Hannah’s story shows us how independent women can – through their personal prayers and unmediated approach to G-d – change reality and create a better world.
Rosh Hashana is a time of renewal, agency, and prayers for a good year and a better world. In the Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashana, we read about Hannah, who will become the mother of Samuel, her yearning for a child, her difficulties in becoming pregnant, her moving prayer and its success (Samuel 1:1-2:10).
When Hannah confides to her husband Elkanah, the bitterness of her soul and her longing for a child, he utters a meaningless reply: “Am not I better to thee than ten sons?” (Samuel 1:1-8). Wrapped up in himself, Elkanah cannot see her sadness and bitterness. Their life together is enough, he believes, there is no need for a child, he is better to her than ten sons. Through Elkanah, Hannah learns at first-hand the true power of women’s prayers.
Elkanah’s thoughtless reply changes Hannah’s perspective and the course of events; she realizes that she must not rely on an external, extrinsic source. She will have to exercise agency and pour out her soul before the Lord: “she spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard” (Samuel I:1, 12). She prayed so long and so intensively that Eli the priest thought she was drunk (Samuel 1:1, 13).
The dependence on prayer of her husband, the passiveness and wretchedness that she projects, and her desire for understanding, all combine to silence her and halt her spiritual progress. Freeing herself from that dependence, together with her heartrending prayer, opens the gates of Heaven and she is rewarded with the son that she prayed for.
When the boy grew up and she came to Eli the priest and handed him the boy, she tells him: “For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath granted me my petition which I asked of Him” (v. 27). This shows how a new binding code was created through which independent women can – through their personal prayers and unmediated approach to G-d – change reality and create a world.
Hannah celebrates her victory through her prayer, with its universal message from which new guidelines for prayer were created. Her private triumph thus gains a presence in the whole universe. This story is chosen as the focus of the Rosh Hashana Haftarah because it illustrates how a feminist autonomous perception and agency can create a new vision and world.
The birth of Samuel the prophet came about thanks to the heartfelt prayer of his mother – Hannah – and this was a historical turning point in the annals of the Jewish people and in religious perception. That perception casts spiritual and practical responsibility on us to make a personal, unmediated connection with G-d, and to pray without mediators. Prayer has the power to update ancient codes, to bring a new world into being. Prayer grants vitality and life. It makes the world better, more humane, and generates life.
May we all be granted a wonderful year, and through our prayers may we succeed in building a new and better world, decent and beautiful.
About the Author: Dr. Zehavit Gross is Vice Chair of the ICJW Jewish Education Committee.