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PARSHA HA'AZINU

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Parashat Ha’azinu

“There is no Rock like our God”

Rav M. Elon

 

 

As we stand immediately prior to Rosh ha’Shanah, we will devote our discussion to the topic of Divine curing of infertility. 

 

Rosh ha’Shanah has as its focus point the healing of the infertility of Sara, Rachel, and Chana.  This is also the context of the Torah Reading on the first day of Rosh ha’Shanah, “And God remembered Sara,” (Bereshit 21:1;) as well as the content of the Haftara which deals with God’s grace to the barren Chana who then gives birth to seven children.

 

We are all familiar with the words of our Sages that there were seven pivotal female characters who suffered infertility: Sara, Rivka, Leah – the verse describing Leah states “And she ceased giving birth,” (Bereshit 29:35,) which indicates a cessation of the ability to give birth, Chana, the Shunamite woman (who our Sages comment merited to conceive on Rosh ha’Shanah,) and finally the seventh individual to suffer this disability was Zion, the verse turning to Zion as follows: “Sing, O barren (woman,) you who has not born (children,)” (Yeshayahu 54:1.)

 

In any event, as we mentioned previously, the curing of the infertility of a number of people occurred on Rosh ha’Shanah, which leads us to question the specific link of this act to Rosh ha’Shanah.  It seems that we will be able to understand this properly through a study of this phenomenon of infertility – when it first appeared and what its purpose is.

 

The parashot which open the Torah, Bereshit and No’ach, hold within them the historical records of a period of no less than two thousand years.  One of the clear characteristics of these parashot is the genealogical lines that develop and expand.  Then, in the one thousand and forty-eighth year after creation, Avraham our forefather is born.  When he is fifty-two years of age the first two thousand years of “To’hu” (“Chaos”) of the earth’s existence come to their conclusion.  And then a phenomenon that has never previously manifested occurs – barrenness and infertility.  Our Matriarchs experience infertility – not as an abnormal, irregular phenomenon, but as an event that each and every one of the Matriarchs are to experience!  There seems to be a fundamental defining contrast between the first two thousand “To’hu” years of the earth’s existence wherein we observe a steady development of the various familial lines, and the beginning of the rectifying “years of Torah” which begin with infertility.

 

We must note that the infertility of our Matriarchs is not simply a local, contained crisis, rather this is a reality that leaves its mark throughout history until our contemporary age.

 

Examining Sarah we understand that if it were not for her inability to bear children, Avraham would never have taken Sarah’s maidservant Hagar as his wife, (which he only did at Sarah’s own request.)  An entire national identity, that of Yishma’el, would never have appeared had this not occurred.  So too without Rachel’s infertility Ya’akov would never have taken her maidservant Bil’hah, (and then Leah’s maidservant Zilpa,) and thus the twelve tribes would never have eventuated - the births of Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher possibly never having occurred.

 

One of those barren women who merited an answer to her prayers for children on Rosh ha’Shanah was Chana.  

We will study this concept of infertility as well as its Divine cure through the medium of Chana’s infertility.

 

“And there was a certain man of Ramatayim-Tzofim, of Mount Efrayim, and his name was Elkanah, the son of Yerocham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tochu, the son of Tzuf, an Efrathite.”

(Shemu’el I 1,1)

 

[The term “an Efrathite” denotes that he was of the Tribe of Efrayim, the tribe named thus based on the verse “For God made me fruitful (“hifrani,”)” (Bereshit 41:52.) Thus we observe another deep contradiction within Elkanah’s household, a contradiction between the continuing ancestral lines flowing from one generation to the next, especially within the Tribe of Efrayim, as opposed to Chanah’s inability to conceive.]

 

We observe a verse which gives us a detailed description of Elkanah’s familial heritage – something which is not pure semantics but which serves to amplify the great paradox between his strong, developed lines of ancestry and his own wife’s inability to continue that chain of tradition.

 

“And he had two wives: the name of the one was Chanah, and the name of the other Peninah; and Peninah had children, but Chanah had no children.  And this man would go out of his city year by year to worship and sacrifice to the Lord of hosts in Shiloh.  And the two sons of Eli, Chofni and Pinchas, were there as priests of the Lord.  And on the day that Elkanah sacrificed, he gave portions to Peninah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters.  But to Chanah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Chanah; but God had closed her womb.

(ibid. v. 2-5)

 

“But God had closed her womb” – this is also illustrates the inherent contradiction between the womb which is intended to be open and to give birth, creating the flow of generations, and the reality of that instrument of fertility which is described as being closed and contained.  Elkanah’s household is filled with internal tension.

 

 “And her adversary also provoked her bitterly, in order to agitate her, because God had closed her womb.  And as he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of God, so she would provoke her; therefore she wept, and did not eat.”

(ibid. v. 6,7)

 

Elkanah the loving husband attempts to ease the burden that his beloved wife must bear.

 

“Then Elkanah her husband said to her, ‘Chanah, why do you cry?  And why do you not eat?  And why is your heart grieved?  Am I not better to you than ten sons?’”

(ibid. v. 8)

 

However Chanah does not even react to her husband’s efforts in appeasing her – not out of disrespect for him – but rather as a result of the simple fact that his endeavors are entirely unable to counter the terrible anguish that she experiences.

 

“So Chanah rose up after the eating and the drinking in Shiloh; and Eli the priest sat upon the seat by the gate-post of the temple of the God.

(ibid. v. 9)

 

Chanah moves between two men, each misunderstanding her in their own contexts.  She moves between her husband and the “Rabbi,” Eli ha’Kohen, who mistakes her behavior for that of a drunk.

 

“And she came, and was in bitterness of soul, and she prayed to (“al”) God, and wept bitterly.  And she vowed a vow, and said: ‘O Lord of Hosts, if You will look on the affliction of your maidservant, and will remember me, and will not forget Your maidservant; and You will give your maidservant a male child - then I will give him to God all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.’”

(ibid. v. 10,11)

 

Chanah’s prayer is defined as a prayer “al ha’Shem,” (literally “about God,”) as opposed to a prayer “to God,” or “before God.”  It would in fact seem that the word “al” is the incorrect preposition in this context, for praying “al” – “about” – indicates praying for the welfare of a certain individual other than for the welfare of she who offers the prayer.  Here, however, the literal meaning of the verse indicates her prayer as a prayer for her own welfare, that she should merit to conceive and give birth.  Certainly it cannot be understood as a prayer about God.

 

Our Sages understood this terminology of the verse as expressing the severe style of Chanah’s plea to God:

“And Rabi El’azar said: ‘Chanah made severe statements to God, as the verse states ‘and she prayed ‘al’ God’ – indicating that she made critical statements to God.’”

(Berachot 31b)

 

Therefore Chanah speaks harshly in her prayer – yet she is not speaking harshly as a result of mere frustration.  She expresses herself in this manner as a result of completely different emotions and concerns.  Our Sages expound the nature of her vow as follows:

“‘And she vowed a vow, and said: ‘O Lord of Hosts…’’ – Rabi Elazar said: ‘From the day that God created His world there was no-one who called Him ‘Lord of Hosts’ until Chanah (prayed) and called Him (Lord of) Hosts.’”

(ibid.)

 

The term “Lord of Hosts” is recorded in the Torah prior to Chanah, yet no-one had used this term in designating God.  Chanah, herself, explains the significance of this term “Lord of Hosts:”

“Chanah said before God: ‘Master of the Universe, from the myriads of hosts that You created in Your universe – is it difficult in Your eyes to give me one son?’”

(ibid.)

 

The intensity of the anguish that is contained in these words is clearly apparent, and certainly needs no further clarification.  However it is surprising that our Sages felt the need to expand on this by means of a parable.

“To what parable can this be compared?  To (the parable of) a human king who made a feast for his servants, and one poor person arrived (at the feast,) and stood by the door.  He said to them: ‘Give me one slice (of bread,)’ yet they paid no attention to him.  He pushed his way in and went to the king.  He said to him: ‘My lord, king, from this entire feast you have made is it difficult in your eyes to give me one slice (of bread?)’”

(ibid.)

 

The necessity for this parable is in order to clarify a concept that the incident represented by the parable does not fully clarify itself.  Thus, this parable is the basis for understanding this topic, and therefore we will examine it.

 

Let us imagine a destitute person who subsists from scrounging around trash bins.  It makes sense that this individual will have made his way around the king’s palace numerous times in his search for food – each time having shamefully been driven away by the king’s servants and members of his circle.  This penniless person then makes it through the various security measures, and penetrates the king’s inner circle, ultimately standing face to face with the king with only one request: a slice of bread.

 

How was this impoverished individual able to make it through the king’s security and numerous guards?  In truth it is the deep-seated conviction that this destitute individual possesses that leads to the situation wherein it is only the king – and no other – who may assist him.  He has one desire, exerting great efforts in order that he realize his wish: to see the king face to face without any intermediary.  This impoverished man must have had to move through the sewerage pipes, climbing rain gutters and scaling walls in order to steal into the palace, for entry through the palace gates in the manner of the noble aristocrats is certainly not afforded to him.

 

Surely when he reaches the king his clothes will bear the stench of the sewers that were his path in order to reach the king.  And behold!  He has succeeded and he stands before the king.  He requests one slice of bread from the king, and it is in this request that we observe his greatness over the ministers and nobles in the king’s court.  While the latter receive their cuisine from the king’s servants and waiters, this destitute, impoverished individual, despite requesting no more than a small slice of bread, receives his bread directly from the king without any intermediaries.

 

However there is an even harsher inference in the request for a slice of bread from the king.  In placing this request before the king the impoverished beggar insinuates that his lacking one slice of bread is by no means his shame, but rather the shame and disgrace of the king!

How is it possible that in a world and in a kingdom that are subject to you, there are impoverished individuals who lack a slice of bread?

 

Chanah speaks harshly to God, yet she does not thrust her grievances at God, as if to say that the fact that she does not have a child is a terrible disgrace for the King, a shame on God.  Thus, when she does merit to conceive, the child’s name will be Shemu’el – since he will be lent (“sha’ul”) to God.  She does not desire to keep her child for herself, rather she aims to grant him to God.

 

This is the fundamental notion of prayer that we derive from her. Chanah teaches the nation throughout all its generations that prayer for herself is in fact prayer for God, for her entire will is to fulfill His will, and His will is to accomplish hers.  This is the impoverished individual whose entire desire is to appear before the king.

 

The basis of this can be derived from the word “Mechilah” – “forgiveness” – with all its varied significances in Hebrew.

What is “Mechilah?”

One significance of this word is to forgive, or to pardon.  Another definition of this word (which seems entirely disassociated from its general significances) is to excavate a cavity or a tunnel in a boulder or a mountain.

Moshe Rabbenu taught Yisra’el how to ask forgiveness at the “Crevice in the Rock,” (Shemot 33:22.)

 

Moshe pleads:

“And he said, ‘I beg You, show me Your glory.’”

(Shemot 33:18)

 

God then responds:

“And He said, ‘I will have all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of God before you; and I will show compassion to whom I will show compassion, and I will be merciful to whom I will be merciful.” (ibid. v.19)

 

Then God adds:

“And He said, You are incapable of seeing My face; for no man shall see Me and live.’  And God said, ‘Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand upon the rock; And while My glory passes by, I will place you in a crevice in the rock, and will I cover you with My hand until I have (completely) passed by; And I will remove My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”

(ibid. v.20-23)

 

Moshe is placed, then, in the crevice in the rock, in a “Mechila” – a hollowed excavation in the rock – and it is there that he learns the Thirteen Divine Attributes, (which are the significance of his request of Mechila from God.)

 

“…And God descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and He called out with the name of God.  And God passed by before him, and he (Moshe) called out: ‘God, God, Lord, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth.  Preserver of kindness for thousands (of generations,) Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, Who does not clear (those who do not repent;) visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, to the third and to the fourth generation.’”

(ibid. 34:5-7)

 

Our Sages commented on the expression “I will show compassion on whom I will show compassion,” in the following manner:

 

“‘And He said, ‘I will have all My goodness pass before you,’’ – (this is) the attribute of goodness as well as the attribute of calamity.

‘And I will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.’ – at that moment God showed him all the storehouses containing all the reward primed for the righteous.  Moshe then said: ‘This storehouse, to whom does it belong?’  And God answered him, ‘To those who perform Mitzvot’. 

‘And this (second) storehouse, to whom does it belong?’

‘To those who raise orphans.’

And so on through each storehouse.”

(Shemot Rabba 45:6 s.v. va’yomer)

 

All these individuals merit a storehouse as a result of their own actions.  There is another dimension, however:

“And afterwards He showed him a large storehouse.

(Moshe) asked: ‘Whose storehouse is this?’

(God) answered him: ‘He who deserves reward, I give him from the appropriate (storehouse of that) reward.  He who has no reward – I give him free gifts (“matnat chinam”) from this (storehouse,) as the verse states: ‘And I will show compassion (“v’chanoti”) on whom I will show compassion (“a’chon.”)’

‘And I will show compassion on whom I will show compassion,’ to he whom I desire to give (reward,) and so too (the verse) ‘and I will be merciful to whom I will be merciful.’”

(ibid.)

 

This, then, is the largest storehouse, the storehouse of the “free gifts.”  [This is also the one term that Ya’akov repeatedly employs: “These are the children whom God has been gracious enough to grant (“chanan”) me,” (Bereshit 33:5;) “For God has been gracious (“chanani”) to me,” (ibid. v. 11.)  All these that you see are not mine, but are rather “free gifts” from God.”]

How, then, does one excavate a Mechila, a hollowed tunnel, in a rock?

 

Each party begins to excavate from his side, tunneling through the obstacle until both parties meet in the center.  This is exactly the Divine Mechila.  God, too, so too speak excavates and tunnels from His side, with the expectation that the individual will also begin his act of digging, thus bringing man and his Creator together again.

 

The rock, “tzur,” represents a narrow, “tzar,” space.  The word “tzur” serves as the basis for the words “tzura,” “form.”  It is specifically through a narrow spaces that the rock is lent its form – specifically through the hardship and tough surrounds.  The knowledge that God is with us though our hard ordeals (“tzara,”) and that the purpose of these hardships is to shape one’s form is what offers man the possibility to excavate the tunnel beginning from his side to then reveal that God has also tunneled towards him. 

 

An expression of this mutual tunneling of man and God can be found in the words of the first Lubavitch Rebbe on the verse:

“Return to Me, and I will return to you.”

(Mal’achi 3:7)

 

The Alter Rebbe asks what the verse’s “I will return to you” means.  How can God “return” to man?  Indeed “the whole earth is full of His glory?” (Yeshayahu 6:3.)  The Alter Rebbe explains that the greatest distance between two people exists when they stand right next to each other – but each faces the opposite direction.  The terminology “Return to Me, and I will return to you” embodies God’s request, so to speak, that we should turn our faces to Him.  Certainly then His countenance will turn towards us, and thus we will meet face to face.

 

We find a beautiful expression of this concept in a poem of Leah Goldberg:

“It is not the ocean that is between us;

It is not the mountains that are between us;

It is us who are between us.”

 

When the world’s two thousand years of Tikkun, Rectification, begin, then the great tribulations begin to appear.  When Rachel tells Ya’akov “Give me children, or else I will die,” (Bereshit 30:1,) Ya’akov answers her: “Am I in God's place, who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?”  (ibid. v. 2.)

 

Rachel desires a blessing for “fruit of the womb” from the righteous ‘Tzadik’ - ‘Saint.’  She has already experienced great anguish, has also visited many hospitals and health professionals, and now she turns to Ya’akov.  Ya’akov answers her that if God has withheld fruit of the womb from her it is a sign that her spiritual status is such that her prayers reach the highest spiritual realms.  Therefore Ya’akov’s prayers will certainly not assist her in reach the heights that she requires – why then is she requesting his blessing?  (This is the understanding of the events according to the Ramban and the Redak.)

 

Chanah’s own name hints at the “matnat chinam,” the “free gift.”  She offers a whispered prayer for now her innermost secrets pour out in a manner that no man may access them.

 

When Elisha asks the Shunamite woman whether she has any request, she answers:

“I live among my own people,” (Melachim II 4:13.)  This was as if to say: “Do not concern yourself with my welfare, a private individual – your concern must be for the Eternal and its complete appearance in the world.”

 

We may conclude that if we believe in Mechila - we have the ability to dig and excavate through rock.  Then we will reveal that our Father is on the other side.

The impoverished beggar came before the king only to request a slice of bread, he did not make any additional lavish requests for when the king would meet with him he would know better than the beggar himself what it was the beggar required.

 

The healing of infertility is the soul quality of Am Yisra’el, who is the barren woman of the world, who is destined to fulfill the verse: “Sing, O barren (woman,) you who has not born (children,)” (Yeshayahu 54:1.)

 

There are two Chanahs in our historical consciousness – she who gave birth to seven children, and she who lost her seven children about whom the Midrash remarks “A joyful mother of children,” (Tehillim 113:9,) for the tzara (ordeal) and the tzura (form) are interlocked.  Thus the penniless beggar who so desires to see the king that he is willing to pass through the sewers in order to reach his goal finally merits to receive his slice of bread from the king’s very hand, something which no minister or nobleman merits.

 

 

Translated by Sholem Hurwitz

 

Copyright Keren Yishai/Rav M.Elon

 


 

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