The Retelling of The Story of Hannah on Rosh HaShanah 5783/2022
During the High Holy Days, we turn our attention to a special section of our Hebrew bible from the book of Samuel that tells the story of a woman named Hannah. This is the haftarah portion for Rosh Hashanah. Over the past few years, we have welcomed members of our congregation to speak about Hannah from a different perspective. This year, we returned to the retelling of this powerful text told as a story by fellow members. We are grateful for Susan Levin Schlechter and Ali Marsh Weller for their personal interpretations of this incredibly moving story which we share below.
Susan Levin Schlechter
Have you ever considered that reading and studying texts, a discussing them with others, makes us a very old and very active Jewish book group?
Today in the Haftarah we read and respond to the story of Hannah found in the book of Samuel.
The story of Hannah was written down in ancient Hebrew years after it happened. It was canonized, included as one of the sections of the Hebrew Bible called the Prophets, around 2000 years ago. We have been creating and telling and writing down the stories of our people for a very long time.
I would not presume to tell you the original reason for this story’s inclusion, nor would I presume to tell you what the writers intended so very many years ago. I can only tell the story in the context of my own study and understanding. I invite you to read the story for yourself, and then we can continue our book group, our ongoing Jewish community of shared stories, that we have inherited and wrestle with year after year. Our story begins in First Samuel, in the hill country of Ephraim. Hannah was the wife of Elkanah. She was beloved of him. Elkanah, as was the custom in those days, had other wives, another one in particular named Peninnah. Peninnah gave birth to several children with Elkanah. But Hannah did not give birth. This made her very sad. Elkanah loved Hannah and reassured her that she was beloved, whether or not she gave birth. Peninnah taunted Hannah for not increasing their tribe. Yes, at the time, what counted was a woman’s ability to increase the tribe.
During the year several pilgrimages were made to Shiloh from their home to make offerings at the temple there. As Elkanah is leading his family to Shiloh, a location still existing in Israel today, Peninnah taunts Hannah. Peninnah would be what we would call today a Mean Girl or a Mean Woman.
Hannah wants desperately to have a child. She approaches the temple and stands outside, eyes closed, lips moving silently, her entire body swaying as she sends her entreaty to God. Eli, the priest, sees Hannah and approaches her, admonishing her harshly: how dare you in a drunken state stand near the temple. Hannah replies I was praying to God asking the Eternal One to grant me the blessing of a child, who I would dedicate to God’s service. Eli hears Hannah’s words. He wishes that her prayer could be heard and her request granted.
What just happened there? First, Hannah prays in a way never before recorded in our people’s history. She prays silently and includes her whole body with the fervor of her being. You may be accustomed to such movement in prayer today, but it is Hannah who is credited, yes, Hannah, with giving us the model for individual prayer to God that we practice to this day. Second, Eli, the priest, rushes to harsh judgement of Hannah. He condemns her without asking for an explanation. Third, Hannah answers him. She is not afraid to explain her behavior to the priest. Fourth, Eli listens and changes his response and wishes her success in her prayer.
That is a lot going on in a very short story. It contains many lessons.
I will not tell you that all you have to do if you want something, something really important, that all you have to do is pray. No, indeed. But I would tell you that Hannah was having a silent conversation with her conscience? God? The Eternal One? Call it what you will. To have an internal conversation with something larger than one’s self, being self-reflective can be very helpful.
Next, Hannah does not remain silent before Eli’s accusation. She speaks up for herself.
And the priest Eli, though Eli was quick to misjudge, he was also quick to listen and change his response and encourage Hannah.
Hannah goes on to give birth to Samuel who becomes an important priest in the developing history of our people.
We Jews are amazing and creative storytellers, stories rich in meaning, many of them with a moral compass that points to goodness and kindness. We can take the Hannah story for its guiding ways to lead us into this new year.
Ali Marsh Weller
It’s been said that we are supposed to do something each day that scares us. Today’s telling of this story should have me covered from now through - let’s say the end of 5783.
Our ancestors have instructed us to tell the story of Hannah every year at Rosh Hashanah. So... here we go:
Hannah was the first wife of Elkanah. After years of not being able to conceive a child, and surely feeling great shame, Hannah encouraged Elkanah to take a second wife, Peninah. Peninah gave birth to several children, but Hannah remained childless. Still, Hannah was Elkanah’s favorite. But that did not allay the despair she felt.
And more, Peninah taunted Hannah and humiliated her at every turn. Peninah was fertile, and she was cruel.
Elkanah brought his family on a yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh, which was the site of the Tabernacle - the precursor to the Temple.
One year, when they arrived at the holy site, Hannah entered and did something no one had ever done before. She silently offered heartfelt prayers to God. She pleaded for a child. Her mouth quietly moved in what we would now recognize as a not-so-out-of- the-box way of praying. But back in the first Century BCE, prayer tended to show up more in the form of animal sacrifice. Here was a woman, weeping and communicating her pain directly to God, without shame. As described by scholar Alicia Jo Rabins, Hannah’s act was “The most radical fertility technology of her time”. Hannah begged God - give me a child, a male child, and I will dedicate him to you, and he will be your servant. Her prayer was ferocious. The last stop on the train of her despair at being childless.
Eli, the Priest, couldn’t believe his eyes. Hannah’s lips moved, but no sound came out that he could hear. The only possible explanation he could imagine for this behavior was that she was drunk. He warned her to sober up.
Hannah explained that no, she was not drunk. She was suffering. She was grief-stricken. She was speaking directly to God. Eli accepted this, and told her to go in peace, and that he hoped that God would grant her prayer.
And guess what...? Great news for Hannah - she had a son, and named him Samuel. As promised, when she weaned him, she brought him to the Tabernacle so he could live and study under Eli. Samuel grew up to become a great prophet. And we have Hannah to thank for how we pray today -quietly, but sometimes moving our lips - without having to sacrifice anyone’s pet goat.
This time of year is complicated, isn’t it? Along with the hope and promise of new beginnings, it comes with a bit of sadness for many of us as well. It’s tender. Transitions: the end of summer, days getting shorter, children and grandchildren relentlessly marching toward adulthood, faster every year. The memory of 9/11.
Our innumerable private losses, disappointments, complex feelings which we all touch, again and again. Our gratitude. Grace. It all comes up.
At the beginning of the new year, we are encouraged to reflect, to call on ourselves to grow, to forgive ourselves and each other for our wrongdoings. It’s a challenge, and it’s a relief.
Maybe Hannah’s story resonates on Rosh Hashanah because it’s one where she confronts her most profound pain, and shares it with God with abandon. We will not all have our prayers answered as directly as Hannah did. But we do share something with her - something sacred. The time and space to authentically lay bare our deepest truths, privately or with each other. To examine and grapple with them. And to rest in the inevitability of growth and change - the current of life - which steadily carries us on our collective and individual journeys of evolution.
A sweet and healthy New Year to us all.
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