Sunday, November 18, 2012

Literary Foils: Pairs in Shmuel Aleph

Today I was learning Shmuel with a student when I came to a realization. It gives new meaning to the phrase, "Right in front of my nose."

Elkanah is married to Peninah and Chana.
Eli has two sons, Pinchas and Chofni.

Coincidence that the names start with the same letters? I don't think so! 

These two pairs are literary foils for one another.

This also answers the question asked by a particularly astute student of mine. She was confused as to why the following pasuk shows up in Perek Aleph, when we never hear about these two again until Perek Bet:

ג  וְעָלָה הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מֵעִירוֹ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת וְלִזְבֹּחַ לַיהוָה צְבָאוֹת בְּשִׁלֹה; וְשָׁם שְׁנֵי בְנֵי-עֵלִי, חָפְנִי וּפִנְחָס, כֹּהֲנִים, לַיהוָה.3 And this man went up out of his city from year to year to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there priests unto the LORD.

At the time, I just told her that this information is simply there as foreshadowing. It happens to be that Eli goes up to the Mishkan each year, and while he is there, interacts with the two sons of Eli, who are Kohanim. We will hear more about them in the following perek.

But if you understand these two pairs to serve as literary foils to one another, it all makes so much more sense.

To quote Wikipedia, simply for its accessibility, "in fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character. A foil's complementary role may be emphasized by physical characteristics. A foil usually either differs drastically or is extremely similar but with a key difference setting them apart."

In this case, the main distinction that is highlighted has to do with each one of these pairs' relationship to God. But let's look at them a bit more superficially first.

Peninah and Chana                                            Pinchas and Chofni                                 
* Each receives a portion of meat; Chana receives a double portion

*Elkanah does not seem to see what is going on in terms of Peninah's tormenting of Chana; he tries to comfort Chana by saying "Am I not better to you than ten sons?" but does not address the situation

*Elkanah does not rebuke Peninah for her behavior towards Chana, possibly because he does not know about it

*Chana tells Eli that he should not consider her to be a Bat Belial 

*Peninah is eventually punished for her behavior; "the many-sonned woman is bleak and/or childless while the barren woman bears seven"

*Per Midrash, Peninah recognizes that she is being punished and begs Chana to pray to save her last remaining two children
* Each receives a portion of meat; they instruct the Na'ar HaKohen to get them triple portions (and/or to take the meat with 3-pronged fork)

*Eli does not see the sins of his sons (whether they be the taking of the meat or  the 'sleeping' with the women assembled at the Tent of Meeting); he eventually hears about them

*Eli does not rebuke Pinchas & Chofni for their behavior towards Bnei Yisrael (he asks them why they are doing these things, but does not impose actual consequences)

*Chofni & Pinchas are considered to be Bnei Belial 

*Chofni & Pinchas are eventually punished for their behavior; they die in the same day

*Pinchas' wife recognizes they are being punished and names her child Ichabod to represent the fact that once the Aron was stolen, the "glory is departed from Israel" 

In these scenarios, the standout role is given to Chana. When Pinchas & Chofni feel like they are not being given their due in the Mishkan, their response is to ignore God (indeed, they are described as 'not knowing God') and to simply take what they want for themselves, whether that means taking more than they are permitted, taking too early or sleeping with women/ delaying the women's sacrifices. Similarly, when Peninah feels that Chana is not acting appropriately, rather than sitting her down and having a conversation with her to that effect, she decides to take matters into her own hands, flaunting her children in front of her and tormenting her, in order to get her to pray (per Midrash).

In contrast to all these people who are taking matters into their own hands, Chana does not take matters into her own hands. She does not start tormenting Peninah back, or play tattletale and tell on her to her husband. Rather, she goes to speak to God. She tells God about all the pain and suffering in her heart, makes Him a promise and implores that He hear her. She is misjudged by Eli, but rather than firing back with venom (as she could have done, having been tutored in this skill by Peninah), she responds by defending herself and explaining that she is not what he thinks, a Bat Belial. Despite all the suffering that she has experienced, she has kept her faith in God and trusts in Him to deliver her and to grant her the child she so desires.

In contrast to everyone else in the narrative, Chana is the one who surrenders to the Almighty. She does not say, as is stated in Deuteronomy 8:17-

יז  וְאָמַרְתָּ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ:  כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה.17 and thou say in thy heart: 'My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.'

Chana understands that the source of children is ultimately not her, but God. Unlike Pinchas and Chofni, who do not understand that the source of their power as Kohanim ultimately stems from God, or Peninah, who does not understand that her children are not hers to keep but can be kept or taken away by God, Chana is the only one who truly understands the concept of the source. Hence her prayer-poem which directly addresses this concept, the concept of the source and the need to surrender to and to turn to that Source for all blessing.

Because Peninah tormented Chana by flaunting her children, she loses them (they die per the Midrash). Because Chofni and Pinchas abused their position as Kohanim, they lose their position (and ultimately die). But because Chana did not do any of this, did not decide to take matters into her own hands by sinking to her rival's level, by becoming a torturer, by giving up her faith in God, or by stealing someone else's child or otherwise doing something forbidden- because she recognized the source- she becomes mother to Shmuel.

It is interesting that both Peninah and Pinchas' wife are the ones mentioned as the ones who learn their lessons too late and who mourn. Peninah loses her children, and Pinchas' wife loses her husband and father-in-law. These two women are clearly meant to parallel one another.

I just think it's so interesting that despite having learned this perek many times, I never saw the fact that the names are deliberately similar until today.


Anonymous said...


Shades of Grey said...

Very cool! I was always a big fan of the use of foil - dating back to papers I wrote in high school.

Also, yay for chiddushim.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, in today's Daf, we are told that it was only Pinchas, not Chofni, that sinned. Chofni was punished for not rebuking Pinchas. Does this "disprove" your chidush? No, but it adds another dimension...perhaps Chofni is the foil for Chana, as they deal with their situations differently.

Shocked said...

That was a lot of fun to read. Hope you post more like it.