This Rosh Hashanah, on the first day’s Haftorah reading we heard the retelling of the story of Hannah, Elkanah and their child, Samuel. On the second day, during the Torah portion, we heard the retelling of the story of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah. Hannah, was barren. Hashem had closed her womb. Her husband loved her more than his other wife, Peninah who was able to conceive. Likewise, Abraham loved his wife, Sarah, more than Hagar; Sarah was barren for a long time before having Isaac, while Hagar, her maidservant, who she had given to Abraham was also able to conceive.
After Elkanah would offer sacrifices, he would give the “most attractive portion” to Hannah and each year Peninah would “provoke her again and again in order to anger her.” Hannah would “cry and not eat.” Hannah would feel her emotions and then fast. Hannah would not, as Sarah had, ask Elkanah to rid her of her adversary. Hannah recognized that Peninah’s anger was not the issue. She also recognized that he couldn’t understand her pain, when he saw her tears and was dismayed, assuming that his love for her was enough. She did not displace her anger onto him, either. Instead, she cried and spoke to God, “She was of embittered soul and she prayed to Hashem and wept continuously.” She promised to give her son to God should she have one. She spoke “from the heart” until in response to Eli the Kohen’s misunderstanding of the intensity of her prayer, she responded, “for out of much grievance and anger have I spoken until now.” She expressed her emotions fully, her anger toward Peninah, as well as, her desire for a child. After Hannah left the Temple, “she ate and she no longer had the same look on her face.” She had atoned, had expressed herself fully and so no longer had the expression of anger and pain; Her prayer had been heard. She gave birth to a son soon after.
She had atoned, had expressed herself fully and so no longer had the expression of anger and pain; Her prayer had been heard. She gave birth to a son soon after.
Hannah vowed that should she have a son, she would “give him to Hashem all the days of his life and a razor shall not come upon his head.” Hannah’s giving of her son to God is a very different process from Abraham’s giving of his son to God. How might have things gone if Abraham had confided in Sarah about God’s directive for him to “bring him up as an offering?” Might she have walked with them in the ambiguity of what might be asked for next rather than with Abraham’s assumed clarity that there is only one way to understand God’s plan? How might Sarah have heard the words that Abraham spoke to Isaac, “God will seek out for himself the lamb for the offering my son?” Was Abraham himself unsure of exactly how God wanted Isaac to be offered? Might she have counseled him on the possible meaning of God’s words, not to save Isaac’s life, but to understand clearly the word of God? Might she have seen the ram caught in the shrubs sooner than Abraham? Might she have lived?
Over time, ideally, we learn from past generations, from our matriarchs and patriarchs. Had Hannah learned from Abraham? It is not a coincidence that both families are discussed on Rosh Hashanah and that we hear of Hannah before Abraham.
Was Hannah’s reference to not bringing a razor to Samuel’s head a reference to what she learned from Abraham’s attempted sacrifice, this Nazarite vow in some way an atonement for Abraham’s independent rushing to action? Nothing was done wrong. Nothing needed to happen in any other way than it had happened. Over time, ideally, we learn from past generations, from our matriarchs and patriarchs. Had Hannah learned from Abraham? It is not a coincidence that both families are discussed on Rosh Hashanah and that we hear of Hannah before Abraham. Hannah speaks directly to God and plans to offer her son to our sovereign should she be blessed with him. Her husband plans to make an offering of Samuel and defers to his mother when she says, ‘not yet.’ They are in communication; ultimately, they offer their son together.
After Abraham offered the ram in Isaac’s place, it is said, “Abraham called the name of the site, “Hashem will be seen.” Why didn’t he say, ‘He is seen?’ Perhaps, he was aware of his own failed presumption. He was stopped from sacrificing Isaac, he saw the ram in the thicket. Later, he would find Sarah dead. He might have realized that God had told him to respect Sarah’s counsel, and yet he chose to hide the most pivotal request of their lives from her.
God said, “and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring, because you have listened to my voice,” not because you attempted to sacrifice your son. He was already listening to God’s voice when he took Isaac up to the land of Moriah. The angel had said, “because you didn’t withhold your son.” He sees that Abraham is a God-fearing man and because he “had done this thing, and had not withheld [his] son… that I shall surely bless you.” We assume that this thing is the attempted sacrifice because it is the pivotal shock of the story and because ultimately once the past moves away there is only one visible chosen action. Abraham’s blessings do not suggest that he needed to sacrifice Isaac to be blessed. He awoke and listened to God; he took Isaac and went to sacrifice at Moriah. Sarah might have counseled him to stay attuned to the voice of God as they walked, none of them knowing what would come, but all of them faithful and ready to answer the call. What might God have said as the three ascended the hilltop together?
Sarah might have counseled him to stay attuned to the voice of God as they walked, none of them knowing what would come, but all of them faithful and ready to answer the call. What might God have said as the three ascended the hilltop together?
The next time Elkanah went to the Temple to make his offerings, he, unlike Abraham, integrated Hannah’s wishes. Despite his planning to take his entire family with him, he told her to, “do what is good in your eyes.” This is a dramatic shift from Abraham, who once being told to make an offering of his son chose to not inform Sarah of his plan. When Hannah deemed it was time, he went with her and Samuel. Hannah speaks, “I have lent him to Hashem – all the days that he will survive he is ‘lent to Hashem,’ then he (Elkanah) prostrated himself to Hashem.” She knew that she could not give Samuel completely, as he would always remain the child who was created through her. This is not a mother’s clinging. This is a mother’s wisdom. Rather, she lent him to God, integrating the power of a mother’s love for her son, while still offering him to God for the rest of his life. Elkanah was aware of her holy bond, she being a vehicle of creation, and for that reason deferred to her. When he prostrated himself, binding himself to God, he did so in the presence of his wife and her ability to unite her love, her decisiveness, her sacrifice. They stood as parents, offering their child to God, together.
She knew that she could not give Samuel completely, as he would always remain the child who was created through her. This is not a mother’s clinging. This is a mother’s wisdom. Rather, she lent him to God, integrating the power of a mother’s love for her son, while still offering him to God for the rest of his life.
My husband and I were learning together before Minchah/Maariv on the first day of Rosh Hashanah when I began sharing my thoughts with him on this topic. He loves to delve into our sacred texts, as well, and quickly shifted the discussion to explore his own musings. I got mad and said, angrily, “let me finish,” then felt guilty about the intensity of my words and hesitated to continue. I had been like Sarah who spoke in her anger, instructing Abraham to send Hagar away. Perhaps, I was even like Peninah who spoke out of her own unresolved emotions to Hannah, hurting her feelings year after year. Had I been like Hannah, I would have felt my own anger with being stifled and talked over by people over the years, exploring the emotions in my personal prayers with God and then spoke up with confidence to his intrusion, perhaps, stating simply, “I want to share this with you. I’d love to hear your thoughts once I’ve finished.” I was like Hagar who didn’t see the water nearby and like Abraham who didn’t see the ram caught in the thicket. I had yet to broaden my view as Hannah was able to. My husband quieted and insisted that I speak, knowing of his and many men’s tendency to talk over women and assured me that he wanted to hear. He understood my anger, accepted that I was imperfect, yet growing. The conversation continued; I was able to articulate my thoughts, gaining clarity as I spoke and my husband, after respecting my desire to share, shared as well.
We are still learning how to converse with God, how to communicate with loved ones, how to assert ourselves while leaving space for others and most importantly, how to join our experience of God with our experience of one another.
We are still learning how to converse with God, how to communicate with loved ones, how to assert ourselves while leaving space for others and most importantly, how to join our experience of God with our experience of one another. On this Rosh Hashanah, I read of the progression of human communication in the presence of God, from Abraham speaking to God and his chosen isolationist decision-making to Hannah asserting her place, speaking to God directly and becoming an indispensable part of the decision to offer her own child to God. May we see each of these Matriarchs and Patriarchs in ourselves, in our strengths and our weaknesses, so that we might learn from them and continue the tikkun of the world, first and foremost, from within.
Irah Serach Belaga-Baker, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist, offering holistic wellness retreats (psychology, prescriptive yoga, meditation and optimal eating) in Florida, and online via mindholistic.com. She is also the contact person for the small but growing partnership minyanim community in South Florida.
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