September 2003 / Tishrei 5764
Then Hannah opened herself up in prayer and said:
My heart exults in the Holy One,
my self-esteem has been raised up through Yah,
my mouth is wide open in the face of those who oppose me
for I have rejoiced in being stretched by You!
[I Samuel 2:1-10, my translation]
I invite you to take a moment, to close your eyes and take a breath…..and to recall the last time you cried. Recall, if you can, what or who moved those tears to rise in you, how it felt to release them, and how you felt afterward.
I want to speak with you today of Hannah, the first person in Scripture to entreat G-d in prayer. I want to speak with you about the resonance of silence, of words, half-formed, inchoate, whispered from the depths of a soul struggling to open to its own pain. I want to speak with you about voice, the full-throated voice, ebullient in song, that bursts from the belly of a being touched by G-d. And I want to speak with you about the power of tears – tears that trickle and tears that burn; tears that seep from the hidden, sore spots of the soul and tears that simply overflow when the heart is full; cleansing tears, purifying tears, tears as salty as the oceans that birthed life, tears that melt and soften, tears that transform. All these are Hannah’s legacy to us, her torah, and it’s no accident that the sages chose to include her story among the texts that guide us through this season in which we seek to rectify our relationships with ourselves, our fellow beings and with G-d.
At the recent Jewish Renewal Kallah (2004) an amazing teaching was shared, a teaching that wove together many of the texts chosen by our sages for inclusion in the machzor, the “script” for the drama of our Rosh Ha-Shanah experience. The theme that unites all these texts, it was suggested, is not judgment – for Rosh HaShanah is never referred to in written Torah as Yom Ha-Din, the day of judgment – but rather, tears. Long before the current psychological trend represented by Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, the Pietzetzner Rebbe, chief Rabbi of Poland who died in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II, taught the primacy of emotion in our spiritual lives. The tzaddik, the righteous person, he wrote, is one who owns his heart, her heart, and a person who owns her heart is one who can access her tears.
So on Rosh Ha-Shanah we read of Hagar’s tears of resignation as she abandons her son Ishmael under a bush, unwilling to watch him die of thirst in the wilderness. And we hear the implied crying of the lad “ba-asher hu sham,” from where he has been left, to which G-d responds by revealing the saving spring of water to his mother. We note the tears of Abraham, conspicuous by their very absence, as he prepares his beloved son Isaac for sacrifice. Isaac’s tears, also absent, are replaced, in midrash, by the tears of angels, which fall into Isaac’s eyes as he lies bound upon the altar and cloud his vision forever after. Today’s haftarah from Jeremiah vibrates with the sound of Rachel’s “bitter weeping” for her exiled children, tears of radical empathy that shame G-d into the promise of redemption. Even the crying of a figure as minor as the nameless mother of Sisera, the wicked general whose death at the hands of Yael is chronicled in the ancient Song of Deborah, is evoked by the sages of the Talmud, who prescribe that the very manner of blowing the shofar should recall the quality of her wailing when she realizes her son will not return from battle. It was suggested that all these different flavors of tears – shed or unshed – teach us something about the nuances of our participation in the drama of these holy days, about what is being asked of us here and in the year to come – and in our lives.
No one at the Kallah, however, spoke about Hannah’s tears. What, I asked myself, is their taste and how do they nourish us? Like so many of the matriarchal figures in scripture, Hannah is childless. She is presented as a painfully unfulfilled woman, whose ability to feel loved by her adoring husband is blocked because she has been denied her heart’s deepest desire, a son. Doctors and psychologists are coming to understand how prolonged or extreme pain, whether physical, mental or emotional, leads to a numbing of our senses, a kind of inner paralysis that dulls our very participation in life. Our organisms cut off feeling in order to survive. I have noticed that even minor disappointments, piling up over time, lead to an attitude of subtle cynicism, a closing of the heart that keeps us protected – both from pain and from joyous participation in life.
Hannah, sunk in her own sorrow, verbally abused by her husband Elkanah’s other wife, the fertile Peninah, and unable to receive his offerings of love, somehow finds it within herself to break the cycle of numbness and despair and to respond in a radically different way. Surrendering her pain to G-d, she circumcises her heart, spilling her soul tears and whispered words upon the altar of the Holy One at the Shiloh temple. What inspires an action so unusual that it causes the aging priest Eli to chastise her for what seems to him to be drunkenness? The text tells us only: “v’hi marat nefesh (and she was bitter of soul) va-titpallel al YHVH (and she prayed to YHVH), u-vakhoh tivkeh (all the while crying her heart out).”1 Marat, bitterness, speaks literally of bitter water, specifically the undrinkable waters found by the thirsty Israelites who, after crossing the Sea of Reeds, had spent three frightening, waterless days in the wilderness. Hannah’s soul is filled with these bitter waters, her heart a brackish pool in the barren wilderness of her body. Yet somehow she is impelled, despite the custom of her world, where an orderly and correct relationship with awesome Divinity is maintained through the priests’ prescribed ministrations and the sacrifice of animals, to approach G-d directly, to offer up her tears and the silent movements of her lips.
The Hebrew root l’hitpallel , which we translate as “pray,” and which can be rendered more precisely as “intercede” or “interpose,” comes from an Arabic root meaning “to cut oneself in worship.” Our wise rebbe Ellen Kaufman Dosick recently reminded me that the word “tears” can also be pronounced “tears” (tares). In the depth of her pain, Hannah tears herself open with implicit trust that the Holy One will witness her suffering. If G-d will open her womb, she vows, she will dedicate its fruit, the son she will bear, to G-d’s service. And then we read: “v’Hannah, hi midaberet al libah; rak s’fateyha na-ot, v’kolah lo yishameya: and Hannah was speaking upon her heart; only her lips moved and her voice was not heard.”2 In the act of weeping out her longing and passion to G-d, Hannah speaks also into her own heart, opening at last to the depths of her own desire, silently mouthing words of yearning too ardent, too intimate to be spoken aloud. In one breath she surrenders all – her pain, her longing, even her unborn son – to G-d, and in this moment begins to find inner peace.
I feel a special kinship with Hannah, this mother of prayer, for Hannah is my Hebrew name. And I am named after my mother’s mother, Hannah Dreisl, “Helen,” as she came to be called when she arrived in this country from Hungary at the age of nine, just before the outbreak of World War I. Like Hannah of the Bible, she was a woman greatly beloved of her husband, my Grandpa Sam; and she was a woman unfulfilled, not for lack of children – of whom she left behind three, including my mother Florence, the middle one – but in years. She died at age 26 at the height of the Great Depression, having shed not her tears, but her life’s blood, and not to bring a child into the world, but to avoid having another one. A Chicago abortionist’s knife took the life that almost certainly would have ended, had she not left Hungary, in the camps of Poland some ten years later.
My mother was six years old when her mother died. She never grieved. She told me that at the funeral on a cold October day in 1930 at the Waldheim cemetery in Chicago, her father threw himself into the open grave, sobbing. But she kept quiet, not knowing what was happening or what to do. In her immigrant family, emotions were not easily shared. Growing up, I sensed a great sadness in the house of my mother’s parents (Sam had remarried after a couple of years) and never felt completely comfortable there.
I believe that unshed tears are passed from generation to generation. My mother carried these unshed tears lodged in her throat, and she passed them on to me. I discovered them only many years later, when I began to study singing and tapped into a well of tears caught in my own throat. I would sing jazz standards, songs of yearning and unrequited love. For two years I cried every time I sang. Only later did I come to understand that these songs are also prayers. I am still learning to cry my grandmother’s and mother’s and my own tears of grief and longing, and perhaps the tears of earlier generations and generations yet to come as well. It has taken me a long time to begin to name the yearnings of which they speak, and even longer to understand the joy which crying them liberates.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has described prayer as an “adventure of the soul” that shifts “the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.”3 That first Hannah knew, or came to know, that tears of loss are folded into tears of fulfillment, those of fulfillment folded into those of loss, and that to risk fulfillment, we inevitably invite loss. In time she bore her son, and in time brought him back to the temple to enter G-d’s service as a new kind of priest, an anointer of kings. Then she prayed/praised aloud, and her prayer is a kaddish, a sanctification of the Great Name, an upliftment for all souls who yearn, for she teaches the most difficult lesson of true prayer: the lesson of surrender in the very moment of asking.
At this season, this Rosh Ha-Shanah, this moment of renewing our awareness of the constancy of change, the ever-present possibility of transformation, Hannah teaches me what my grandmother never had the chance to, and what my mother didn’t know how to: the power of opening ourselves to the Possibility Beyond Possibilities, of feeling our deepest yearnings with all of our being, of becoming radically vulnerable, even in the face of our world’s apparent harshness. “For it is not through strength that humans prevail,” she proclaims. She teaches us l’hitpallel, to cut ourselves open in prayer, to acknowledge that by ourselves we are incapable of creating what we most deeply desire – love, peace, wholeness – and yet, that if we fully open to those desires, if we can bless our own longings and let them flood through us without inner resistance, then we engage G-d’s co-creative force and draw it into our lives. Hannah challenges us to let G-d stretch us wide, and by example enjoins us to pray as if our very lives depended on it –for they do.
Of all the many worthy reasons we come together at this holy season – to review the past year; to let go of old energies and realign ourselves with our deepest purpose; to forgive and be forgiven; to celebrate successes and blessings; to lament the ways in which we as individuals, as a community, and as a human race, have failed to be kind, to be strong, to fulfill our potentials for goodness and fairness and truth -- perhaps the most profound is simply this: to open our hearts, to share our tears and to let G-d stretch us.
O G-d, Great Discerner, Holy Champion, help us to set aside our bashfulness. Teach us to touch in love the sorest, the least voiced parts of our own souls. Meet our tears and whisperings with your compassion, that our lives may open gracefully into whatever circumstances we face. Let us receive the blessings of this moment, this day and this coming year in healing gratitude. Amen.
1 I Samuel, 1:10
2 Op. cit., 1:13
3 Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.
© Diane Elliot 2004