First Day Rosh Hashana 5773 (on Hagar and Hannah, and making teshuva from where we are)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

If you have a strong sense of guilt, and if the caricature has any foundation in reality, many Jews do, there can be a peculiar dilemma during this time of year: either we experience guilt about our personal failings, or, we experience guilt at our failure to experience guilt about our personal failings!

However much the liturgical additions, rabbinic texts and blasts of the shofar may tell us that this is the time to make teshuva, real changes in ourselves, it rarely feels like the right time. Only at a very few moments in our lives do we realise that we are in just the right place to reflect, decide and enact the decision to change.

But what is “just the right place”? In a few minutes, we’ll read about some women in very different places in their lives, and see what we can learn from their stories.

We begin with Sarah:

 וַה’ פָּקַד אֶת-שָׂרָה 

And God “remembered” Sarah… (Gen 21:1)

Last year, in a dvar Torah at this time, Tamar explored the meaning of the word “pakad”, sharing an understanding of it as “putting things back into whack”, and inspiring us, during this season of teshuva, to “return” our own lives to the way they should be.

It is clear that after God’s promise of a child to Abraham and Sarah, laughing notwithstanding, Sarah “should” become pregnant, and so when this comes to pass, God is “putting things back into whack”.

In our lives, however, we are less sure that what we want, or even need, is “the way things should be” in some cosmic plan. In fact, as we sit in court on this Day of Judgement, we may have a nagging concern that if God were to judge evenhandedly, we would in fact be found liable.

The Ramban (Lev 23:24) calls Rosh Hashana “Yom Din berahamim”, “The day of mostly strict judgement, with an element of compassion” and yom kippur: “yom rahamim badin”, “the day of mostly compassion, with an element of strict judgement”. We are relieved by the increasing proportion of compassion in God’s perspective, as, if judged on our merits alone, we may not pass the test.

Though we seek to make teshuva, returning ourselves to how we should be, what we seek from God is compassion beyond what we deserve.

Luckily there are two more women in our readings today who are treated with compassion by God. These latter two seem to be coming from diametrically opposed places, yet both arouse God’s compassion. From them, we can learn something of when and where teshuva is possible.

Hagar is the first. As we know, Sarah is the mother of the covenant. Whatever part the Ishmaelites are to play in God’s plan, they are a supporting role to the star of the Torah, Israel. Hagar is originally Sarah’s foreign handmaid, not even fully her own person. Twice literally sent out from the camp of Abraham, she is the ultimate outsider. In our parasha today, when she is lost in the wilderness without enough water, she feels she has no-one to turn to. She does not pray to God; perhaps she does not feel empowered to do so. She makes no heroic attempt to save herself and her son. Heart-rendingly, she sets the boy down and walks away, so that she does not have to see him die. She is without hope.

But the child’s name is Yishmael – God will hear – and God does hear them. God sends an angel to comfort her, reveals a well, and protects and ennobles her son as he grows up into a warrior and a nation.

How does this come about? How can we have our prayers answered, when we lack as much as the capacity to put them into words and direct them to God?

The Talmud, in effect, asks this question when it queries why even Rabbi Yohanan, whose prayers had helped heal others, needs someone else to pray on his behalf when he is very sick. It finds this answer:

אין חבוש מתיר עצמו מבית האסורים

The subjugated one cannot release themself from prison. (BT Berakhot 5b)

Sometimes, one is in such a low place, that someone else has to step in. From Hagar’s place of lowliness, God has compassion on her, takes the initiative, and answers her un-vocalised request.

When we turn to the haftarah, we have another model entirely. Our heroine is Hannah, who knows exactly where to turn when she is in need of help conceiving. In fact, she is going there anyway. Hannah is an insider, making a regular annual pilgrimage with her Israelite family to the House of God at Shilo, the Israelite religious centre of the time. Though she, too, is broken-hearted, she knows what to do: she goes into the sanctuary, prays to God and offers a deal – if she is given a son, he will be dedicated to serving God. She gets what she wants, and God gets something too. Not an agreement amongst equals perhaps, but the proposal of a somewhat empowered woman.

The Rabbis take this image and magnify it in a fascinating series of midrashim in the Talmud. (BT Berakhot 30b-31a)

  • Firstly, Rav Hamnuna offers Hannah as a paradigm of prayer in the Tenakh, deriving (or back-sourcing) several technical laws from her actions. If Rav Hamnuna is learning halakha from Hannah, her approach to God must be considered exemplary.
  • Rabbi Elazar teaches that Hannah was the first person to address God as “Hashem tzevaot” – God of legions, and that she appealed to God’s sense of fairness. She then threatened God, saying: If You don’t give me a child willingly, I’ll force You to give me a child by drawing suspicion of adultery upon myself. I’ll then be put through the Sotah trial-by-ordeal, and the Torah guarantees a child for the woman found innocent. Then, if You don’t give me what I want, Your Torah will be proved to be a fraud. So You may as well just comply now!
  • In a midrash in the name of Rabbi Yosi ben Zimra, Hannah makes an argument that it is only logical that she be given a child.
  • Rabbi Yosi be’Rabbi Hanina has Hannah pointing out her flawless observance of women’s mitzvot.
  • A group of rabbis try to identify the specificities of the request that Hannah makes, including a proposal that she demands a child equivalent in greatness to Moses and Aaron!
  • Finally, and in possibly the only non-complementary statement, Rabbi Elazar adds that she spoke brazenly before God.

She discerns a new name for God, reasons with God, threatens God, demonstrates her piety and her knowledge of Torah. In short, she knows how to work the system. And this pays off. God remembers her – veyizkereha Hashem (with the root zakhar, not pakad) (1 Sam 1:19) and she has a son: Samuel, the first of the prophets.

There is a rabbinic paradigm that contrasts with the sick Rabbi Yohanan – the subjugated one who needs an intervenor: Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya (BT Avoda Zara 17a) led a life of licentiousness, but when he received a divine pronouncement that his teshuva will never be accepted, he finally sought to repent. He asks the hills and mountains, the Heavens and the Earth, the Sun and the Moon, and the stars and constellations to intervene on his behalf. They all refuse, saying “ad sheanu mevakshim alekha, nevakesh al-atzmenu” – we can’t ask for compassion for you, we still have to ask for compassion for ourselves. Finally, he understands, and says “ein ha-davar talui ela bi” – the matter depends only upon me. He must stand up and take responsibility for his own teshuva – no-one can intercede for him.

Though Hannah was not making teshuva, she was still “mevakeshet rahamim”- asking God for compassion, and like Elazar ben Durdaya, she knew that she had to be the active party, that she – and perhaps only she – was empowered to make her case before God, and that if she did, God may well respond with compassion.

Rav Solveitchik identified two different kinds of teshuva. (Besdin, Man of Faith in the Modern World, “Rabbi Akiba’s Homily on Teshuva”, 133-140) One is the active kind of teshuva, that is compared to immersing in a mikveh to purifying oneself, and he associates this with the example of Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya – “ein ha-davar talui ela bi” – the matter depends only upon me . We can now extend this to the model of approaching God displayed by Hannah: we have to take the initiative and put in the effort. God will accept our teshuva, but it is something that we do, not something that is done to us.

The other kind of teshuva is a passive teshuva, a real outpouring of external compassion, which I think we can see in the needs of the sick Rabbi Yohanan –  אין חבוש מתיר עצמו מבית האסורים – “the subjugated one cannot release themself from prison” – and in Hagar. This kind of teshuva the Rav compares to the ritual of the red hefer. People who have been contaminated by contact with a dead body cannot be purified by – actively – immersing in a mikveh. Rather, a priest who is ritually pure scatters water mixed with the ashes of the hefer onto them. For this most severe form of impurity, we need the outside intervention of the priest. So too, Rabbi Yohanan was severely ill, and Hagar was entirely bereft. Hence, they needed an external intervention.

As I alluded to earlier, there is a great temptation to defer teshuva. This is why Rabbi Eliezer (Avot 2:10, BT Shabbat 153a) recommended making teshuva the day before you die, and when his students complained that this was impossible, he said (presumably adding  in “aha!”) that one must therefore repent every single day.

Even with Rabbi Eliezer’s exhortation, we rationalise. We say, “I’m not in the right place to make that change now. Once I finish this project…; once I find a partner…; when I start my next job… then I’ll make those changes.”

Indeed, we are not all as smart, sincere, knowledgeable and confident as Hannah – at least not all the time! We may not feel that we have the access to God’s mercy that she had – or a corresponding capacity to change. But we are also not as destitute as Hagar. Sometimes we feel more like insiders, and sometimes more like outsiders; sometimes more empowered, at other times less so.

Rav Soloveitcik taught that the “active” teshuva can be done at any time.  We may say: at any time when we are capable of doing so – empowered, knowledgeable, confident, like Hannah. The “passive” teshuva, says the Rav, is reserved for Yom Kippur. This is for when we are entirely bereft and disempowered. But the Torah says that “כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה….” “on this day”…:  “לִפְנֵי ה’ תִּטְהָרוּ ” – “…before God you will be purified”.(Lev 16:30)

A message, then, of today’s readings is that wherever we find ourselves, we cannot say that we must defer our teshuva. No matter our circumstances, there is a teshuva for us – a way to improve who we are and to receive God’s compassion. We are required to draw on our Hannah characteristics as much as we can, engaging in teshuva as actively as possible. And when that is impossible, then, just as in the story of Hagar, God will still be there to help us.

Le-shana tova umetuka tikatevu