Hannah, the heroine of Rosh Hashanah

When life seems hard, the mother of the prophet Samuel shows us a way to get through


The story of Hannah, which we read as the haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, provides a much- needed moment of inspiration for us to begin a New Year. When we first meet Hannah, at the start of the Book of Samuel, she is a picture of desolation and defeat, due to her infertility. Her husband Elkanah has another wife, Peninah, who has children and taunts Hannah cruelly - one of several biblical swipes at the unsatisfactory nature of polygamy and the miseries it brings.

Elkanah attempts to alleviate the situation with a loving, but possibly unhelpfully rhetorical question: "Why do you weep? Why don't you eat? Why do you feel bad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?"

The text does not offer us an answer from Hannah, although a loud unspoken "No, you aren't" might be the unwritten one. However, what Hannah does then do is extraordinary. She summons the strength to go to the sanctuary in Shiloh and slips in there at a quiet time when she thinks no one will be there. Alone, or so she thinks, she pours out her pain and prays.

A friend (not a regular shul-goer) told me that after a family tragedy she spontaneously went inside her local shul one afternoon and sat down to be alone with her thoughts. She prayed, and said it was a unexpectedly meaningful experience. No one came to disturb her.

But while Hannah is outpouring her grief to God, she is discovered by Eli, the High Priest, who assumes the worst, that she is drunk.

He speaks to her roughly, showing no care or compassion: "How long will you be drunk? Put away your wine." For Hannah to be so misjudged and condemned at this moment of her supreme pain is a poignant one. In the eyes of authority - she represents an error, an outrage - what is she doing in the sanctuary? It is the wrong time and wrong place, she is the wrong gender, murmuring her own words, the wrong words.

The dignity of her response is inspiring in its honesty: "No my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I poured out my soul before the Lord."

Eli, initially so mistaken and insensitive, now responds with heartening humility when he sees the the blinding sincerity of her prayer: "Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant the petition you have asked of Him."

Hannah's story starts tragically but ends happily; she gives birth to a son, Samuel, whom she sends away after he is weaned, as promised, to work for Eli in Shiloh. She visits him annually - the text provides us with the delightful detail that each year she brings him a coat, a slightly bigger one each time presumably - and her joy is to see him become a leader, a prophet. An often overlooked fact is that Hannah is not left bereft at home either; after Samuel, she has other children. If you believe in healing, it seems that it can happen.

When life looks unbearably black, it takes enormous courage to vow some course of action, to ask for the help we need, to look ahead and not dwell on the failure of past, or be stuck in the disappointing present. And Hannah forced herself to move forward, by not staying locked and silent in her prison of pain and loneliness. She expresses herself with extraordinary linguistic creativity - many commentators have highlighted the lyrical beauty of her words - but with total sincerity too. She showed an understanding that emergence from the deepest of depressions is possible, which very much encapsulates the mood of Rosh Hashanah, where we stand in the hope of a good judgement and a belief that we can truly move ahead, make better what we thought was impossible to mend.

A woman I know succumbed to a sudden, unexpected attack of frightening depression after the birth of her baby and she did not know how to shake off the paralysis that gripped her. After she had recovered. I asked her how she made it back to health and stability. Her answer, "I got help. I prayed very hard", showed me the enduring legacy of Hannah. We are all Hannah on Rosh Hashanah.

Hannah's hold on life was fragile indeed, it is clear from the text that she was losing the will to live, weeping, not eating, overwhelmed by her sadness, unable to enjoy what she had. Hannah showed us that even the deepest sense of worthlessness could be overcome through prayer and hope and we should not be afraid to follow suit. The message is clear: even when most alone, we are not alone. Trust. Hope. Get help. Pray hard.

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