On the first day of Rosh Hashana we read the story of Hannah, a woman who faces the pain and suffering of being infertile, like many of our matriarchs. The first chapter of Samuel 1 begins with “vayehi ish,” “there was a man” describing Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, yet very little of this story is about him. The first time Hannah’s name is mentioned it is in relation to her husband, and the second time is to say she is barren, as compared to Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah. The chapter sets the scene for how society was structured and what societal pressures might be placed on her, even in these two passages.
In addition to the constant reminders of her infertility that she faced at home, she and her whole family travel to Shiloh to give sacrifices at the Mishkan, where inevitably she will see many children and pregnant bellies. Her husband asks, “Am I not better to you than ten children?” Elkanah is expressing his unconditional love for her, which, while romantic, is not very empathetic.
How can he expect her to ignore the pressure to have children when he himself took another wife in order to have them?
He seems surprised that she has internalized the messaging that a woman’s value is based on having children. Hannah is frequently referred to as “angry” or “bitter.” But I’d like to propose that she was grieving.
Stages of Grief
- Shock: We meet Hannah well past the initial realization that she is infertile, but you can imagine the many years of trying, each time hoping and being disappointed. Elkanah, who loves her dearly, wouldn’t want to accept the reality that she could not bear children.
- Anger: Hannah is repeatedly described as being angry and bitter, even praying to G-d with “marat nefesh,” a bitter heart.
- Bargaining: “If You give me a child, then I will dedicate him to G-d.”
- Depression: We have already seen in the beginning of the chapter that Hannah refuses to eat even the choice portion that Elkanah gives her from the offering. She takes no enjoyment from things that may have given her pleasure in the past (i.e. participating in religious life with her family).
Imagine that, in the depths of her depression, she has finally worked up the courage to go pray to G-d. To ask for help. She enters the sanctuary, and can’t even bring herself to speak the words out loud.
This is Hannah at her most vulnerable moment.
She is literally “pouring out her soul” to G-d, much like pouring the blood of a sacrifice unto the altar. She offers up her unborn child in service to G-d, like Avraham in the story of Akeidat Yitzchak. What happens when she is at her lowest and finally trying to reconnect with G-d? She is shamed, her motives interrogated, and her character is called into question.
She is a woman alone, praying differently than expected, which causes the Kohen Gadol Eli to assume she is drunk. She responds “I am a woman with a hardened spirit.
Like the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, so too the souls of Orthodox women have been calcified. After generations of being told that our participation in communal prayer is superfluous, having always been the default parent to stay home with young children, we feel we have no place in too many synagogues. These last six months have given men a glimpse of the female experience. They have wrapped tefillin at home and read the parsha under their breath, had their ritual practice stifled. And they have hated it. How quick were synagogues to establish outdoor minyanim, desperately clinging to something to keep them connected to their Judaism? Yet no matter how many zoom shiurim for women or spots behind the mechitza they allow, I look around at the women of my community and see apathy.
If women struggled to find spiritual connection behind the curtain, how could we possibly have found it within the confines of our own homes?
Where many have said “Isn’t it better not to be obligated to pray with a minyan or learn Torah with a group?” It feels like Elkanah yet again, speaking from a place of love, but not really hearing the pain. Like Hannah grieving for the child she could not have, women have been grieving the connection to our Judaism to which we have not been given access.
We have been angry, and we have bargained for every shred of participation we have been allowed within the Orthodox framework.
We have opened our lips and poured out our souls, but now we are tired. Even the richest slices of Torah we are offered, hold little joy for us anymore.
The final stage of grief is:
5) Acceptance: After Eli hears her plea, he says “Go in peace, and G-d will give you what you ask of Him.” She finally returns home, eats, and “her face was not the same.”
Perhaps her encounter with Eli was the last straw. She stays true to her vow and gives her son to serve G-d in the Temple. But rather than being told to leave in peace, what if she were invited to stay and pray through her pain?
To share her experience with others, to be given the time and space to pray aloud. G-d heard her plea, but did she truly feel heard by her community?
When Elkanah goes back to offer a sacrifice, it says “Hannah did not go up”. She brings Samuel to the Temple, but she does so on her own terms, after Samuel is weaned. Her prayer in chapter two is full of spiteful language “I gloat over my enemies…let no arrogance cross your lips.” These are not words you would expect from someone who feels grateful and reconnected to her Judaism.
They are words of a woman who felt unsupported by those in leadership.
It is no coincidence that the next sentence illuminates that the sons of Eli were “lawless men, who did not know G-d.”
As we move into the High Holidays this year, some of us may have a harder time reconnecting with G-d. Our spirituality has been pushed way down deep under layers of grief and despair. But as our lips move to try to speak the words of prayer this Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, let us be gentle with those who cannot speak the words out loud.
Show empathy to those who make the effort to come to shul, and even more to those who don’t.
“Take note of my suffering” says Hannah. May we be attuned to truly listen to each other’s silent prayers, to bring us closer as a community, and to G-d.
1- Although this dvar torah is not entirely about infertility, I urge you to read other writings from women who see themselves represented in this story.