Wednesday, September 16, 2009

To Be Chana

To be Chana is to suffer. It's to be tortured by the Peninahs of the world, to have husbands believe that they can comfort you if only they point out what you have as opposed to what you don't have, to be misjudged by the Eli HaKohens, to have God Himself refuse to grant you the child that would epitomize the meaning of your life. To be Chana is to win only when you lose, to have nothing unless you sacrifice for it. To be Chana is to have Shmuel only to give him up. To be Chana is to love forever, with a timeless and everlasting and unending love, to bring your son the beautiful little robe you make for him year in and year out. This robe, the love which you wove into it, characterizes your son all his life. It is so powerful that it accompanies him beyond the grave.

יט וּמְעִיל קָטֹן תַּעֲשֶׂה-לּוֹ אִמּוֹ, וְהַעַלְתָה לוֹ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה--בַּעֲלוֹתָהּ, אֶת-אִישָׁהּ, לִזְבֹּחַ, אֶת-זֶבַח הַיָּמִים.
19 Moreover his mother made him a little robe, and brought it to him from year to year, when she came up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice.

~Samuel I 2:19

יד וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ, מַה-תָּאֳרוֹ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִישׁ זָקֵן עֹלֶה, וְהוּא עֹטֶה מְעִיל; וַיֵּדַע שָׁאוּל כִּי-שְׁמוּאֵל הוּא, וַיִּקֹּד אַפַּיִם אַרְצָה וַיִּשְׁתָּחוּ. {ס} 14 And he said unto her: 'What form is he of?' And she said: 'An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a robe.' And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and prostrated himself. {S}

~Samuel I 28: 14

(My thanks to Robert Alter for pointing that out.)

To be Chana is to be truly religious in the sense that the Rav intends.

"[T]he religious act is essentially one of suffering. When man and God meet, man is called upon by the Divine to embark on a course of self-sacrifice which is manifested in a struggle against his primitive instincts, in a breaking of the individual will, in the acceptance of a 'transcendental burden,' in an occasional dissociation from the pleasant and attractive, and in an addiction to the bitter and the strange...'Make sacrifices'- that is the command governing the religious man."

~Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in "On the Love of the Torah and the Redemption of the Soul of the Generation," an answer to an interlocutor, in IAIT, pp. 403-32

Rosh Hashana is Chana's holiday. God remembers her; it's the day she conceives her child. Can there be joy in that? After all, this child will be taken from her. No, not taken- given freely. That's the ultimate sacrifice; she loves this child knowing he is not hers at all but only God's. And she gives him to God. Yes, she and Elkanah have other children tachas- in place of- that one. But do you think she forgets him? Of course not. There's the robe, the little robe, that robe which marks and characterizes him so that beyond the grave, when he is called back by the Witch of Endor, he still appears in that robe.

So didn't it kill Chana to give up her child? What kind of mother was she- could she part with her son so easily? Ah, but here's where the other Chana and what she says comes to mind- the one who commits suicide after her seven children refuse to bow to the idol and they are all killed.

"God, you merely requested that Abraham sacrifice Isaac but you did not make him do it. Yet I have truly sacrificed my children to you!"

Is that not what Chana did? What was Shmuel if not her sacrifice?

To be Chana is to be the Queen of Sacrifice. The Rav explains, "God demands not tribute from man, but man himself." What Chana did was even more difficult than this. To give oneself up is easy. For a mother to give her child up, to see him but once a year? That is something totally different. Chana was willing to risk her reputation for this child, to be accused of being a Sotah; she does everything in her power to be a mother. Chana was no wife of Manoah to be commanded to give her son up. No, God has different plans for Chana. He knows nothing is worthwhile unless he makes it her choice so that she has nobody to blame but herself. Chana gives up her child because that is the only way she will have a child.

You want to know who Chana was? Chana was a woman who totally exemplified what it meant to live for God. Chana suffered in ways you cannot even fathom. Her husband could not comfort her, her co-wife hated her and tortured her and the holiest man of the generation thought that she was a drunken woman- a totally horrifying accusation when you consider how deeply she served God. God acted cruelly with Chana; He only gave her what she wished after breaking her completely into pieces. Was it kind? Perhaps not. Was it necessary in order to make Chana the prophetess she was, to ensure that Samuel would be the prophet that he was? Yes. Chana gives her whole soul and her entire self to God. She has no one else to confide in, no other to trust. When He gives her a son, even though it is conditional, she nonetheless raises a paeon to him. Because here is the secret of Chana- she loves God, despite everything. She loves Him so much that she would give the child she has longed for with all her heart and soul to Him. Isn't this inexplicable? Isn't it strange? By rights, Chana ought to hate God- this God who created a lot in life for her which is fraught with such unhappiness. But she does not hate Him. She is merely a woman of sorrowful spirit who pours out her soul before Him.

To be Chana, then, is to love God and to walk with Him, to find Him in the darkness and to cling to Him. To be Chana is to know God is always beside you and cares very, very much for you. To be Chana is to hate and love God simultaneously, to cry out before Him and nonetheless be so close to Him that one need merely whisper. To be Chana is to trust in God because no one else exists who can understand. To be Chana is to be God's, indivisibly and insolubly. Chana belongs to God in the same way that He belongs to her. The two are inseparable. Chana without God is an impossibility. It is not just that Chana would be dead. It is that Chana simply wouldn't exist. There can be no Chana if there is no God. Thus, the fact that Chana lives, the fact that she sacrifices, her loneliness and unhappiness and the way she turns to God is in and of itself testimony that God exists. To be Chana is to be the unhappiest person in the world but it is also to have absolute and unquestioning knowledge of God. Chana struggles at first. She does not want to submit to God. But in the end she does and she finds her joy in it. But it is never complete. Look at Chana's language. When she gives Shmuel up to God, she states that she has lent him to God:

כז אֶל-הַנַּעַר הַזֶּה, הִתְפַּלָּלְתִּי; וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה לִי אֶת-שְׁאֵלָתִי, אֲשֶׁר שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵעִמּוֹ. 27 For this child I prayed; and the LORD hath granted me my petition which I asked of Him;

כח וְגַם אָנֹכִי, הִשְׁאִלְתִּהוּ לַיהוָה, כָּל-הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר הָיָה, הוּא שָׁאוּל לַיהוָה; וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ שָׁם, לַיהוָה. {ס} 28 therefore I also have lent him to the LORD; as long as he liveth he is lent to the LORD.' And he worshipped the LORD there.

Chana wants God to know that she does not consider Shmuel to be God's property which she is merely returning to Him. No! Shmuel is hers, her son and she is lending him to God. It is her free will and her free choice. And let God never forget it! There is power in this woman, an incalculable power. She may bow before God, having submitted to His will. But she reminds Him that it is her choice to submit before Him. Her son is lent to Him, not returned to Him, not His to own and possess, only lent. To be Chana is to walk with God, to feel His presence as clearly as one senses one's own, to dialogue with Him, to submit with grace. To be Chana is to walk an incredibly difficult path. Yes, Chana was remembered on Rosh Hashana. For what? To sacrifice. Then of course it is appropriate to mention her on this holiday where we all must call upon ourselves to sacrifice, to offer up our souls upon God's altar. Chana is the essence of that. It is what she stands for. It is who she is. To be Chana is to offer up, to give, to be misjudged and to suffer, to live this life granted by God with all the grace she can muster. To be Chana is to fulfill the words of Bilvavi.

בלבבי משכן אבנה להדר כבודו, ובמשכן מזבח אשים לקרני הודו, ולנר תמיד אקח לי את אש העקידה, ולקרבן אקריב לו את נפשי, את נפשי היחידה


The Talmid said...

The connection of the me'il from perek 2 & perek 28 is pointed out in the Tanchuma, Emor 2 (see it here:

You can say (I actually have) that certain neviim had a "trademark" item by which they were dentified - Shmuel's me'il (based on that Tanchuma), Eliyahu's aderes and IIRC Elisha had a staff.

Anonymous said...

Have a healthy and sweet year!

Gavi said...

Precisely why we read it on the first day of rosh hashana... Chana represents the faith that we try to attain of that day when the world trembles (harat olam, according to Ra'avan).

You know, my son is named Shmuel, so this piece resonates with me quite a bit.

Shana tova!!

nmf #7 said...

Excellent! I really liked this- and the me'il idea is very nice.

Anonymous said...

to be chana is to realize that in the end we are existentially alone with hkb"h - that's why per r'ybs she was only answered after her husband asked aren't i better than 10 kids?
joel rich

Aaron said...

Well done!

chanibrenner said...

This is so beautiful, I needed this so much right now...literally shedding tears- from one Chana to another- may we both be blessed with complete happiness real soon and may Gd seal our fate with an amazing year ahead-one that will make all our sacrifices worth it!!!- have a good yuntif and seriously enjoying your blog!!!