#266: Pushing Away the Angel of Death
Rashi on Habakkuk 3:5
The Prophet Ḥabakkuk by James Tissot (bio). On display at the Jewish Museum in New York City.
Gimme Some Torah #266
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לְפָנָ֖יו יֵ֣לֶךְ דָּ֑בֶר וְיֵצֵ֥א רֶ֖שֶׁף לְרַגְלָֽיו׃
Pestilence marches in front,
And plague comes forth at God’s heels.
The Torah reading this Shabbat is the reading assigned to the second day of Shavuot. The Haftarah is read from Ḥabakkuk, a seventh century BCE Jewish prophet who preached in Babylon. He is best known for challenging God to explain why the oppressive Babylonians are spared the punishment they so richly deserve.
God’s answer to Ḥabakkuk is essentially, “Have faith, the Babylonians will get what’s coming to them.” The third and final chapter of the book metaphorically describes the Holy One as an enraged warrior who has arrived to deliver a just and terrifying retribution.
Ḥabakkuk 3:5 in particular caught my eye because of its brilliant imagery, the sight of pestilence marching in God’s vanguard and plague bringing up the rear. What should we make of this horrible yet fascinating metpahor?
Rashi’s interpretation of the verse is relevant to Shavuot, the holiday on which we celebrate the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai:
A pestilence marches in front; I found in a Midrash Aggadah: At the time the Holy One, gave the Torah to Israel, God drove away the Angel of Death to divert him to other things, lest he stand to accuse and say, “You are giving the Torah to a nation that is destined to deny you at the end of forty days?”
We assume that God, the Creator of Time and Space, knew that Israel would worship the Golden Calf forty days after revelation. Even so, God gave them the Torah anyway. So why, according to Rashi, did God bother to divert the Angel of Death and prevent him from testifying against Israel? If God loves Israel so much, why would the Holy One care what the Angel of Death had to say?
The answer, I think, is that God cares about the sins that we have actually committed, not the sins we might commit in the future. On the one hand, when God gave the Torah to Moses, Israel’s worship of the Golden Calf was still just a theoretical possibility. Israel could have changed course. Therefore, Israel’s forthcoming apostasy did not disqualify them from receiving the Law.
The Angel of Death in Rashi’s midrash, on the other hand, would have condemned Israel for something they had not yet done. From the standpoint of traditional Jewish theology, God punishes (and forgives) only past transgressions, not future ones.
Our Jewish reaction to prior sin is guilt, a legitimate feeling of embarrassment for what we have done. But if we are subjected to embarrassment for things we have not yet done, then the feeling we experience is not guilt but shame.
In a guilt based culture, we are good people who do bad things and who need to seek forgiveness. In a shame based culture, our sins permanently transform us into bad people.
Jewish culture is guilt based, whereas many other cultures—particularly in the Arab and East Asian cultures—are shame based. A guilt based culture tells people to strive for morality, while a shame based culture tells people to strive for honor. The shame-guilt-fear spectrum is a well-tread topic in both religion and anthropology, and you can read what Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (ז׳׳ל) said about it here.
Some argue that America, once an exclusively guilt based culture, is turning into a shame based culture. Rather than punishing people for what they have done, we have bought into the idea of punishing people for their opinions or for immutable characteristics like race. Do you agree with this idea? Why or why not?
The midrash suggests that the Holy One, the Judge of the Universe, dismissed the prosecutor (the Angel of Death) just before revelation. What does that image suggest about the Jewish concept of God?
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Rabbi Eli Garfinkel is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey. He is the author of The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary.