Trigger warning: The following Torah portion may contain scenes of child abuse, self-harm, suicidal ideation, depression. If the information contained in these pages brings up issues for you please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Like many of you I have spent most of the last two years watching way too many streaming services. I have become used to flagging content. Yes, this whole year should have come with a trigger warning. So it came as a shock to reread our Torah portions for Rosh Hashana and think “This is taught to children?” So maybe divrei Torah at this time should come with a trigger warning, because the themes we talk about are not easy. They are hard. But we are a people who do hard things. So we persevere.
Come with me as we re-read about Hannah, who yearns for children, knowing that when we read Torah we are always reading our own family stories…
For those who yearn, it doesn’t matter what others tell us, or what we tell ourselves. For years we say, there are other role models. Hannah’s story does not have to be your story. You don’t have to be Sarah or Rivka, Rachel or Leah. What about Devora, Yael, Judith? And we teach them all and admire them and enjoy unpacking the steeliness and resolution and bloodthirsty cleverness of their stories, but it does not negate the yearning.
And in the years when friends begin to marry and have children, popular culture calls them smug marrieds.
The rabbis tell us midrashim of Peninah’s taunting Hannah, but we know they didn’t need to write them. For those who yearn, all Peninah has to do is be there, fecund and round and laden with all the paraphernalia of babies. Ten years of waiting. Yes all Peninah has to do is exist in the same camp with children hanging off her and clamouring for her attention for the corrosion to begin rusting over Hannah’s heart.
Anger after anger says Rashi: גם כעס
Anger accompanied the sadness. Anger after anger says Rashi, of the effect of Peninah’s taunts. Because for those who yearn, we are hurt by the smug and the catty but also by those who mean well: “Have you begun trying?” “Have you tried this?” “Your grandmother won’t last for ever.”
Ten years. And is it worse going to the brises and baby names or hearing the name debate come to a halt as she enters the room, and the topic changes to the latest book we’ve read? Is it worse to have acquaintances shove the names of miracle herbs into your hands, or have your specialist break down in tears when she says she’s out of options? Ten years of hoping and waiting, of visiting the mikva and crying under the waters. Is Hannah’s real trauma having the Aunties hug her and say “soon by you”?
Because one day they stop asking. And the silence is worse. And she stops talking about it. And her heart is so heavy she can barely stand.
And it’s not like nothing else is In her life. She has interesting work, is lucky enough to be loved. At one point her husband says, is this not enough? Am I not more to you than 10 children? And she can’t answer, because what is she going to say?
They are blessed to visit Israel and she goes to the holiest place and cries against the stones – those anavim im lev Adam and says, I’ll do anything.
For those who yearn, when the words have stopped, and the admonitions, there is only silence. And the iron tang of the rust spreading over her heart catches at the back of her throat. For those who still yearn it’s harder to feel joy in the things that used to bring joy. Food, travel, nights out with music and drinking and good friends.
Midrash Samuel 1:8 her husband would give her the finest portion of the sacrifice.
And the rabbis add ‘Despite this, Hannah would still weep and those who weep do not eat (because they lose their Appetite)’
And it’s holiday, holy day time again and everyone is going to shule. And you are so over it. You are not really living, your heart does not feel like it is pumping. You cannot imagine sitting there surrounded by your community, surrounded by children and mothers and grandmothers in a place where you can’t scream and can’t storm and rage at a God who some bless with shelo asani isha,
But you are stuck in a place of pain and anguish and in the deepest part of the silent prayer you shake and cry out in a petition that pierces the crusty corroded hollow heart inside you and you claim your right to challenge the God of Sarah who laughed and Rivka who said why am I in such torment? and Rachel who gave her life for her second chance and you beg “Give me children else I die.”
Babylonian Talmud Bereshit 31b Hannah is the first to call Hashem Tzeva’ot – Lord of Hosts, as she throws down her opening salvo “Of all the hosts and hosts that Thou has created in the world, is it so hard in thy eyes to give me one son?” The rabbis accuse her of insolence in her tone to Hashem, because she uses the preposition ‘al’ in her petition like Eliyahu and Moshe, which which is not normally reverential.
And a priest sees you shaking and crying and not chanting the words in the machzor and, of course the mansplainer yells at you and tells you you’re a drunken disgrace, and to get the hell out.
And you come back down to this world from the strange heavenly court where you have been both witness and prosecutor and lift your eyes to his and say:
אַל־תִּתֵּן֙ אֶת־אֲמָ֣תְ ֔ לִפְנֵ֖י בַּת־בְּלִיָּ֑עַל כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֥ב שִׂיחִ֛י וְכַעְסִ֖י דִּבַּ֥רְתִּי עַד־הֵֽנָּה
Don’t get me wrong. Out of the abundance of my complaint and vexation says most translations, or as The Jewish Women’s Archives have it: Grievance. In some instances, it [שִֹיחִי] is an expression of heartache. Out of heartache I have prolonged my prayer until now.”
Or perhaps my midrash: sichi like sicha – translated as conversation. Discussion, or “Excuse me Eli, I’m not drunk, we were talking here!”
And I see him continue. He says( not quite) ” I’m sorry” – , clearly a step too far for many religious leaders (and Jewish institutions) – but in a rare and quite beautiful act of teshuvah he really sees her, and he really hears her. And very gently and tenderly he says “Go. Eat something. Drink something. Sleep. Rest.” And he gives her the blessing and reassurance “Your prayer has already been heard” and I’m not sure if she believes him immediately but his teshuvah activates her return – and she goes, and rests, and eats with her family, and rejoins the living.
And maybe there is a crack in her heart, and maybe that’s the answer, not just from Hashem but all the imahot. The crack will let some light in. This will be hard, but we are a people who do hard things. And your prayer has already been heard.
On this High Holyday, whatever you yearn for, in whatever mood you are addressing Hashem, or not, know that your prayer has already been heard. And may it be, as it was, eventually, for Hannah, answered. G’mar tov.
Marlo Newton delivered this drash at Kedem on Rosh Hashana 2022.