September 2019 | Tishrei 5780
Haftarah Reading: I Samuel 1:1-2:10
Offered at Urban Adamah on Rosh Hashanah
Who is Hannah and what wisdom does she have to offer us on this Rosh Hashanah morning? We just heard Reb Brian (Schachter-Brooks) chant a condensed version of her story, which makes up Chapter 1 and the first part of Chapter 2 of the First Book of Samuel in the Bible: the beloved but childless first wife of Elkanah, taunted mercilessly by his fertile, second wife P’ninnah. Every year when the family goes up from Ramah to the Shiloh Temple, to make offerings to God, Elkanah gives P’ninnah and her children each a portion, but to Hannah he gives a double portion, “for he loved her and God had closed her womb.” (I Samuel 4:5) But her husband’s tender consideration brings Hannah no consolation; bitter of heart, disappointed by life, she weeps and refuses to eat.
Finally, one year, she can stand it no longer. Entering the Shiloh Temple after the others have eaten, she throws herself on God’s mercy, weeping her heart out, whispering wild prayers. “If You will really, truly see the suffering of your maidservant and remember me and not forget your maidservant and give your maidservant a son, then I will return him to You––a razor shall not touch his head.” If she is blessed with male offspring, Hannah vows, she will bring him back to this very temple to serve the Holy One.
As Hannah continues to spill out her heart’s deepest desires before the altar––the text reads hi midaberet al libah, literally, “she is speaking upon her heart,” as if to bear witness with words to her own heart’s torment––Eli, the old priest, watching from his seat in the corner, thinks she is drunk and orders her to leave. “No, my lord,” she answers, “I am a woman of shrunken spirit, pouring out my soul before God.” Then Eli blesses her and sends her on her way: “ufaneyha lo hayu lah od,” the text reads, “and her face was no longer the same.” In due time, a son is born to Hannah, Shmu’el, Samuel, literally, “God has heard,” and he will become a great prophet and judge in the land, the anointer of the first kings of Israel.
For the later sages of the Talmud, Hannah is the exemplar of prayer, the Biblical figure who teaches us how to pray. Rabbi Hamnuna opens the discussion: “How many great laws can be learned from the verses about Hannah!” The need to be focused in our prayers, to have kavannah or clear intention, to actually form the words with our mouths, but to pray silently or in a murmur—all these have come down to us over the millennia as models for praying the Amidah, our silent, standing prayer. But Hannah goes so much farther than what the rabbis remark upon.
There is a story told of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the great 18th century mystic and shaman, that one year, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, he asked one of his close disciples to do the honor of sounding the shofar in shul. Overcome by this great honor, the man replied, “Of course, Rebbe, even though I do not feel qualified for such a holy task. If you would instruct me as to what I should meditate on while I’m blowing the different blasts, I would be most grateful.” So the Ba’al Shem taught the man the many kavannot, the mystical significance of the Divine Names associated with each of the blasts, which the man carefully noted on a piece of paper, lest he forget and lose focus as he blew. For weeks he practiced and studied, readying himself. But on the way to shul that Rosh Hashanah morning, a sudden gust of wind snatched the paper from his pocket, and when the moment came to sound the shofar, he froze in panic—the paper was gone! Frantic, heartbroken, unable to remember a single one of the kavannot, he burst into tears and blew the best he could. Later the Besht told him, “All of the kavannot, those detailed, kabbalistic formulas I taught you––they are like a ring of keys, each one fitting into one of the intricate locks on the many gates to Heaven. But there is another way to enter: an ax can smash any gate. Just so, a broken and humbled heart breaks open all of the gates!” This is what the shofar-blower did, and it is what Hannah does. Surrendering her grief and bitterness, turning it all over to God, she batters down the doors of heaven with her fervent prayer.
Some years ago, the Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein wrote a book called Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart. In it he speaks of emptying the mind and collapsing the self as a path to greater wholeness. He writes: “We fear that which we most desire, the falling away of self that accompanies a powerful connection.” We fear that which we most desire, the falling away of self that accompanies a powerful connection.
If we read Hannah’s story the way we would interpret a dream, seeing each figure in the story as a quality of our inner landscape, then perhaps Hannah, whose name means “grace,” is the yearning, the desire to actualize ourselves in the fullest way; her husband, Elkanah, is the part of us that says, “The status quo is fine, why not simply accept things as they are?” P’ninnah, the taunting rival, is the voice that derides our very yearning, tells us we’re worth nothing, that we don’t deserve fulfillment, and that it’s not possible anyway. Eli the Priest, the normative voice of society, at first embodies the judgment that blocks our creativity, and then the recognition that blesses our transformation.
And what is the quality, the spiritual intervention that unlocks this stuck situation, that batters down the doors of heaven? It’s Hannah’s full-bodied expression of grief, her opening up to loss, her bitter tears. Rather than continuing to sigh, to seethe, to clutch her bitterness to her heart, to make it her identity, she holds nothing back, and in so doing opens the clogged channels in herself. She brings herself present with the Presence. In becoming present there is peace, wholeness, shleymut, an internal settling. “Ufaneyha lo hayu lah od, And her face was no longer the same.” The Hebrew word for face, panim, is always plural—“faces”––and it refers not only to the face we show the world, but to our inner facets, the inner manifestations of our beingness. Something fundamental has changed within Hannah, and it radiates out through her face.
So this is Hannah’s first lesson for us––if we want to bring change into our lives, our world, we have to bring all of ourselves to the moment, and then we have to let things fall apart, to let go of what has been, even as we yearn for what has not yet come. And we have to express the feelings of grief and loss that accompany such letting go. Just as the seed must disintegrate in the earth before the plant can begin to sprout, we have to fall to pieces, bare our souls, express our pain, hold nothing back––bellow our fear, our frustration, our terror to the Uni-verse. We have to clear our clogged channels so that we may open, like Hannah, to receive the new life, the new structures, the creative solutions, that want to birth through us.
Rabbi Alan Lew, in his marvelous book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, teaches that the khagim, those times of year that, in the Jewish calendar, are vested with special spiritual properties––the holiness of Shabbat, the liberation of Passover, the revelation at Shavu’ot, the return to essence at Rosh Hashanah––manifest these properties only when we are mindful, only when we bring ourselves present within them. Rosh Hashanah, the ten days of return, the Day of At-One-ment, dare us to bring the fullness of our lives, our triumphs and our deepest sorrows, here, to this temple, today, right now, to raise our voices in song and prayer, to weep and to dance, to release what has been, and to embody our hopes in this very moment, that we may seed a different, wholer moment.
Hannah’s second lesson for us is perhaps even more profound. You’d think that, after all her tzurus, Hannah would want to hold onto this gift from God, this much-longed-for child. But no, she gives him back, as she has vowed, to the Great-Force-of-Love-and-Desire that birthed him, and in doing so, she releases him to his larger prophetic mission in service of the whole community. Her song of triumph is not a proud crowing over what she has gained, but a celebration of what is now possible, how the greater good is served when we turn our lives over to a higher purpose.
This is what I have also learned watching the courageous, outraged, grief-stricken young people of the world turning their pain into searing words of reproach for those of my generation who have failed them––failed to protect them in their schools and places of worship, in movie theaters and at music concerts, failed to curb the greed and business-as-usual that continues to degrade our planet’s ecosystems at an ever-more-alarming rate. This is what I have learned listening to the speeches of Greta Thunberg and to the voices of the tens of thousands of school children and young adults that her passion and determination have helped to mobilize, shouting out their pain, their anger, not to gain something for themselves personally, but in service of the whole planet.
On the day that Hannah brings her young son back to the Shiloh Temple, to dedicate him to holy service, she sings:
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!
Some 3,000 years after this exultant song was composed, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a young poet, and to us all:
You mustn’t be frightened
if a sadness rises in front of you,
larger than any you have ever seen;
if anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows,
moves over your hands and
over everything you do.
You must realize that something is happening to you,
that life has not forgotten you,
that it holds you in its hand and
will not let you fall.
Take a moment now, before we return the Torah to the Ark, to drop deep into your heart, to release all the written-down words, and tenderly touch your own brokenness, your grief and fear, and your own deepest desires, your hopes, and prayers for the coming year. Don’t hold back. Pour out your prayers! Smash the gates!
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2019