On the first day of Rosh Hashanah (which is also the first of the 10 days of repentance) we read the extraordinary efforts of Chana to conceive. What first jumps out at you in the story is God’s overt role in making Chana barren. וַֽה’ סָגַ֥ר רַחְמָֽהּ “And God closed her womb.” (Shmuel I -1:5). Her infertility is described in a far more emphatic manner than the term עֲקָרָ֑ה (unable to conceive) which the Torah used for Sarah, Rachel and Rivka).
After living in misery Chana undertakes an audacious plan. She makes a vow that if she is granted a son she will give him over to be raised by Eli the High Priest, and the child will be a ‘Nazir’ for life. God grants her request. It’s an inspiring story of courage and faith, yet one might ask – why is this story read on Rosh Hashanah?*
There is one word Chana uses which gives creative license to view the story from the unique perspective of Midrash Tanchuma. After the baby is born and she keeps her side of the bargain, Chana gives praise to God using the following unusual phrase:
ולא [וְל֥וֹ] נִתְכְּנ֖וּ עֲלִלֽוֹת
“..and (God), didn’t engage in subterfuges.” (Shmuel I – 2:3)
Chana is essentially saying that God runs the world. Although she experienced a tremendous hardship and humiliation, everything happened for a reason. She accepted her fate and her gratitude to God is overflowing. But that word that she used, עֲלִלֽוֹת subterfuges, brings a whole new dimension to the story.
Midrash Tanchuma in parshat Vayeishev points out several instances in which it seems like God was, so to speak, manipulating the outcome of events. The same term is used there – עֲלִילָה ‘Alilah.’ Among the events in question were whether the mortality of all of Mankind should be blamed entirely on Adam. After all it was already written in the Torah ”This is the law of man who dies in a tent” (Bamidbar, 19:14 – Midrash Tanchuma Vayeishev 4:2). Since the Torah was the blueprint for creation, God must have planned for this in advance. This is not a theological problem since God is beyond time. Rather, the Midrash is arguing that mortality was inevitable.
In retelling the story of the sale of Yoseph, Midrash Tanchuma uses the same term “Alilah” to shift some of the blame to God. It’s all quite simple, God caused Yaakov to have a special love for Yoseph so the brothers would be jealous and sell Yoseph. God’s objective was to bring Yaakov and his family down to Egypt.** This is not to say the brothers didn’t sin. God set up a difficult test for them and the result was a tragic act of cruelty and disunity with dire consequences. Nevertheless, Yaakov and his sons came down to Egypt which was God’s plan all along.
Finally, Midrash Tanchuma proves that God had already determined that Moshe was not to enter the Promised Land. So, once again, it seems unfair (an Alilah) to say that Moshe was to blame for his inability to enter the land because he hit the rock.
Now, when we plug the notion of “Alilah” back into the story of Chana, it seems to be yet another incidence of God’s interference. After all, Chana’s baby was the prophet Shmuel and his greatness was surely due in part to his being raised by the high priest Eli. So in closing Chana’s womb God was maneuvering events to bring the great prophet Shmuel on the scene.
What’s even more fascinating is the fact that the phrase that Chana used in praising God can be understood in two ways. She declared ולא נִתְכְּנ֖וּ עֲלִלֽוֹת “and (God), didn’t engage in
subterfuges.” (Shmuel I – 2:3). This word “didn’t” ולא is what’s called the “ketiv” – the way the word is spelled. But the Torah also provided the “K’ri” – the way the word should be pronounced. Here the meaning is just the opposite: וְל֥וֹ נִתְכְּנ֖וּ עֲלִלֽוֹת “and to him (God), belongs the subterfuges.” Whenever you have a “ketiv” and “K’ri” the Torah is telling you that both interpretations are correct. Chana felt that everything happened the way it was supposed to happen and her free choice was never compromised. However, it is also fair to say that God sets up tests for us in order to bring about events that conform to the way God wants Jewish destiny to unfold.
A primer on how God runs the world
Perhaps this story is read on the first of the Asseret Yemei Teshuva to convey the not so subtle message that our lives are a series of tests. We are judged on how we react to these tests. We can fall into familiar patterns like Chana who, at first, refused to partake in the yearly sacrifices and preferred to bear the burden of her sadness alone. However we also have the choice to undertake a bold new initiative, like Chana, and break out of old patterns of behavior.
God operates at the intersection of destiny and free will. If you want to repent it’s best you know the ground rules.
* The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11a) points out that the prayers of Chana, Rachel and Sarah were all answered on Rosh Hashanah
**וְיוֹסֵ֖ף הוּרַ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יְמָה “And Joseph was brought down to Egypt” (Bereishis, 39:1) ,(since there are no vowels in the Torah) don’t read it (in the passive tense) as “hurad” (“Joseph was brought down”) rather as “horid (“God caused”) his father and the tribes to descend to Egypt.”He made Yaakov love Yoseph, so that his brothers hated him (Yoseph), and as a result they sold him to the Ishmaelite’s, who brought him to Egypt” (Midrash Tanchuma Vayeishev 4:4).The Midrash also says that the Jews could have come down to Egypt in chains. Instead, God engineered a way for them to come down with pride – under the protection of the Viceroy of Egypt.