And Hannah prayed…
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And Hannah prayed…

A reflection on how to understand the power of the human heart on the High Holidays.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read for the Haftarah the story of Hannah: Hannah’s husband, Elkana, had two wives—she, and Penina. Penina had a number of children. But Hannah was not able to have a child. And it made her terribly sad. Every year, when the family went up to Shilo to worship and celebrate, Hannah could only cry. Elkana loved Hannah more than anything, and told her so, but this could not fill the painful void.

 

But this year, in the moment our Haftarah brings us in, instead of just crying as she had done every year, Hannah does something different.  She prays. This year, her longing becomes prayer: instead of crying alone, she pours out her soul to God:

 וָאֶשְׁפֹּ֥ךְ אֶת־נַפְשִׁ֖י לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֽה

 

The Rabbi’s of the Talmud saw Hannah and recognized her prayer as the inspiration, the model for our Tefillah.  We learn how to do Tefillah, quite literally, from her: this is why, during the Amida prayer, our lips must move, it should be audible only to the person praying, and we must stand up.  The actual words of Hannah’s Tefillah are not the focus, but the very concept of her praying, and how she was praying.  

 

Hannah’s story is read as the Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah for a number of reasons:  One is that it relates to the Torah reading, which begins “And God remembered Sarah…” Sarah was also barren, and God remembered her and gave her a child. Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembering—God remembering us, and hearing our prayers. The “remembering” of a barren woman, who then is given a child, is the paradigm of feeling remembered by God that was chosen for us to read on Rosh Hashanah.  

But another reason for choosing Hannah as the Haftahah relates not to the end result, God giving her a child, but to Tefillah itself.  

The “remembering” of a barren woman, who then is given a child, is the paradigm of feeling remembered by God that was chosen for us to read on Rosh Hashanah.  But another reason for choosing Hannah as the Haftahah relates not to the end result, God giving her a child, but to Tefillah itself.  

God does give Hannah a son. And at the end of our chapter, she prays again. But this time, her Tefillah is an outpouring of joy. Her heart is overflowing with gratitude.

עָלַ֤ץ לִבִּי֙ בַּֽיהוָ֔ה

And this is Tefillah too.

We recognize Hannah’s Tefillot as the epitome of prayer not just because her prayer is heartfelt, but because she has taken what is in her heart, and let her heart turn it into a Tefillah.

And this important work of the heart, is עֲבוֹדַת הַלֵּב.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his introduction to the Siddur, observes that the structure of Tefillah contains fractals.  Fractals are endlessly repeating patterns, showing more and more of the same pattern, the closer in you go, or the farther out you go. Examples in nature are snowflakes; ferns; orbits; ocean waves, crystals, lightening, the seashore.  Our Tefillah contains fractals too: the Amidah contains within it a three-part structure: praise, request, and thanks; but if you zoom in even closer, you find that each individual blessing within replicates the same pattern—praise, request, thanks.  Rabbi Sacks calls fractals “the scientific equivalent of the mystical ability to sense the great in the small.” He recalls the poetry of William Blake: 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his introduction to the Siddur, observes that the structure of Tefillah contains fractals.  Fractals are endlessly repeating patterns, showing more and more of the same pattern, the closer in you go, or the farther out you go… Our Tefillah contains fractals too: the Amidah contains within it a three-part structure: praise, request, and thanks; but if you zoom in even closer, you find that each individual blessing within replicates the same pattern—praise, request, thanks. 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour.

This kind of infinity is held in a moment of Tefillah; and a moment of Tefillah is part of a great infinity.

There is another Hannah who teaches us about Tefillah: the brave heroine, paratrooper and poet Hannah Senesh. Shortly before leaving for her rescue mission into Yugoslavia she wrote this poem:

אלי, אלי, שלא יגמר לעולם

החול והים

רשרוש של המים

ברק השמים

תפילת האדם

My God, My God

May these never ever end

The sand and the sea

The rush of the waters

The lightning of the heavens,

The prayer of man.

 

It struck me one day that the images in this poem are actually themselves fractals. The shoreline, the breaking of ocean waves, lightening.  Did Hannah Senesh know that? And, the poem itself is a fractal: it is a prayer about prayer never ending; the prayer contains within itself infinite prayers, each one praying about the infinity of prayer.

This song has always moved me because of Hannah Senesh’s life story. Senesh was never one to simply sit back and pray in the face of danger: she got up, she trained, she took action, she risked her life to save others.  But she understood something eternally essential about Tefillah.

They understood that to engage one’s heart in Tefillah is to hold infinity in the palm of your hand.

Hannah from our Haftarah and Hannah Senesh both understood the magnitude of עֲבוֹדַת הַלֵּב.  They understood that to engage one’s heart in Tefillah is to hold infinity in the palm of your hand. They understood the power of the human heart. Sometimes it swells with overwhelming gratitude; sometimes it swells with longing; sometimes it swells with the deepest worry or wishes for someone we love.  And when our hearts offer up those feelings to God, we have Tefillah, שלא יגמר לעולם.

 

 

Lisi Levisohn is a child psychologist who also enjoys teaching Torah-Inspired science, Girl’s Tefillah and the Matan Bat Mitzvah program in her community, Silver Spring, MD.

Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.

If you’re interested in writing for JOFA’s blog contact dani@jofa.org. For more about JOFA like us on Facebook or visit our website.

 

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