Drash for Rosh Hashanah/Story of Hannah

Story of Hannah with a big nod to Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman who gave me the idea
by Student Rabbi Sandy Rosenstein

In today’s Torah reading, we read of Sarah’s surprise and laughter when G!d tells her she will conceive and deliver a child, her son Isaac. We learn how, in an effort to protect her son Isaac, Sarah forces Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael from their camp. In today’s haftarah, we hear the story of Hannah, her husband Elkanah and their son, the future prophet Samuel. We hear the story of how she, a barren woman, with no offspring of her own to protect, goes to extreme measures to conceive a child, and then gives him up to the Lord. Here’s the story: Year after year, Hannah would accompany her husband Elkanah up to the House of the Lord in Shiloh, where he would offer the family’s sacrifice. Elkanah had another wife, Peninah, and even though Elkanah loved Hannah the most, it was Peninah who was blessed with children. God had closed Hannah’s womb, and each day she lived with deep anguish.

Each time the family went to Shiloh for Elkanah to make his offering, Peninah would taunt Hannah making her cry and refuse to eat. Elkanah, exasperated, said to her, “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” Clearly Elkanah did not understand the first thing about a woman’s anguish regarding infertility.

After endured yet another year of family feasting, Hannah, bitter and angry, went to the temple and prayed to God while she wept. Desperate, Hannah made a vow to God: “Creator of the Multitudes of Heaven,” she began, “if You will see my suffering, if you will remember me, if you will give me a child, then I will dedicate my child to you, all the days of the child’s life…”

In our Haftarah today, G!d not only hears Hannah’s prayer, but God answers it by giving her a son. If only it were this easy – when we are the most desperate we pray to God, God intervenes, and God grants us our deepest wishes.

As Hannah’s story continues, we hear how she managed to endure the miserable family feast in Shiloh. Everyone was celebrating, but she wanted to crawl under a rock. Depressed that she was not pregnant and unable to escape Peninah’s taunts, she searched for some outlet for her grief. And then, after the feast, Hannah did something remarkable.

She went to the temple by herself, and poured out her soul to G!d. This was a radical act. For in Hannah’s time, the temple was a place for sacrifice, not a place for an ordinary individual, much less a childless woman, to go and pray.

When Hannah began to pray, she did it soundlessly; only her lips moved. The priest, Eli, seeing this mistook her for a drunk. At first his words were harsh. He told her to stop making a spectacle of herself and to sober up. Hannah could have shied away, but she mustered up her courage and she challenged him. “Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine, but I have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. I am not worthless. I am speaking out of my great anguish.” Eli in turn could have reacted defensively, but instead he answers her with kindness, and he blesses her. “Then go in peace,” he says. “And may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked for.”

During personal prayer, many of us ask for G!d’s intervention and expect a positive outcome. But when we perceive neither intervention nor the wished for result, we become wary of prayer. Where is G!d’s outstretched arm when we seek help?

Remember, though, when Hannah made her vow, there was no guarantee that her request would be granted. And when Eli blessed her, he did not say, “Your wish will be granted,” but rather he said, “May the G!d of Israel grant you what you wanted.” In other words, he hoped, her prayer would be granted, he did not promise her that it would.

One could argue that in today’s modern, technologically-driven, scientifically-oriented world, praying to G!d seems silly, pointless and not very efficacious. Many people have lost their faith in G!d. G!d, they believe, is so removed from their day-to-day life, that even if G!d somehow managed to influence some aspect of life, surely it would not result in anything positive. Why do I say that? Because people tell me that they don’t get what they prayed for!

Remember though, when Hannah went to the Temple to pray, she was seeking an outlet for her grief. She “poured out her soul.” In other words, first she complained. I don’t mean that as a negative judgment. I mean, she laid out her story. She narrated her pain. She described her suffering, her ill treatment by Peninah, her husband’s lack of understanding about her plight as a barren women. She experienced her pain through her prayer to G!d then she asked for what she wanted. Then she asked for a child. So, as I pondered Hannah’s 2 prong approach in her petition to G!d, I wondered if we 21st Century people might have better success in actualizing our own prayers if instead of asking G!d to fix something or give us something, we begin by first asking G!d for comfort and consolation and help in managing our own particular suffering or dispair. Then, simply by coping better with our plight, resolutions of our problems have a better chance of become apparent.

But back to Hannah: Like Hannah, we suffer through much loss and disappointment. We mourn the loss of loved ones. We carry the hidden scars of bullying or other forms of abuse. We long for a child but are infertile or miscarry. We are imprisoned by our addictions – to drugs, alcohol, gambling, food or work. We lose a job, get passed over for a promotion, find ourselves in spiraling debt. We cope with a debilitating disease or trauma. We grow older, realizing that we are no longer able to do the things we once did.

We long to be in a nurturing, intimate relationship, but we are unable to find a suitable partner, or we are stuck in a loveless relationship. Or we endure the loneliness of separation and divorce. Sometimes we do not know exactly why we suffer; we just know that there is a deep emptiness within us; we are engulfed by sorrow.

We hold on to these pains, many of which are invisible to others. We rehash losses of long ago that still make us defensive and afraid. We become angry at the world. These losses shape our lives in ways that are so jarringly different from what we had imagined. It’s easy to give up hope. Sometimes we feel as if we have been singled out in our suffering, that we are the only one who feels so terrible and hopeless. And yet, we all suffer from loss. It is striking that each of our Torah and Haftarah portions on Rosh Hashanah involve incredible grief, pain, anger, and despair. In addition to the story of Hannah, we read of Sarah and Hagar, bound together in a painfully dysfunctional family. Sarah’s jealousy and rage almost cause the death of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, after Sarah cruelly banishes them from her home. The second day of Rosh Hashanah presents us with Abraham, who almost sacrifices his beloved son, Isaac. This is a story of trauma, painful decisions, and deep resentment. And then there is Rachel, who weeps bitterly in our second Haftarah of Rosh Hashanah. She weeps for her beloved people, watching them trudge along, beaten, defeated. She cannot be consoled, for she is powerless to help them.

Perhaps we read so much about loss on Rosh Hashanah to affirm that we are not alone in our suffering. We read about our ancestors’ pain on Rosh Hashanah to teach us that we cannot ignore it or wish it away.

We wonder why our world is filled with such cruelty, why human relationships break down, why loved ones die, why we hurt each other, why disasters befall us. And we wonder why God would allow such terrible things to happen. We may long for the God whom Hannah prays to, the God who can intervene in our lives and make everything better. But we wait and wait and God does not eradicate our suffering.

Perhaps the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is not a helpful place to begin. The question does not help us to heal from our wounds. Instead, a better question might be, “How do we live with the pain that follows such a terrible loss?” Or “How do we go on day after day when we experience such heartache?” How do we make loss matter in a positive way? Let’s continue with today’s Haftarah:

Hannah’s story is the first account in Temple history of anyone standing before God, without the priest as an intermediary. Hannah created her own unique relationship with G!d. Let me say that again, “she created her own unique relationship with G!d.

As depressed as she was, Hannah refused to let her spirit die. She chose to live. In spite of her misery, she took a small, bold step. Hannah’s path was prayer. For us, our small, bold act might also be prayer, but it could be walking into a therapist’s office, calling an estranged loved one, leaving an abusive spouse, or attending an A A meeting. All of these are extremely courageous acts.

Healing is a laborious and difficult process. It requires enormous fortitude to take the first step, and enormous strength to endure the difficult journey ahead. It also requires a willingness to change. It requires a determination to leave the pain we know and exchange it for what might be a more frightening and unsettling discomfort that we must pass through on the way to healing. We have tremendous capacity to transform our lives. But we must look at ourselves honestly and be open to making life-affirming choices. Healing does not mean that the pain will disappear, for we carry our losses with us throughout our lives, but it does mean that we make a concerted effort to find peace and to reconcile our reality with the dreams that we have left behind. We must find what I call a “New Normal.”

Even as we courageously take our first, bold step, we must admit to ourselves that the process of healing requires accepting our limitations, moving away from denial, and realizing that some things will not change. Sometimes the child we try to reconnect to won’t budge. Sometimes the deal we are working on wont gel. At that point we have to confront the truth of our lives and make painful decisions to move forward, albeit in a different direction from what we had hoped.

As we confront our losses, the question arises: “Can there be meaning in suffering?” The Talmud raises the following ponderable: Is there something intrinsically positive in suffering? Perhaps suffering will allow us to make amends for our sins. Perhaps suffering will bring us closer to God. Perhaps suffering will allow us to grow stronger. Without recounting the many stories the Talmud puts forward in its explanation of suffering, it seems to me that the take away message is this: We cannot explain suffering, and we certainly do not welcome it. But it comes into our lives anyway. We must claim our brokenness as part of our own story and recognize that the shattered parts of our lives are holy.

Like Hannah let us take that first small, bold step towards healing. Let us, in the midst of our despair, repurpose our pain. Let us give purpose to it as we embrace others in need, offering our our-stretched arms as we open our heart in loving kindness and compassion.
L’shanah tovah tikateyvu – May we be inscribed in the book of Life and the Book of Good Purpose on this Rosh Hashanah and the year ahead.