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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, and Cut vs. Uncut.
She was a bitter woman. How ever had she gotten this way? She could scarcely recall a time when her tall forehead was clear of the lines of the worry, when her lips were not turned down in a permanent scowl, when her every sentence was not preceded and followed by a sigh. Once she had been young, beautiful, full of hope. And then in love with a man who cherished her, a man who completed her, and a man with whom she dreamed of spending her life and growing old together, sharing in life’s joys and adventures. Now the light was gone from her eyes, and her steps were heavy, weighed down by the stones in her heart. She knew that some people even callously referred to her as “Marah” – “bitter” – behind her back, when they thought she couldn’t hear. But she could. And what stung her even more is that she knew that they were right. She was a bitter woman. She wasn’t so oblivious as to be unaware that a cloak of sadness accompanied her wherever she went; that her very presence in a room dampened the spirits of its inhabitants.
Her husband did not understand – could not understand; and over the years, his lack of understanding had slowly hardened his early compassion into a kind of detached concern. He still loved her – there was no questioning that – and he made his affection for her abundantly clear. However, whereas once he had genuinely tried to pierce the shrouds of her sadness, his concern for her wellbeing was now expressed in perfunctory, canned remarks; remarks that only served to increase her sense of isolation and loneliness.
A frequent conversation between she and her husband might go something like this:
“My love, you really must emerge from your fog…there must be something that we can do to improve your frame of mind.
“You know what ails me. And you know that there is nothing that can be done.”
“But why can you not simply accept your condition, and the conclusion of the worthy healers? You weep constantly. You don’t eat. Am I not better to you than ten sons would be?”
There it was again. The arrogant and woefully naive notion that he – her husband that she shared with Penina – could somehow fill the void in her heart without filling the void in her womb. That his humor, his personality, his affection, could possibly take the place of the tender love of children born of her own flesh, of the full blossoming of her maternal nature. How foolish.
Was he even truly aware of the void? He had his own children, born of the unbearably fertile Penina. And Penina never let her forget it, either. Penina seemed to be expert in emphasizing Chana’s own childlessness. She was forever prattling on about how little Simeon did this, or “did you hear about Na’ama doing that,” and “I’m sure you can’t imagine how perfectly adorable this one is,” or “it’s pity that you’ve never been able to experience the miracle of seeing this tiny little pink human being emerging from your body.” Penina would always pitch her remarks in so innocent a tone, with such gushing enthusiasm that was always belied by the sly look that stole into her eyes, that their husband didn’t even notice how each barb ripped at Chana’s soul and tortured her spirit. If he did, he certainly didn’t come to the defense of her heart, which would shatter every time she was reminded of the blessings of motherhood that she would never enjoy.
A part of her understood Penina. Penina’s marriage to Elkana was not marked by the same whirlwind of romance and love that had characterized her own courtship and wedding. Penina was a homely woman, by comparison, and without Chana’s vivacious and creative spirit that had so captured Elkana’s heart. She was a dutiful wife, a reliable wife…and the mother of Elkana’s children. Elkana was kind to her, a dutiful husband in return, taking her to his bed at the proper time, ensuring that she and her children were always properly fed and attired. But when it came to companionship, genuine affection, sexual desire, and talking and laughing into the wee hours of the morning, Elkana had always come to Chana. And when he bought special gifts for the holiday, Chana’s gift was always something particularly unique, beautiful and exquisite. Chana knew that the fires of jealousy must burn inside of Penina; she was certain that she had caught the look of desperation in Penina’s eyes as she tried to capture the full attention and interest of her spouse.
Which is why she held no grudge against Penina, and she wished her no ill. You have the far better lot, she wanted to say. No. Neither her own beauty and accomplishments, nor her husband’s love and affection, mattered to her as much as the imagined feeling of a tiny foot kicking at the inner walls of her stomach, of a tiny miracle nursing at her breast, of watching a child of her own playing and tumbling in the nearby meadow.
One year, after a particularly grueling and humiliating meal during the family’s annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, Chana was beside herself. She could not eat. She could not function. She could not stay.
So Chana rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk. Now Eli the priest sat upon his seat by the door-post of the temple of the LORD; and she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept.
And she vowed a vow, and said: “O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look upon the affliction of Your handmaid, and remember me, and not forget Your handmaid, but will give to Your handmaid a man-child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.” I Shmuel, 1:9-11.
Already at this early point, Chana’s form of prayer, which the sages of the Talmud have since canonized and adopted as a model for our most sincere prayers (see Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 31b), is very unusual, and provokes a reexamination of how we view parenthood, as well as how we view prayer itself.
How many parents would be satisfied with having a child, only to conscript him or her to G-d’s exclusive service, to be raised by the priesthood, far from home? What is it about parenthood that we find so rewarding? Is it child-rearing? Is it the promise of a legacy, of what our children may someday become? Our matriarch Rachel did not live to see the Bar Mitzvah of her first long-awaited son – and she died while bearing her second. Was she cheated of the joys of motherhood? Or was the knowledge that she had brought a new life into the world sufficient? Yocheved had to give up baby Moses after just a few years. The next time she saw him (if at all) he was the leader of the entire Jewish nation. Those fleeting moments of mother-son bonding when he was a child were gone, never to recur.
Yet Rachel and Yocheved were victims of circumstance. Rachel did not ask for her life to be cut short; nor did Yocheved ask for her son to be taken from her. Chana, however, volunteers her unborn son for a life in G-d’s service away from home. Is this the kind of motherhood she had been craving? Was there no selfish component to her maternal desire at all?
Speaking of Rachel, it is certainly interesting that Chana had a rich heritage of barren-then-remembered matriarchs from who to draw hope and inspiration. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah were all initially barren until a special miracle was wrought to open their womb. Rebecca and Rachel solicited theirs through prayer. Chana, however, did not initially resort to prayer – she suffered for years of pain and humiliation before uttering her famous prayer in Shiloh.
Perhaps it is a significant lesson that she did not pray simply because prayer is “something that had worked,” or “because the matriarchs did it.” She prayed because her heart could not longer house the pain and desperation that she felt, and she poured out her soul to G-d. It was a spontaneous and organic reaching out to her Creator; not simply a tool to achieve her desired effect.
And it was, as she prayed long before the LORD, that Eli watched her mouth. And Hannah spoke in her heart, and only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard; therefore, Eli thought she was drunk. And Eli said unto her: “For how long will you be drunk? Remove your wine from yourself!”
Clearly, and as evidenced by the Talmudic discussion of Chana’s prayer, silent prayer was not typical. As intuitive and sensible as a “silent prayer” may seem to us today, it was apparently the practice and culture back then to raise one’s voice in prayer, to loudly state one’s praise and requests of G-d. Silent prayer must have been so unusual, that Eli could come to no conclusion other than that Chana must have been drunk.
And Hannah answered and said: “No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your handmaid as a wicked woman, for it is out of the abundance of my complaint and my vexation have I spoken thus.”
Then Eli answered and said: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant your request that you have asked of Him.”
And she said: “Let your servant find favor in your sight.”
And the woman went on her way, and ate, and her countenance was no longer sad. And they rose up in the morning early, and worshiped before the LORD, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah; and Elkana knew Chana his wife; and the LORD remembered her. And it came to pass, when the time came, that Chana conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Shmuel because “I have asked him of the LORD.” I Shmuel, 1:12-19.
Looking back at Chana’s silent prayer, the sages of the Talmud concluded that there was indeed no more appropriate way of praying to G-d. Accordingly, our most sacred prayer – the Amidah, the Sh’moneh Esrei – is recited silently, standing still in a single place. Indeed, it is to Eli’s credit that as soon as Chana explained the nature of her prayer, he “got it,” and had no further comment about the “appropriate decorum” in the House of G-d. Not only does he accept her explanation, but he gives her blessing that her prayers be answered.
And they are. Just as her matriarch Sarah before her, G-d “remembers” her the next time she is intimate with her husband, and she gives birth to the Jewish nation’s first prophet, Shmuel. Think about it! The prophet Shmuel, who shaped the Jewish nation for all of eternity, would not have been born but for two particular qualities that Chana possessed: (1) Perseverance. Whereas so many others, after so many years of childlessness, may have simply resigned themselves to their barren condition – something which Elkana in fact encouraged Chana to do – Chana would not accept that infertility as her fate; and (2) Asking. We don’t know what fertility methods Chana may have tried. Whether she looked for fertility-inducing flowers like her ancestor Rachel; or whether she tried to assist Penina in raising her children like both Rachel and Sarah. All we know is that she asked G-d, pouring out her heart to Him, reasoning with Him, communicating with Him. And ultimately her dialogue with G-d not only resulted in a change of her physical nature, granting her the child of her dreams, but is upheld as an example of the sincere communication that G-d seeks from all of his children, for all time.
It is no wonder then, that Chana’s story is read in the synagogue on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year – a day on which we seek to be remembered by G-d, as Sarah was remembered, as Chana was remembered, and an auspicious time for us to strike up a perhaps-overdue dialogue with our Father-in-Heaven, with sincerity and earnestness, asking him to grant us a sweet new year, a year of prosperity, health, fertility, and peace – even if He may be required to tweak the natural order of things to do so.
May G-d grant all of our prayers, including those that we may not have thought to articulate, in an open and revealed manner. Amen.