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 . . .”