Learning About Judgment

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the Haftarah (portion from Prophets or Writings) from the beginning of the book of Shmuel (Samuel), a section in which Channah (Hannah) prayers to Gd for a child.  Not only does Gd answer her prayer, but the son she bears becomes a prophet and leader of Israel!

Because Channah’s prayers are considered so pure and meritorious, during the most sacred of prayers the Amidah, Jews today still pray in the same manner as she did, quietly to herself:

והיה כי הרבתה להתפלל לפני ה ועלי שמר את–פיה.  וחנה היא מדברת על לבה רק שפתעה ניות וקולה לא ישמע ויחשבה עלי לשכרה. ויאמר אליה עלי עד–מתי תשכרין השירי את–יינך מעליך.(שמואל א: יב–יד

And it was as she continued to pray before Hashem, that Ei observed her mouth.  Hannah – she was speaker from the heart, only her lips moved but her voice was not heard; and Eli considered her a drunkard. And Eli said to her, “How long will you act drunkenly?  Remove your wine from yourself!”(Samuel 1: 12-14)

Eli was the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, judge and leader of the generation.  He was unaccustomed to seeing someone pray so, and therefore thought that Channah was drunk.

At a very simple level, what I think this can teach us during this time of judgment, is of course not to judge other people so quickly, because what may seem like nonsense could actually be something very divine.

Probing a little bit deeper though, this passage becomes problematic.  Channah takes a vow (which you’re not supposed to do, at least not today, because breaking a vow is very serious business) that if she is granted a son, that he should nazir, not shaving or consuming grape products, dedicating themself to a higher level of service to Gd.

Problem 1: Striking a deal with GdIsn’t that a bit bold?

Problem 2: She only wants a son.  That’s probably just a problem for me and not for our sages, but of course I find it sexist.

Problem 3: Taking a picture at the larger context, Channah is bereft because the other wife of her husband, Elkanah, who he doesn’t love as much (ok, those are Problems 4&5), has many sons and daughters, while she is barren.  The other wife, Peninah, would rub the prolific fruit of her womb in Channah’s face.   Looking at Channah’s prayer, she says “… while the barren woman bears seven, the one with many children becomes bereft.” According to Rashi’s commentary, every time Channah gave birth, two of Peninah’s children died.  By the time Channah had four children, only two of Peninah’s remained.  When Channah had her fifth, Peninah begged her to pray that the two remaining children not die like the others.  Channah did, and they survived, and therefore she was credited with her five children and the two she saved due to her prayers?  Whoa, whoa, whoa. – Was she praying that in addition to giving birth to her children that Peninah’s would die? Even if she wasn’t, why didn’t she notice the pattern and need to be petitioned to stop?  Why is she rewarded for this?  Isn’t it only the most basic level of humanity that would not want children to die – and wouldn’t we expect more from one of our role models?  Furthermore, is it not taught in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a):

“For this reason man was created alone, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, he is guilty as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whoever preserves a single soul, it is as though he had preserved a whole world.”?


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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