The Real Housewives of Ephraim
Rosh Hashana 5780
by Monique Brumbach
In synagogues around the globe, Rosh Hashana is marked by more than the sounds of the shofar – we also read the stories of Sarah and Hannah, two barren women who have unique relationships with the God who makes promises.
Hannah is a barren woman stuck in a deeply dysfunctional marriage. Her sister-wife, Pninah, has produced many sons and daughters, and never misses an opportunity to lord it over her. Her husband, Elkanah, thinks his own mercurial affections should provide sufficient comfort to his depressed and angry wife.
Hannah is also deeply devout – her family travels to Shiloh three times a year to offer sacrifices during the pilgrimage festivals, a trip that would come at no small expense or inconvenience. During one of these trips, she brings her case to Hashem, and bargains with Him silently at the gates of the Tabernacle. “If you give me a son, I will make him a nazir from birth! He will serve you all the days of his life.”
Her lips move, but no sound comes out – a highly unusual form of prayer at that time. Eli, the High Priest, thinks she’s a drunken, rambling fool, and tells her as much. Hannah shows us her moxie when she defends herself against this withering accusation from Israel’s most powerful leader: “I am not drunk, I am deeply vexed!” Eli steps back, and reassures her that her prayer – whatever it is – will surely be answered. Somehow this calms Hannah. She returns to her family with an untroubled mind, and quickly conceives her first-born son.
Three or four years later, when she has weaned her beloved boy, Hannah brings him to Shiloh to be raised by the same man who called her a drunken idiot the last time they met. This is a staggering sacrifice, which totally overshadows the bulls, flour, and wine that she brings along. And finally she prays out loud, offering a gorgeous song of praise and thanksgiving, and marking herself as one of the seven female prophets in the Tanakh.
The Song of Hannah sets up the major themes of the rest of the Books of Samuel – God gives and he takes away. He raises up the poor and lowly, and knocks the proud off their pedestals. This foreshadows the events that are to come – soon Eli, Israel’s judge and High Priest, will decline in moral authority. He and his sons will die an ignominious death. His replacement? Lonely Shmuel, who had grown up in his own household. Later, Shmuel will anoint Saul as king. He will rise in influence, and decline in moral authority when power corrupts him. God will raise up David, installing him in Saul’s own household, eventually supplanting him. Saul and his sons will die an ignominious death to make way for an obscure shepherd boy to be the next king.
As Hannah prays:
Hashem kills and makes alive;
he brings down to the grave, and he brings up.
Hashem makes poor, and he makes rich;
he humbles, and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust,
lifts up the needy from the trash pile;
he gives them a place with leaders
and assigns them seats of honor. (I Samuel 2:6-10)
Hannah leaves tiny Shmuel at the Tabernacle in Eli’s care. We learn that she hasn’t abandoned him there, as the text continues: “Each year his mother would make him a little coat and bring it when she came up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice.” Eli blesses her that she might have another child to replace the one she has dedicated to the Lord. Hashem answers this request five-fold, as Hannah and her husband go on to have three more sons and two daughters.
The Sages hold Hannah in high regard. Rabbi Elazar points out that Hannah is the first person since creation to refer to God as the Lord of Hosts (Hashem Tzevaot). This is not a slip of the tongue – by using this title, Hannah implies that Hashem is such a great and mighty god that it should be a very small thing to open her barren womb. Indeed, the Talmud suggests a parable:
To what is this similar? It is similar to a flesh and blood king who made a feast for his servants. A poor person came and stood at the door. He said to them: Give me one slice of bread! And they paid him no attention. He pushed and entered before the king. He said to him: My lord, the King, from this entire feast that you have prepared, is it so difficult in your eyes to give me a single slice of bread? (b. Berakhot 31B)
We could ask whether this approach is impertinent, but the results are telling. Hannah approaches the Tabernacle in such a state of rage and desperation that her prayers are mistaken for the incoherent blabber of an alcoholic. She calls God by a new title, and makes an impertinent request in the form of a bargain: you give me a son, and I’ll give him right back to you! Still, God hears her and provides an answer. The barren Hannah becomes a mother to six, all of them children of her own womb.
Perhaps this is why we read about Hannah on the first day of the year. She teaches us to pray as we’ve never prayed before – with desperation and a touch of impertinence, mindful that we have an audience with the King of all creation. During these holy days, the gates of repentance are open to us. May we learn from Hannah’s example, and may we all have the courage to pray like this woman.
L’shana tova umetukah! May you have a good and sweet new year!