Elul / Rosh Hashanah
Benefiting from the Benefit of the Doubt
By Rabbi Yehudah Prero
On the first day of Rosh HaShana, we read in the Haftorah about Chana, the
mother of the prophet Shmuel. Chana was married to Elkana, who had a
second wife as well, Penina. Penina had children; Chana did not.
Elkana used to take his family with him to visit the Mishkan in the city
of Shiloh. On one occasion, Chana was so saddened as she did not have a
child that she broke down in tears and prayed to G-d, silently. The verses
(Shmuel I 1:12-15) tell us “And it came to pass, as she continued
praying before Hashem, that Eli (the Priest) observed her mouth. And Chana
spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard;
therefore Eli thought that she was drunk. And Eli said to her, How long
will you be drunk? Take away your wine from you. And Chana answered and
said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit; I have drunk
neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before
The Talmud (Brachos 31b) contains a discussion of this exchange. "'And
Chana answered and said, No, my lord.' Ulla, or as some say Rav Yose
bar Chanina, said: She said to him: You are no lord in this matter, nor
does the holy spirit rest on you, that you suspect me of this thing. Some
say, She said to him: You are no lord, [meaning] the Shechinah and the
holy spirit is not with you in that you take the harsher and not the more
lenient view of my conduct."
It appears from this discussion that Chana criticized Eli for not giving
her the benefit of the doubt when he accused her of being drunk. However,
the Talmud explains that Chana’s use of the word “master” was intended to
highlight a deeper flaw in Eli – that he did not have the holy spirit rest
upon him, as he made an improper judgment. The Vilna Gaon comments that
this criticism seems unusual. We are all exhorted to judge our fellow man
favorably, giving the benefit of the doubt. Why here do we see the
implication that specifically one who has the spirit of G-d rest upon him
must judge favorably?
To make the matter more confusing, the Talmud (Megillah 14a) tells us that
Chana was one of the 7 prophetesses. She was clearly a righteous and
unique person. The Medrash additionally tells us that she was like Sarah,
Rivka and Rachel, who were all great women who were barren. Eli should
have recognized the greatness of Chana, and assumed that she was acting
properly. Yet he erred. What happened?
When the Cohen needed to seek heavenly advice, he would turn to the Urim
V’Tumim. This was a writing of G-d’s explicit name that was placed into
the Choshen, the breastplate that contained the names of the 12 tribes,
engraved on 12 stones that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) wore. When the
Kohen Gadol needed an answer, letters on the Choshen would illuminate. The
Kohen Gadol then had to assemble the letters together to form the
response. This task of assembling the letters together, using the Tumim,
required the holy spirit, divine inspiration.
Eli saw Chana doing something unusual. Chana was a great woman, and the
behavior that she exhibited was uncharacteristic. Eli was perplexed – so
he turned to the Urim V’Tumim for an answer. Four letters illuminated:
shin, chaf, resh and heh. These four letters spell “shikora,” a drunk. Eli
thought he had his answer.
Eli was wrong. These four letters also spell “k’Sarah,” “like Sarah.” Eli
was really being told that Chana, like our mother Sarah, was barren, and,
like Sarah, was praying that she should bear a child. Chana, upon being
confronted by Eli, pointed out to him that he must not be endowed with
divine inspiration – as he assembled the letters incorrectly. Furthermore,
he failed to judge her favorably – as the letters could have been
assembled in a way that did not reflect negatively on Chana, yet Eli did
not do such.
Eli was no ordinary person. He was an individual who justifiably had the
expectation that the Urim V’Tumim would provide him with the answer to his
query. And, in fact, he was provided an answer through this special
manner. Yet, Eli erred. He failed to judge Chana properly. This lapse in
judgment is memorialized in the verses that appear in Shmuel, and
elaborated upon, as we have seen, in the Talmud. Ultimately, Eli
recognized he erred, blessed Chana, and Chana gave birth to the individual
whom we know as Shmuel HaNavi.
On Rosh HaShana, we read about this entire episode. We see how an
individual prayed to G-d, out of sorrow and pain, for help. We see how G-d
remembered this woman and gave her the child she so desperately wanted.
These actions are recalled as they relate to our behavior on Rosh HaShana –
we ask G-d, via heartfelt prayer, to remember us for the good in the
coming year. We ask that G-d give us life and happiness. However, we also
have to treat our fellow man properly in order for G-d to judge us
favorably. We read about an incident where an innocent was wrongly accused
of acting inappropriately. The accuser, upon discovering his error,
blessed his victim, and she was indeed blessed. We can only hope that if
we behave similarly, treating our fellow man with proper respect and
making amends for those times when we fell short, we will similarly be
Thank you for your continued readership over the past 13 years, and for
those of you who purchased my book, for your support in that fashion as
well. My we all be blessed with a year of health and happiness!
B’birkas k’siva v’chasima tova,
Yehudah Prero and family
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Yehudah Prero and Torah.org.
The author has Rabbinic ordination from Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, NY.