Hannah – presenting a new face to life

An old friend and noted anthropologist, Prof. Harvey Goldberg, discussed Hannah in his book, Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life.

By DAVID GEFFEN
September 26, 2019 17:42
4 minute read.
Hannah – presenting a new face to life

HANNAH AS pictured by Sara Novenson in her book ‘Great Women of the Bible.’. (photo credit: Courtesy)

This year, when we read the Haftarah about Hannah on first day of Rosh Hashanah, I hope that you ask why her story was chosen to be chanted so beautifully and have such an impact on us.

Is it Hannah’s prayer? Is it her barrenness turned into fruitfulness? Is it her designation of herself as a “handmaiden” of God, or is it just the parallel to Sarah, who is featured in the Torah reading? I hope all these questions are in your mind as you listen to the Haftarah – truly one of the greatest in our tradition.

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 step.” Let us learn together why she took that “small bold step.”

An old friend and noted anthropologist, Prof. Harvey Goldberg, discussed Hannah in his book, Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life. In a chapter on pilgrimages in Judaism – both modern and ancient – he focuses on the first Book of Samuel.

“One year, Hannah ‘boldly’ came to the entrance of the sanctuary at Shiloh and prayed for a male child,” he explains. “Her behavior, in which ‘only her lips moved,’ must have been somewhat unusual. In fact, Eli, the priest at the sanctuary, first thought she was drunk.”

Then there is a change. Goldberg emphasizes, “When Eli realized the purity of her purpose, he too prayed that God grant her request.” I am sure that as you will be absorbed by both her and Eli’s prayers on Rosh Hashanah, realizing how alive and touching Hannah is. Read it again if you want to feel its power even more.

Literary critic Morris Samuel wrote a book entitled The People of the Book, in which he notes that the individuals in the Bible “rise to me straight out of the text of the Tanach. I see them with my own eyes... they are mightily there.”

For me, Hannah is “mightily there.”

How was it that Hannah decided to present a new face to life? Assume she could have been happy in spite of personal misfortune. The noted liturgist, Rabbi Hayyim Kieval, put it this way: “She chose instead the misery of self-pity for 19 long years. Her real tragedy, aside from not having children, lay in allowing the misfortune to blind her to all her other blessings.” In Kieval’s words, “She denied herself of making her life creative and meaningful in other directions.”

The rabbi emphasizes that she would not laugh but wept constantly until she was identified in I Samuel 1:10 as “a woman hardened in spirit and bitter in soul.” After her silent prayer, she becomes a woman whose ‘countenance was not the same.’ Surely, we witnessed on Rosh Hashanah that Hannah has transformed her whole attitude toward life.

“It was not 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,” according to Kieval.

What Hannah can teach us so dramatically is that when our prayer is mature – it calls to us to halt the retreat of our soul before life’s challenges. On Rosh Hashanah, let us emerge from prayer – like Hannah – with a new sense of purpose and action, with a new radiance and inner calm, eager to meet life meaningfully.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, once chose to focus on the interaction of Hannah and Eli in one of his lectures during the Days of Awe.

“The question arises: how can Eli be so, so wrong about Hannah?” the Lubavitcher Rebbe asks. “How can he be oblivious to the intensity of her prayer? Assuming he is, why is it necessary to record this event and thus disparage Eli? Moreover, why does Eli, believing her to be intoxicated, not scold her until after she finishes?”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe looks deeply into these two interacting figures and states that “Eli’s argument is that while one stands before God....before the Holy of Holies, there should be the profound awareness of actually being ‘before God.’ It is then wholly inappropriate to ask for material matters and personal needs as Hannah does when she says ‘give your handmaiden a child.’”

Then, the Lubavitcher Rebbe turns his focus on Hannah, who appears to be in a state of spiritual ‘intoxication.’

“Eli thought she was self-centered and not adequately mindful of where she stood ‘before God,’” Schneerson said. “Hannah answered the words of Eli ‘and I poured out my  soul before God.’”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe stressed that “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 or self gain; but her entire existence was characterized by the yearning to ‘be bound and united with You, O Lord.’”

Francine Klagsbrun, an American writer, says that “reversals and renewals” like Hannah’s hold “special power on Rosh Hashanah.”

“These narratives of Torah and Haftarah encompass more than the birth of children,” Klagsbrun said. “Sarah’s song of laughter and Hannah’s prayer of success alert us to the unexpected – the changes and wonders that can spark our lives as a new year and a new season come upon us.


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