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Changing G‑d’s Mind

Changing G‑d’s Mind

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Does G‑d ever break the rules? Does He ever violate laws that He enacted? Once His mind is set, can it be changed?

Far from abstract philosophy or theology, these questions are practical.

You should have asked them the last time you prayed for a miracle. There are laws of nature, aren’t there? This world does have structure, does it not? A system set in place by G‑d, not to be broken. A natural order which stipulates that the terminally ill will likely pass on, that a soldier kidnapped by terrorists is unlikely to return, and that a man unjustly incarcerated for life will probably never again walk the earth freely.

And there’s a religious order as well, one which specifies that perfectly devout and moral behavior alone—i.e., the observance of G‑d’s will as laid down in the Torah—earns special treatment, and that the lack thereof merits none.

You went ahead and prayed for the supernaturalYet you went ahead and prayed for the supernatural, notwithstanding the fact that on both accounts the odds were (possibly) stacked against you.

So, to be frank, if you did pray in circumstances similar to the ones outlined above, it would mean that—unless you gave prayer no thought at all—you have answers to the aforementioned questions. And that the answer to all three of them is yes.

You would be of the opinion that G‑d does break the laws He instituted at the beginning of creation and established at Sinai, and that you have the means to get Him to do so.

A tad presumptuous, wouldn’t you say?

First Prayers

The first-ever prayer recorded in the Bible was offered by Abraham. Isaac was second, and Jacob third. This led Rabbi Yose to remark that “the prayers were instituted by the Patriarchs.”1

Just pages from Rabbi Yose’s statement, the Talmud elaborates on many fundamental laws which pertain to prayer. What’s surprising to note, however, is that these laws of prayer are derived from a much later instance of prayer, that of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel. In the words of Rabbi Hamnuna, “How many most important laws can be derived from these verses relating to Hannah!”2

Why were the prayers of the Patriarchs overlooked? Doesn’t it make sense to look back to the first biblical instance of prayer when classifying prayer and writing its laws?

Her prayer was chosen as the archetype after which all prayer is modeledWe must conclude that there is something so striking about Hannah’s prayer—it must contain some element that is critical to the definition of prayer—because of which her prayer was chosen as the archetype after which all prayer is modeled.

Here is an abridged version of Hannah’s story, as recounted in the Book of Samuel.3

There was a man whose name was Elkanah, who had two wives; the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the second was Peninah. Peninah had children, but Hannah had no children, for G‑d had shut up her womb.

Year by year, they went up to the house of G‑d to bring sacrifices. Peninah would anger Hannah, and she wept and would not eat.

Hannah arose and went to the House of G‑d. She was bitter in spirit, and she prayed to G‑d and wept. She vowed a vow, and said: “L‑rd of Hosts, if You will look upon the affliction of Your maidservant, and You will remember me and You will not forget Your maidservant, and You will give Your maidservant a man-child, then I shall give him to G‑d all the days of his life . . .”

There you have it. Hannah’s prayer. Unremarkable, it seems.

Unremarkable, but for the fact that this was the first recorded prayer to achieve that which only prayer can.

A Brazen Request

Hannah’s request was outlandish.

She was a barren woman—created just so by the Master of the world. She had no chance of conceiving and bearing a child according to the natural order of things. At least that’s what Mother Nature said, and there’s no use arguing with Mother Nature.

Yet argue she did.

“Break Your law just this once!” she beseeched“Give your maidservant a man-child,” she pleaded with the Creator of the world. “Break Your law just this once!” she beseeched.

She would not accept the fate handed her by G‑d Himself!

Her boldness was even greater when she asked for a particular type of child—a “man-child”—which, according to the sages,4 refers to a tzaddik, a perfectly righteous person!

Here she attempted to compromise yet another of G‑d’s rules, of a more serious kind. She attempted to breach a Torah principle, and a fundamental one at that:

The name of the angel who is in charge of conception is called “Night.” He takes up a drop [of semen] and places it in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, saying, “Sovereign of the universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?” Whereas “wicked man” or “righteous man” he does not mention . . . For Rabbi Chanina stated: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of G‑d, as it is said, ‘And now, Israel, what does G‑d, your G‑d, ask of you, but to fear . . .’”5

This passage essentially makes the case for the basic Jewish principle of free will. The “fear of G‑d” mentioned in this passage, which is outside of G‑d’s jurisdiction, so to speak, is a reference to the sphere of moral and religious choice. This is one area of our lives which is not determined by G‑d—by His own design. “Wicked man or righteous man he does not mention.” Saints are not made in heaven, but here on earth.

This tenet is so central to Jewish faith that Maimonides calls it “the foundation of all of Torah and mitzvahs.”6

Tell that to Hannah. See if she cared. “Give me a man-child, dear G‑d,” she requested. Nothing less than a perfect tzaddik will do.7

This type of chutzpah was unprecedentedThis type of chutzpah was unprecedented.8 But it was precisely the inconceivably audacious nature of Hannah’s prayer that placed it at the center of the Jewish definition of prayer.

Hannah behaved counterintuitively. She understood what most do not.

The essence of prayer is not the giving of thanks; that’s better described as showing appreciation. It’s also not a marketplace for negotiating our needs and desires through the currency of good behavior; that’s what we call doing business.

It’s what happens after a guilty verdict was passed in the heavenly court, and after all appeals were rejected.9 Prayer is the act of begging the President of the world for a pardon.10

Real prayer thus begins when there is no conceivable end in sight. In the compelling words of Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar:11 “Even if a sharp sword rests on a man’s neck, he should not desist from prayer, as it says,12 ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’”13

In other words: Prayer is the light at the end of all tunnels. Turn-on-able only through sincere calling of the heart.14

What’s in It for Me?

There’s a good reason why Hannah’s story is read as the haftorah on Rosh Hashanah. What better inspiration and encouragement to pray could there possibly be?

At some point in the prayers, an honest person is likely to ask himself: “Who am I to pray? I know my shortcomings better than anyone, save for G‑d; I am aware of how little I truly deserve based on my actions.”

If your synagogue involvement is limited to that of a “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Jew,” your sense of hypocrisy and skepticism probably runs deeper.

Says Hannah, “This is not about your past behavior, but about your present interaction with your soul and Creator. Open up the gates of your heart, let go of the cynical voice asking whether or not there is a point in praying, return to your innocence, to your pure faith in G‑d, and ask Him for your heart’s every desire.

“Do as I did, and you can be blessed with a child like Samuel the Prophet . . .”

Footnotes
1.

Talmud, Berachot 26b.

2.

Ibid., 31a.

3.

I Samuel ch. 1.

4.

See Rashi, ad loc., from Yalkut Shimoni.

5.

Talmud, Niddah 16b.

6.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:3.

7.

To top it all off, she requested not only a tzaddik in potential, born with the spiritual inclination and orientation to be one (see Tanya ch. 14), but for a tzaddik in action. She wanted assurance that her son’s unique potential would be realized: “And I shall give him to G‑d all the days of his life . . .”

8.

Others before Hannah had requested from G‑d that He abrogate the laws of nature, the laws that He instituted for the management of the world (e.g., Isaac successfully entreated G‑d to grant children to his barren wife Rebecca). Hannah, however, was the first to ask G‑d to suspend the rules of the Torah—which are infinitely higher than the laws of nature, rooted in the divine wisdom and will which transcend all of creation.

9.

It’s important to note that we do not really “change G‑d’s mind,” for the divine will provides, from the very beginning, that prayer can evoke (what appears to be, from the human perspective) a change Above. For more on this complex topic, see Prayer and Change and Averting Decrees.

10.

For this reason, many (in fact most, see Tzemach Tzedek in his Shoresh Mitzvat Hatefillah) Jewish codifiers (see Semak, Rashbatz, Ramban, etc. quoted in Chinuch) maintain that the biblical mitzvah of prayer is not the daily prayer, which (they opine) is rabbinic, but applies only in moments of dire need. Their reasoning closely relates to our discussion.

11.

Talmud, Berachot 10a.

13.

When Hezekiah, king of Judah, suddenly fell mortally ill, the prophet Isaiah came to him and told him to prepare for death. With G‑d’s prophet telling him to make his will and prepare to die, a lesser man might have given up the fight. Not Hezekiah. He prayed instead. And he recovered (Berachot, ibid.).

14.

Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, recorded in Likkutei Sichot, vol. 29, p. 182.

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—Chabad.org, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Anonymous northern ca December 17, 2012

reallly interesting and inspiring Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 2, 2011

Mind Set Does G_d change his/her mind?

We cannot know. I must loose definition, because the setting sun is never same, in terms of color, of glory. Nor dawn. A moving picture. The stones at Humarock Beach are themselves paintings, each different, and each, same, all set in stone. And so this wonderful amalgam of what is change and changeable, does vary.

A storyteller changes her mind, crossing out parts of story, adding others, putting in a little twist, a nosegay here. And there, maybe a violet. Maybe a crystal snow drop. Something fresh can happen, in this, the neverending story.

The facets of cut gemstone glow differently in different lights. We cannot know. Marvel!

I did regard anew the turquoise tile in my bathroom. At the corner, the outline of a book. Look to the corners. We also turn down corners to mark our page. As Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boas. The L is a corner. ELL. Hear it! EL.

Pages do turn -- Life being Book and Tree.
Pages too are called. Mind what's beautiful. LOVE Reply

Anonymous October 1, 2011

Prayer Resp. Rabbi,

Thank you very much for this great article explaining miracles, what a great prayer can aim at, and how G-d granted and instituted Free Will. Ofcourse prayers are not always for miracles. Instead in the long run it often stems from innocense, the desire to be with Him, to be good, and is a begging for Divine providence, safety from dangers, guidance of His unseen hands to put one always in right path. We present our case and then ask Him to do the best for us and we await results, whatever be it, trusting that it would be the best for us. Praying in this way, as years go by, one definitely comes to feel the presence of His unseen hands guiding one's life.
Thank you Reply

Bina Yaffa Miami, Florida September 28, 2011

Chana's prayer What a beautiful article. It's beautifully written and is a heartfelt explanation of what prayer, when done with Kavanah, concentration and intention, can achieve. When we pray meaning every word and pouring our soul and heart into each word-we definetely get answers......

Shana Tova to all,
Reply

Haddasah Brooklyn September 28, 2011

Question Re the above passage from Tanya: I thought regarding a tzaddik (as described in Tanya) is not by a person's choice rather ordained by G-d, where as a Benioni is a choice. ( in which case Chana's request for her son to be a Tzaddik does not go against Hashem's law) ? Reply

jorge lakewood, ohio September 27, 2011

hello i want to celebrate Rosh Hashanah even though im not jewish? i want to but find it a lil bit difficult because i have no jewish friends to celebrate with, what can i do? Reply

Breslover Austin, TEXAS September 27, 2011

Great article / hisbodedut anyone? The personal prayer here reminds me a lot of hisbodedut, seclusion. Reply

Rivkah VanAntwerp San Diego, Calif September 27, 2011

unprecedented favor G-d loves us so much...this is true prayer, prayer of the heart, pure, and like the mustard seed that grows into the biggest tree. Reply

Tanya Brito Sto Dgo September 27, 2011

Awesome! I just loved this article! Reply

Funmi Odubekun London, United Kingdom September 14, 2010

HANNAH'S PRAYER The breakdown and analysis of Hannah's prayer I find well broken down and has given me a renewed hope of praying with faith, hope & absolute trust in God, irrespective.
Thank you Reply

Anonymous September 8, 2010

Chana's prayer Thank you for the history lesson about Chana's template for prayer. It makes perfect sense. It exemplifies where the ideology that prayer is service of the heart came from. Although it looks like the epitome of chutzpah, begging for a Samuel is essentially the most sincere outpouring of Chana's heart.

Shana Tova! Reply

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