I read from the Prophets at Rosh Hashanah services this week. I had been practicing the portion for more than a month, learning to pronounce the Hebrew fluidly, and to chant the tropes melodically. I read the English translation and studied the Hebrew enough to know what I was saying, so I could sing with some expression, distinguishing the barren woman’s weeping from the joyous birth announcement. I wanted to give the congregation the sense of hearing a story, even if a good many of them wouldn’t be able to follow the exact words.
Some portions from the Prophets are poetry, and some are prose. The one we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah is definitely prose, as classic an example of storytelling as anything in the Bible.
Once upon a time, there was a man called Elkanah, who had two wives, Peninah and Hannah. Peninah had children, but Hannah did not. Every year, Elkanah took his family to Shiloh, where he offered a sacrifice to the Lord. Afterwards, when he shared the left-over bar-b-q with his family, he would give a single portion of it to Peninah and each of her children. But he would give Hannah a double portion, because he loved her, and he felt bad that God had closed her womb. When Peninah saw what was happening, she would ridicule and taunt Hannah for being infertile, and Hannah would weep and be unable to eat.
And so it went, year after year, until Hannah finally couldn’t take it anymore. She left the family picnic and went to the temple, where she wept and prayed, vowing that if God would give her a son, she would dedicate the child to God for his entire life. Long story short, Hannah finally conceived, and bore a son (it’s always a son in these stories; I would love to read the story of the long longed-for daughter). Anyway, Hannah named the child Samuel, and as soon as he was weaned, she brought him to Shiloh and presented him to the priest there, saying, “So long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”
When I’m preparing a portion, I practice once a day, usually first thing. I find the ritual soothing. I like being able to learn without having to make any decisions. I like watching my progress, hearing the melody and the words flow more and more smoothly, and seeing the meaning of the Hebrew gradually emerge. I like having an assignment – a very specific, short-term goal I know I can reach. And although I don’t make a conscious effort to engage with the text, I like considering the questions that naturally arise.
Here’s one. How does Samuel feel about all this? Is it okay for a woman to determine her future, hypothetical child’s career based on her own frustration? Heard through the filter of today’s attitudes, with our stress on individual fulfillment and self-determination, that approach to parenting seems awfully proscriptive and restrictive.
When I mentioned this to a rabbi friend, he reminded me that Samuel went on to become a prophet of Israel, advisor to two kings. “Not too shabby,” he said. Granted. But does the fact that Hannah’s action had a good result mean it was a good thing for her to do? What if Samuel had ended up abusing his position at the temple? Would that have made the exact same action not okay?
Another question. If Hannah was so desperate for a child, why was she so willing to give him away? Introducing the portion in shul, the rabbi described Hannah’s rival Peninah as a bully. Maybe Hannah didn’t want to have a child so badly because she wanted to have a child, but because she wanted Peninah to shut up. The text doesn’t say anything about Hannah actually longing for motherhood, unless one assumes that all childless women wish they were not.
Or maybe, in the world of the Bible, the point of bearing children isn’t to create a family, but to leave a legacy.
Or maybe I’m reading this whole story too literally. Maybe, even though the portion reads like prose, it really is poetry, after all.
This portion is read on Rosh Hashanah. New Year’s Day. The Birthday of the World. Seen in this context, maybe Hannah’s longed-for baby is the same dimpled, diapered, cartoon infant we use to personify the secular New Year.
Maybe we shouldn’t think of Hannah as yearning to give birth to an actual child, necessarily, but simply as yearning to give birth. To be creative / productive / leave a mark on the world. And maybe we shouldn’t think of her as turning an actual child into an actual priest or whatever, but as dedicating her efforts to a good that’s greater than herself.
Maybe Hannah is making the same sort of New Year’s resolution lots of us make, promising, if I can accomplish this goal / complete this work / master this skill / meet this challenge / survive this ordeal, I will use my success to make the world a better place.
It’s really just a question of translation.