Hannah, wife of Elkanah, was barren. Each year when the family made the journey to Shiloh to offer up sacrifices in the Tabernacle, Hannah relived her anguish as she saw Peninnah, her co-wife traveling with her brood. Though Elkanah tried to sooth Hannah's pain by giving her larger portions of food and by declaring his commitment to her, his efforts were in vain: Hannah could not be appeased.
Seeking a solution to her plight, Hannah turned to God, bitterly crying and beseeching the Almighty for a child: "O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look upon the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant and You will grant Your maidservant zera anashim [seed of men], then I will give Him to the Lord all the days of his life and no razor shall come upon his head" (I Samuel 1:11).
Our sages are intrigued by the unique turn of phrase zera anashim, offering a number of explanations for Hannah's choice of words (B. Berachot 31b).
The first explanation seeks to emphasize the use of the term "men," indicating that Hannah was asking for a man among men, meaning a person who is unique among his peers (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany).
A second approach separates the two terms suggesting that Hannah was prophetically asking for a child (zera) who would anoint other men. Indeed, Hannah's son Samuel would anoint Saul (I Samuel 10:1) and David (I Samuel 16:13), the first two kings of Israel.
A third offering focuses on the juxtaposition of the two nouns: Hannah was requesting a child that was equal to two men. Citing the verse "Moses and Aaron among His priests, and Samuel among those who invoke His name" (Psalms 99:6), the Talmud further clarifies Hannah's prayer: She pleaded for a son of the caliber of Moses and Aaron.
The fourth explanation offered by the Talmud takes a significant turn: Hannah was not asking for an outstanding child in any way, rather she requested a child who would be inconspicuous among people. The Talmud elaborates on this last approach sharing with us the specifics of Hannah's prayer: "Let him not be tall nor short, neither thin nor stocky, neither pale nor ruddy, neither wise nor foolish." While a mother may not want her child to stand out because of peculiar physical appearance, asking for a child who is not wise seems strange. Parents want everything for their children; which mother doesn't want her child to be intelligent?
Moreover, thrice daily we include a passage in our prayers in which we specifically request knowledge, wisdom and understanding. Our sages tell us that King Solomon, wisest of leaders, fasted for a full 40 days in order to be granted wisdom (Midrash Mishlei 1:1). Why did Hannah shy from this trait? Perhaps driven by this concern, one commentator immediately tempers the request: Hannah did not want her son to be excessively wise, such that he would be out of the ordinary, drawing excess attention and arousing the evil eye (Rashi, 11th century, France).
This is still a strangely cautious attitude and surprising coming from a woman who so desperately wanted a child.
Further in the talmudic passage we are told that when the young Samuel came to the Tabernacle at Shiloh, he caused some turmoil. Samuel saw that people who brought sacrifices would seek a priest to slaughter the animal. The young lad protested: "Why do you seek a priest, the slaughter can be performed by any person?" Samuel was quickly brought before the high priest Eli, who asked the youngster for his source. Samuel deftly quoted and interpreted the relevant biblical passage and Eli was forced to admit that the boy was right: "You have spoken well," pronounced the high priest. "Nevertheless, you have rendered a decision in the presence of your teacher" - referring to himself - "and are hence liable for the death penalty!"
While the underage Samuel would not normally have been held liable for his actions, perhaps Eli sought to nip the problem in the bud - better to do away with a potential rabble-rouser before he manages to agitate the masses and cause mayhem. Indeed this is the logic behind the harsh treatment of a rebellious son (M. Sanhedrin 8:5).
Hannah's concern for excessive wisdom before she was even pregnant appears to have been well-founded, for young Samuel's sharp intellect almost had him killed. Hannah's response to Eli's ruling was: "For this child I prayed" (I Samuel 1:27), recalling her prayer for limited wisdom and assuring the high priest that the future held no dangers.
Perhaps we can read the passage slightly differently, not focusing on Hannah's prescience, but suggesting that she was asking for the golden quality of balance. The importance of equilibrium was illustrated in a tale recounted by Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein (1856-1926) upon the return from the funeral of his father, Rabbi Avraham Borenstein (1839-1910), a respected legal authority and hassidic master in Sochaczew, Poland.
When the young Rabbi Avraham resided in the house of his famed father-in-law, Rabbi Menahem Mendel (1787-1859), hassidic master in Kotzk, he was often sick. The doctors could offer no medical explanation for the youth's ill health.
The Kotzker Rebbe explained to his young son-in-law that his infirm constitution was a result of an imbalance: Rabbi Avraham's mental capacity far outweighed his physical capabilities. The panacea was obvious: The studious Rabbi Avraham needed to eat more to strengthen his physical disposition and correct the disparity.
Returning to Hannah's prayer, we can understand her request: The mother was beseeching God for a child with a balanced makeup. Thus Hannah juxtaposed requests regarding physical features with her hopes for the child's mental prowess.
While we have high hopes for our children, our tradition may be suggesting that more important than stand out intellect or noticeable physique is a balanced approach to life. Such balance between our physical capabilities and mental faculties surely reflects equilibrium in our soul.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.