The prayer of Hannah

"As depressed as she was over her infertility, Hannah refused to let her spirit die. Hannah chooses to live."

October 19, 2011 17:00
4 minute read.
‘Hannah’ by Sara Novenson (2011).

Hannah 311. (photo credit: Sara Novenson)


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Each year, we read about Hannah in the haftara on the first day of Rosh Hashana.

Again this year we did the same – however, as we did so we realized that the joy of Hannah in her prayer to God is also the joy we feel as we celebrate Simhat Torah. Let us try to understand the joy of Hannah which influences us year in and year out.

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A hassidic rebbe once said, “Let me not die while I am still alive. As depressed as she is, Hannah refuses to let her spirit die. Hannah chooses to live. In spite of her misery, she takes a small bold step.” What caused her to take that “small bold step?” Prof. Harvey Goldberg, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University, discussed Hannah in his book Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life.

In the First Book of Samuel, he explains that “one year Hannah ‘boldly’ came to the entrance of the sanctuary at Shiloh and prayed for a male child. Her behavior in which ‘only her lips moved’ must have been somewhat unusual,” Goldberg writes, “because Eli, the priest at the sanctuary, first thought she was drunk.” He continues, “when Eli realized ‘the purity of her purpose, he too, prayed that God grant her request.’” How alive and touching Hannah becomes in this description. Her desire to face life renewed is what also characterizes our beginning the Torah anew each year.

One of the questions which can be asked is how Hannah decided to present a new face to life. She could have been happy in spite of personal misfortune; but as Rabbi Herman Kieval puts it: “She chose instead the misery of self-pity for 19 long years.”

Her real tragedy lay in allowing the misfortune to blind her to all her other blessings. “By doing this, she denied herself any chance of making her life creative and meaningful in other directions.”

Kieval emphasizes that she would not laugh but wept constantly until she was “a woman hardened in spirit” and “bitter in soul.” After her silent prayer, she becomes a woman whose “countenance was not the same.”

Hannah transformed her whole attitude toward life.

“It was not,” according to Kieval, “the fulfillment of her prayer but the very act of prayer that created a new Hannah by revolutionizing her whole approach to happiness – her countenance was sad no more.” She was uplifted in heart and soul.

Penina Adelman, a Judaic and feminist scholar in Boston, wrote in Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality, a collection of essays edited by Ellen Umansky and Diane Ashton almost two decades ago, about how the spirit of Hannah helped her through a miscarriage.

In Praise Her Works: Conversations with Biblical Women, which she edited, Adelman wrote a chapter on Hannah.

“Hannah’s tale is one of victory. She is fighting for her fertility with all her heart, all her soul and all her might. Her co-wife and rival, Peninah, tries to wear her down with critical words and taunts. She seems to be losing the battle.”

What are Hannah’s weapons? Adelman asks. “They are prayer and deep faith. How Hannah forges these out of her despair and depression is the crux of the story here, demonstrating why she is a woman of valor.”

Sara Novenson, a Jewish artist from New Mexico, has a series of paintings on “Women of the Bible.” In her portrayal of Hannah, Novenson paints a woman whose “prayers were like ‘jewels going up into the crown of God,’” the artist says.

“In my painting of Hannah,” Novenson says, “I have positioned the ‘yud’ and the ‘heh’ so that these letters, emanating from Hannah, float up into the ‘crown of God.’ The spirit body of Samuel is hovering above Hannah, ‘waiting to come into his earthly mother.’” The noted Lubavitcher Rebbe also offered insight into the character of Hannah.

“Her prayer for a child was not an expression of ‘intoxication’ and self-obsession. It was an outpouring of the innermost part of her soul – she knew that she was ‘standing before God’... Hannah was crying out from the innermost depths of her being, and her desire did not stem from desire for self-gain; but her entire existence was characterized by the yearning to be bound and united with God.”

On Simhat Torah, as the holidays conclude, the “deep love of Hannah for the Lord” can become a part of all of us and make us dance with the Torah in the most joyful fashion.

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