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LEARN FROM CHANAH

בס”ד

The holidays are over. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot were all observed. These are the days when “remembering” takes center stage. We recall creation, G-d’s forgiveness for anyone who turns to Him, and G-d’s mercy and protection. The subject of “remembering” is also prevalent in the haftorot relating to the parashot accompanying these weeks. The narrative of Chanah and her son Samuel, the later prophet, is one of these haftorot. This is the haftora that we should carry with us into the new year. Let’s look at the narrative of Chanah and what we can learn from her prayer.

וְלוֹ֙ שְׁתֵּ֣י נָשִׁ֔ים שֵׁ֤ם אַחַת֙ חַנָּ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית פְּנִנָּ֑ה וַיְהִ֤י לִפְנִנָּה֙ יְלָדִ֔ים וּלְחַנָּ֖ה אֵ֥ין יְלָדִֽים׃

He – Elkanah – had two wives, one named Chanah and the other Peninnah; Peninnah had children, but Chanah was childless.[1]

A question arises from this first sentence: why did Elkanah have two wives?

G-d had closed Chanah’s womb, making it impossible for Elkanah to carry out the commandment “to be fruitful and multiply”.[2] We can read in the Mishnah what should happen if no children result from a marriage after a long time.

A man may not neglect the mitzva to be fruitful and multiply unless he already has children. … If a man married a woman and stayed with her for ten years and she did not give birth, he is no longer permitted to neglect the mitzva to be fruitful and multiply. Consequently, he must either divorce her and marry someone else, or take another wife while still married to her.[3]

However, a comment is required here. Many Rabbis [4] am of the opinion that it is forbidden for a man to divorce his wife if no children are born. As a result, it is not a valid basis for divorce.

Various traditions hold that Elkanah chose to marry Peninnah, while another holds that the marriage was at Chanah’s insistence.[5]

Whatever tradition we follow, we see significant parallels between the stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, as well as Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. Where the first cherished wife has her womb closed by G-d and the husband receives children from the other wife. We know of Hagar’s contempt for Sarah and Peninnah is also seen “bullying” Chanah.

…” Peninah would provoke her and irritate her day after day. What would she do? R’ Nahman son of Abba said: Peninah would rise early and say to Chanah, “Aren’t you going to get up and wash your children’s faces so they can go to school?” and at noon she would say “Aren’t you preparing to welcome your children home from school?”…[6]

However, there is a significant contrast between Hagar’s and Peninah’s behavior.

Peninah was a righteous woman who in this way tries to get Chanah to a breaking point where she would completely pour out her heart to G-d, because painful and stressful situations are really gifts from G-d. G-d puts people in such situations so that they can learn the power of prayer. When a person sees that no one can help him, he therefore turns to G-d with all his broken heart in prayer. Hashem will oftentimes save that person from all calamities to reinforce that person’s belief in Hashem and in the power of prayer.[7]

What distinguishes Chanah is her approach to grief. She does not send Peninah or her children away, and there are no verses that she reacts badly to her in any way. Even when her husband attempts to console her, she keeps her sorrow in her heart, and no evil word passes her mouth. Not about G-d restricting her womb, nor about Peninah harassing and shaming her.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָ֜הּ אֶלְקָנָ֣ה אִישָׁ֗הּ חַנָּה֙ לָ֣מֶה תִבְכִּ֗י וְלָ֙מֶה֙ לֹ֣א תֹֽאכְלִ֔י וְלָ֖מֶה יֵרַ֣ע לְבָבֵ֑ךְ הֲל֤וֹא אָֽנֹכִי֙ ט֣וֹב לָ֔ךְ מֵעֲשָׂרָ֖ה בָּנִֽים׃

Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Chanah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?”[8]

Remember that this rule was just for her husband, not for her. A woman is not obligated to bear children because pregnancy and, especially, labor are dangerous and painful experiences. But she embraced this commandment wholeheartedly and passionately. And when she realized that nothing, she tried would result in her becoming pregnant, she cried and begged G-d for a miracle. She even requested more than just a miracle. She requested a male child, a tzaddik[9], a child who would serve G-d.

וַתִּדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר וַתֹּאמַ֗ר ד’ צְבָא֜וֹת אִם־רָאֹ֥ה תִרְאֶ֣ה ׀ בׇּעֳנִ֣י אֲמָתֶ֗ךָ וּזְכַרְתַּ֙נִי֙ וְלֹֽא־תִשְׁכַּ֣ח אֶת־אֲמָתֶ֔ךָ וְנָתַתָּ֥ה לַאֲמָתְךָ֖ זֶ֣רַע אֲנָשִׁ֑ים וּנְתַתִּ֤יו לַֽד’ כׇּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו וּמוֹרָ֖ה לֹא־יַעֲלֶ֥ה עַל־רֹאשֽׁוֹ׃

And she made this vow: “O L-rd of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the L-rd for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.”

We see in this verse that Chanah, in her spirit of prophecy, was the first one to reveal the Divine Name “L-rd of Hosts”.[10]

It makes it special that her prayer is written down in the Tanakh. After all, the earliest prayers documented in the Tenach are those of the Jewish forefathers.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob said the first prayers recorded in the Bible. According to the sages[11], they established the Jewish morning, noon, and evening prayers. The prayer of Chanah also has its place in the daily prayers, namely in Amida. The reason that the Amidah prayer is whispered, is because Chanah whispered her prayer.[12] Why is there a reminder of her prayer three times a day in this way?

As previously stated, the haftorah of Chanah is recited in the month of the holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. It situates her prayer within a timeframe when we pause to reflect on our acts and reconnect with G-d and His commandments, like Chanah did. As we can see in the verse above, she appoints herself as G-d’s maidservant three times, which corresponds to the three mitzvot she must observe.[13] But the entire point of her prayer was to accomplish the mitzva to be fruitful and multiply, not for herself, but because it is a commandment from G-d. We can see this from her behavior, she does not keep the child for herself, but she gives it to G-d, and she has it raised by Eli the priest.

אֶל־הַנַּ֥עַר הַזֶּ֖ה הִתְפַּלָּ֑לְתִּי וַיִּתֵּ֨ן ד’ לִי֙ אֶת־שְׁאֵ֣לָתִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׁאַ֖לְתִּי מֵֽעִמּֽוֹ׃

It was this boy I prayed for; and the L-rd has granted me what I asked of Him.

וְגַ֣ם אָנֹכִ֗י הִשְׁאִלְתִּ֙הוּ֙ לַֽד’ כׇּל־הַיָּמִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הָיָ֔ה ה֥וּא שָׁא֖וּל לַיהֹוָ֑ה וַיִּשְׁתַּ֥חוּ שָׁ֖ם לַֽד’׃ 

I, in turn, hereby lend him to the L-rd. For as long as he lives he is lent to the LORD.” And they bowed low there before the L-rd.

What can we learn from Chanah, and what should we keep in mind throughout the year:

  1. Don’t allow the past to prevent you from praying earnestly to G-d. Never think that your sins are too great for G-d to forgive and that because of your sins, you are unable to pray to G-d.
  2. Don’t let your surroundings prevent you from praying to G-d in a way that is beneficial to you. Eli attempted to stop Chanah because he suspected she was drunk.[14]
  3. Perform every mitzvot/commandment you fulfill with complete dedication and passion.[15]
  4. Nothing is impossible for G-d, no matter how impossible it appears. After ten years without children, it seemed impossible that her womb could open.
  5. The greater the agony and suffering in a person’s life, the more intense the prayer. All the sorrow that Peninnah caused worked for good so G-d blessed Channah with a child who would become a great prophet. As the Rabbis explain:

G-d said to Peninnah: “You vexed Hannah [“to vex her (harimah),” I Sam. 1:6]—by your life, there is no thunder [re’amim] that is not followed by rain. I will immediately remember her [i.e., bless her with child]” (Pesikta Rabbati loc. cit.). This midrashic wordplay uses the two meanings of ra’am: (1) anger and (2) thunder. The barren wife is compared to arid soil and her being blessed with child is portrayed as the rain that falls and sates the earth, causing it to be fertile.[16]

By Angelique Sijbolts

Sources:

[1] I Samuel 1:2
[2] Genesis 1:28
[3] Mishnah Yevamot 6:6
[4] For example Ramak
[5] Pesikta Rabbat 43
[6] Pesikta Rabbat 43:243
[7] Breslov Article: The Broken Heart by Rabbi Shalom Arush
[8] I Samuel 1:8
[9] Rashi on I Samuel 1:11:4
[10] I Samuel 1:11
[11] Berakhot 26b:5
[12] In one landmark talk, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained this entire episode in a uniquely beautiful and moving way. See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 19, pp. 291ff.
[13] Rashi on I Samuel 1:11:3 Your maidservant. [The word ‘maidservant’] is stated three times in this verse, corresponding to the three mitzvos which a Jewish woman is commanded to observe. *They are the laws of: 1. Menstruation .2 נִדָּה Separation of the dough .3 חַלָּה Kindling of the Shabbos lights [הַדְלָקַת הַנֵּר].
[14] I Samuel 1:13
[15] For Jews, this means following the 613 commandments, whereas for non-Jews, it involves following the 7 Noahide Commandments, their details, and the logical commandments that can be derived from the 613 commandments.
[16] Article Jewish Women’s Archive: Peninnah: Midrash and Aggadah by Tamar Kadari

The following articles were also used:

Chabad Article: The Story of Hannah by Mendel Dubov
Chabad Article: Changing G‑d’s Mind by Mendel Kalmenson


Texts: Sefaria.org

With thanks to Rabbi. W. van Dijk for the inspiring question and for the helpful feedback

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