוּ֙ אֲפִ֣קֵי יָ֔ם יִגָּל֖וּ מֹסְד֣וֹת תֵּבֵ֑ל בְּגַעֲרַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה מִנִּשְׁמַ֖ת ר֥וּחַ אַפּֽוֹ׃ יִשְׁלַ֥ח מִמָּר֖וֹם יִקָּחֵ֑נִי יַֽמְשֵׁ֖נִי מִמַּ֥יִם רַבִּֽים׃
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.” Very political. Crafted of sound bytes.
David (or the David created by the authors of this text) reveals bits of his smarmy self:
וַיֹּצֵ֥א לַמֶּרְחָ֖ב אֹתִ֑י יְחַלְּצֵ֖נִי כִּי־חָ֥פֵֽץ בִּֽי׃ יִגְמְלֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֖ה כְּצִדְקָתִ֑י כְּבֹ֥ר יָדַ֖י יָשִׁ֥יב לִֽי׃ כִּ֥י שָׁמַ֖רְתִּי דַּרְכֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְלֹ֥א רָשַׁ֖עְתִּי מֵאֱלֹהָֽי׃ כִּ֥י כָל־משפטו לְנֶגְדִּ֑י וְחֻקֹּתָ֖יו לֹא־אָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃ וָאֶהְיֶ֥ה תָמִ֖ים ל֑וֹ וָאֶשְׁתַּמְּרָ֖ה מֵעֲוֺנִֽי׃ וַיָּ֧שֶׁב יְהוָ֛ה לִ֖י כְּצִדְקָתִ֑י כְּבֹרִ֖י לְנֶ֥גֶד עֵינָֽיו׃
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.” (Can’t use that one anymore.)
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.
כִּֽי־אַתָּ֥ה נֵירִ֖י יְהוָ֑ה וַיהוָ֖ה יַגִּ֥יהַּ חָשְׁכִּֽי׃
29 You, O Lord, are my lamp;
The Lord lights up my darkness.
says David. only to spoil it with:
בְכָ֖ה אָר֣וּץ גְּד֑וּד בֵּאלֹהַ֖י אֲדַלֶּג־שֽׁוּר׃
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. This is no Romeo hoping to scale Juliet’s balcony.
David even seems confused about where the credit belongs. One moment it is all “I” as he is saying:
אֶרְדְּפָ֥ה אֹיְבַ֖י וָאַשְׁמִידֵ֑ם וְלֹ֥א אָשׁ֖וּב עַד־כַּלּוֹתָֽם׃ וָאֲכַלֵּ֥ם וָאֶמְחָצֵ֖ם וְלֹ֣א יְקוּמ֑וּן וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ תַּ֥חַת רַגְלָֽי׃
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
וַתַּזְרֵ֥נִי חַ֖יִל לַמִּלְחָמָ֑ה תַּכְרִ֥יעַ קָמַ֖י תַּחְתֵּֽנִי׃
40 You have girt me with strength for battle,
Brought low my foes before me,
In the following verse both sentiments mix:
וְאֹ֣יְבַ֔י תַּ֥תָּה לִּ֖י עֹ֑רֶף מְשַׂנְאַ֖י וָאַצְמִיתֵֽם׃
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. Can you think of anyone that seems to be suffering from this same problem these days. Here's a hint: “I alone can….”
Even the one bit of text in this haftarah that I like, and which has some seeming possibilities for redemption and use—
עִם־חָסִ֖יד תִּתְחַסָּ֑ד עִם־גִּבּ֥וֹר תָּמִ֖ים תִּתַּמָּֽם׃ עִם־נָבָ֖ר תִּתָּבָ֑ר וְעִם־עִקֵּ֖שׁ תִּתַּפָּֽל׃ וְאֶת־עַ֥ם עָנִ֖י תּוֹשִׁ֑יעַ וְעֵינֶ֖יךָ עַל־רָמִ֥ים תַּשְׁפִּֽיל׃
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. The very existence of Theodicy as a discipline/philosophical concept says otherwise.
If only David had stopped after these initial 7 verses:
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר דָּוִד֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֑את בְּיוֹם֩ הִצִּ֨יל יְהוָ֥ה אֹת֛וֹ מִכַּ֥ף כָּל־אֹיְבָ֖יו וּמִכַּ֥ף שָׁאֽוּל׃ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר יְהוָ֛ה סַֽלְעִ֥י וּמְצֻדָתִ֖י וּמְפַלְטִי־לִֽי׃ אֱלֹהֵ֥י צוּרִ֖י אֶחֱסֶה־בּ֑וֹ מָגִנִּ֞י וְקֶ֣רֶן יִשְׁעִ֗י מִשְׂגַּבִּי֙ וּמְנוּסִ֔י מֹשִׁעִ֕י מֵחָמָ֖ס תֹּשִׁעֵֽנִי׃ מְהֻלָּ֖ל אֶקְרָ֣א יְהוָ֑ה וּמֵאֹיְבַ֖י אִוָּשֵֽׁעַ׃ כִּ֥י אֲפָפֻ֖נִי מִשְׁבְּרֵי־מָ֑וֶת נַחֲלֵ֥י בְלִיַּ֖עַל יְבַעֲתֻֽנִי׃ חֶבְלֵ֥י שְׁא֖וֹל סַבֻּ֑נִי קִדְּמֻ֖נִי מֹֽקְשֵׁי־מָֽוֶת׃ בַּצַּר־לִי֙ אֶקְרָ֣א יְהוָ֔ה וְאֶל־אֱלֹהַ֖י אֶקְרָ֑א וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע מֵהֵֽיכָלוֹ֙ קוֹלִ֔י וְשַׁוְעָתִ֖י בְּאָזְנָֽיו׃
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:
מגדיל יְשׁוּע֣וֹת מַלְכּ֑וֹ וְעֹֽשֶׂה־חֶ֧סֶד לִמְשִׁיח֛וֹ לְדָוִ֥ד וּלְזַרְע֖וֹ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ לוּלֵ֗י כַּ֤עַס אוֹיֵב֙ אָג֔וּר פֶּֽן־יְנַכְּר֖וּ צָרֵ֑ימוֹ פֶּן־יֹֽאמְרוּ֙ יָדֵ֣ינוּ רָ֔מָה וְלֹ֥א יְהוָ֖ה פָּעַ֥ל כָּל־זֹֽאת׃
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 still 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 :
מגדיל יְשׁוּע֣וֹת מַלְכּ֑וֹ וְעֹֽשֶׂה־חֶ֧סֶד לִמְשִׁיח֛וֹ לְדָוִ֥ד וּלְזַרְע֖וֹ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃
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. Obviously, those choosing to connect this haftarah to the Torah paratha, with Moshe’s truly amazing speech in Ha’azinu didn’t see this text from II Samuel as that problematic. However, I have to ask: what were they thinking?
The ancient rabbis seem to be victims of the same willful blindness that today is leading our world astray. This haftarah, being held up as a polemic against bad religious practice instead seems to be a justification for narcissistic behavior on the part of rulers. As Mel Brooks put it “it’s good to be the King.”
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. David, in this chapter, in this haftarah, sounds like a certain orange-toned demagogue that is currently plaguing our country.
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. Not today. Not in today’s reality. The journey continues.
©2018 (portions ©2012) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Shabbat Shuvah/Ha'azinu 5778 - Random Rant
Ha'azinu 5776 - Still Not Trifling
Ha'azinu-Shabbat Shuvah 5775 - Who's Got the Last Laugh Now
Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5774 - 5774: A Torah Odyssey
Ha'azinu 5772 - An Insincere Hymn?
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