On the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of Chana’s extraordinary offer to God in order to have a child. Her bold action showed amazing courage and initiative. But why is this story read on Rosh Hashanah – the first of the Asseret Yemei Teshuva?
Looking at the story from the unique perspective of Midrash Tanchuma, there is a familiar theme here. The Midrash often deals with the interplay between God overtly intervening in the affairs of Mankind and God’s vigilance in safeguarding free will. The more God manifests direct control over events, the less free will there is. As an extreme example, when God split the “Red Sea” it was hard for the Jews to deny God’s mastery over nature and write off the miracle as an unusual weather pattern. (Although an article in the NYTimes did suggest it).
In Midrash Tanchuma of parshat Vayeishev, God is, so to speak, accused of interfering with free will. The term used there is an עֲלִילָה “Alilah” which means “subterfuge” or “working behind the scenes” or “influencing the outcome of events.” Among the events in question were whether mortality should be blamed on Adam when it seemed to have been inevitable, whether God encouraged the sale of Yoseph, and whether God denying Moshe’s entrance into Israel was really based on hitting the rock. The outcome of all these inquiries was that God does indeed influence the outcome of events.
The Haftorah for the first day of Rosh Hashana seems to be yet another incidence of interference:
True, it was destined that the great prophet Shmuel was to be born from Chana and Elakana. It seemed that in order to “encourage” this outcome God handed Chana a terrible hardship:
וַֽה’ סָגַ֥ר רַחְמָֽהּ׃
“And God blocked 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)*. Year after year Chana suffered terribly. Finally she made a bold offer to God:
וְנָתַתָּ֥ה לַאֲמָתְךָ֖ זֶ֣רַע אֲנָשִׁ֑ים** וּנְתַתִּ֤יו לַֽיהוָה֙ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו וּמוֹרָ֖ה לֹא־יַעֲלֶ֥ה עַל־רֹאשֽׁוֹ׃
“And if You will grant Your maidservant a male child**, I will dedicate him to God for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.” (Shmuel I -1:11)
This, in effect, meant that instead of experiencing the great joy of raising her own son, Chana placed her child under the tutelage of the great high priest Eli. Chana and Elkana had to watch his prodigious development from afar.
It’s true that Chana came up with this valiant solution on her own. Total free will. However, God certainly put her to the test. Quite a harsh test at that. If she did not find a solution, her alternative was to remain in misery.
Ironically, when all is said and done, and Chana brings her son to live in the house of Eli, she uses the very same term, עֲלִילָה “Alilah,” which the Midrash used for “influencing the outcome of events.”
ולא [וְל֥וֹ] נִתְכְּנ֖וּ עֲלִלֽוֹת
“By Him (God) actions are measured.” (Shmuel I – 2:3)
She is essentially saying that God runs the world. Although it oftentimes makes no sense to us, everything – even painful events – happen for a reason.
Is repentance about breaking patterns?
On the first of the Asseret Yemei Teshuva there is a not so subtle message here that our lives are a series of tests. We are judged on how we react to these tests. We can fall into familiar patterns. Chana, at first refused to partake in the yearly sacrifices and preferred to bear the burden of her sadness alone. Then Chana employed a bold initiative to break out of that pattern.
When faced with difficulty, we too have the free will to soul search, intuit, or consult with those that are wiser than us. Then, in the spirit of Chana, try a bold new initiative. Experience a spiritual growth spurt. Or we can continue to suffer, and miss an opportunity for growth and moral courage.
*Sarah: וַתְּהִ֥י שָׂרַ֖י עֲקָרָ֑ה אֵ֥ין לָ֖הּ וָלָֽד (Bereishis 11:30), Rivka: וַיֶּעְתַּ֨ר יִצְחָ֤ק לַֽיהֹוָה֙ לְנֹ֣כַח אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ כִּ֥י עֲקָרָ֖ה הִ֑וא (Bereishis 25:21), Rachel: רָחֵ֖ל עֲקָרָֽה (Bereishis 29:31)
**Many commentators take this unusual turn of phrase זֶ֣רַע אֲנָשִׁ֑ים (seed of men) to mean that Chana was praying for a son of spiritual stature