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Rosh Hashanah I 5770

Rosh Hashanah:First Day
(1 Samuel 1:1-2:10)
September 19, 2009
1 Tishre 5770

The Babylonian Talmud cites Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, as the Jewish tradition\’s exemplar for how a person prays. It carefully catalogues her demeanor, her posture, her body language, and even the movement of her lips as she prayed to God to be granted a child. This fastidious attention to Hannah\’s actions served as a model for the recitation of the Amidah – the standing prayer. After this accounting, one sage, Rabbi Elazar, took notice of what seems to be an innocuous sentence: \”In her wretchedness, she prayed to (al) the Lord, weeping all the while.\” (1:10) He noted that the verse uses the preposition \”al\” (ayin lamed) which usually means \”on\” instead of the word \”el\” (alef lamed) which means \”to\”.

Most commentators understand \”al\” in this verse to mean \”to\”, but for Rabbi Elazar, it implied that Hannah was offering a direct challenge to God: \”Hannah spoke insolently toward Heaven (literally: hurled words toward Heaven), as it says: \’And Hannah prayed against God\’. (Berachot 31b) Surprisingly, the medieval commentators remain silent on this passage, offering neither an explanation nor apologetic. Rabbi Samuel Edels (Maharsha), who is known for his commentary on non-legal sections of the Talmud (aggadah), however, offers an explanation: \”This refers to a previous citation where Hannah challenged God for giving her breasts which served no purpose if she was childless.\”

Is Rabbi Elazar\’s teaching concerning Hannah\’s behavior an admonishment? It is interesting to note that he also includes Elijah the prophet along with Hannah as someone who challenged God in this way. It seems that at least for certain individuals such behavior was quite appropriate. The Jewish tradition is well known for its religious figures who were brash enough to challenge God for the \”right cause\”, among them some of its greatest figures, including Abraham and Moses. Certainly, Hannah and Elijah are to be included in this category?

What constitutes the proper conditions for such a challenge? Rav Avraham Kook, the first chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael (19th – 20th century) offers an interesting psycho-religious explanation: \”Since honoring God is the essence of completeness, a person is obliged to attempt to become whole in both ideas and deeds. When this yearning to become whole overcomes a person, he may be unable to restrain within himself his stormy spirit, when he perceives in the governance of the upper world things that prevent his wholeness, even though he acknowledges for himself that God is ultimately just and by Him all acts are measured. Still, when he discerns that the opportunity to become whole might be missed, he cannot remain complacent. His bitterness spills forth and he permits his holy feelings to supplant his reason so that he or his holy cause might become complete. This is what is meant by \”And Hannah prayed unto God\”, namely, that in her stormy spirit, she poured forth her soul in prayer for the sake of wholeness in the world, and in so doing, elevated herself above her rational senses which were focused on reaching God. (adapted from Ein Ayah – Berachot 31b)

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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