Dear Sarah, Mother of Isaac, Wife of Abraham,
Chana here. It’s our day again – Rosh Hashanah, Take 1. The rabbis must have had something special in mind when they added two of the most famous barren women in the Torah to have their stories told on one of the highest traffic days in the synagogue.
Did you ever think they’d be telling our stories, Sarah? My son? Yes. But me?
We lived 800 years apart, you and I, and I was around 3,000 years before any of the people in this room were born. But our stories are all here, together, now. (Your family’s story continues tomorrow, but you may not want to read ahead. At the very least, if Isaac asks to go on a hike to Mount Moriah with his Dad, say no.
Time cannot keep us apart, Sarah. And if we believe the rabbis, time in Torah isn’t quite as linear as it seems. People assume that time is a straight progression from one thing to the next, one moment to another. But Jewish time, as we know, is a bit more fluid than that. Time folds over itself like a ribbon candy, braids itself into a challah.
We are all here in conversation together. We barren women. We women of hope. You. Rivkah. Rachel. Me. Michal. And Samson’s Mother (Z’llppunith – such a name. No wonder we all just know her as “Samson’s Mom”.) But she had a name, and she had a story.
We are women of hope.
I am not a prayerful woman, Sarah. My approach was always a little more “Are you there, God? It’s Me, Chanah” than pious devotion. And unlike you, I don’t get angels as regular visitors to my home.
We come to Shiloh, to the temple, this ridiculous family of mine. My husband, Elkanah, always offers the right sacrifices, enough for that wretched second wife of his, Peninah, and all of their children. I get one portion.
Peninah increases her worth with every child she has. Mine withers as each season passes. And all the while Elkanah is telling me I am his favorite. Do you know what he says to me, Sarah?
“Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?”
Well, yes. And… no.
And Peninah… year after year she taunts me, reminding me of what I can never forget.
I can usually save face, but this year…this year my heart was overflowing with anger, bitterness, and anguish. I was distraught, Sarah. I could not sleep. I could not eat. I could not stop crying. And all the while Elkanah asking me why? Why? Why? My heart broke--it broke into more pieces than it had.
So I left them at the feast and came to the temple alone.
I can admit this to you, Sarah – I did not have faith, but I had hope, a desperate hope that drew from me an unimaginable promise. I made a deal, a bargain. If God would remember me, notice me, and give me a son, I would dedicate the boy’s life to the service of the Lord. I would have promised anything in that moment. Anything to make the pain stop.
There will come a time, Sarah, when prayers are written down, and people will follow along to someone else’s words. I doubt I could have read anything in that moment. No, that prayer was ripped from me like a terrible sickness. I threw myself onto the Temple steps and let my despair rush out of me. Fall on your knees.
Oh Sarah, you should have seen the priest Eli as he approached me. He thought I was drunk! Can you imagine?
“How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?”
I told him, “I am not drunk! I have been pouring out my heart, my anguish, my distress.”
He didn’t apologize, but he gave me a little blessing as he gently escorted me out.
At that moment I had no way of knowing if my prayer had been heard, but it had been said. God didn’t answer right away. I had no surety, Sarah, but… I felt better. Elkanah’s ritualistic sacrifice had given me no comfort. The festive meal no joy. But the moment of desperation, pleading to be remembered, to be noticed…getting all that ugliness out was cleansing. Exhausting and cleansing empty.
I got up off that floor and dried tears. And I went home with Elkanah, Peninah, and her children.
By the time the next yearly pilgrimage came around I was a mother of a son, Samuel (Shmuley to me), whose name means: I asked God for him. As soon as I saw him, though, I was sure I’d made a terrible mistake. How could I have made such a vow? How would I keep it?
Every year Elkanah would ask, “Are you bringing the boy this year?” and every year I’d put him off. He’s not ready. He’s not old enough. The truth was, I was not ready. But I did it. I kept my vow, Sarah. I brought him to the temple.
We all do it, don’t we? We mothers. We fathers. At some point we all give up our children. Oh, it’s not always as dramatic as dropping them off for a lifetime of temple service…sometimes it’s the first day of preschool, the bus stop for summer camp, an airport gate, or their college dorm room.
We all have to do it. We open the circle of our embrace and let them walk out into the world. And we stand there, arms wide, waiting for them to step back in.
You did let Isaac go on his trip up the mountain with Abraham. It may have slain your heart, but you waved good-bye, and you watched them go.
They all go. They all find other women to love; they leave our houses and make places of their own. We give them to the universe and we hope, and maybe pray, that the universe treats them kindly.
Parenthood can make anyone turn to prayer:
Lord, help me get through this day!
Lord, keep him safe…
Anah el na… Anah el na…Please, God, heal her.
So many of the stories we tell from this bimah end in the middle. (Most good stories do.)
You died offstage, Sarah.
After my prayer of Thanksgiving, “My heart exults in the Lord!” I’m never heard from again.
If my first prayer was the anguish of my heart, the second prayer was a record of my joy, my thanks, my triumph!
It’s not how I’d wanted to be quoted, honestly, and if I could go back and change it, I would. There’s a little too much bragging. It’s self-serving, all “I gloat over my enemies… the barren woman bears seven; the mother of many is forlorn…” That barb for Peninah was unnecessary. I know you understand the sentiment, Sarah. It’s so easy to say yes to that ugly impulse inside us, to want to win. To want someone else to lose. I understand Peninah much better now. I’m betting you “get” Hagar as well.
When we felt unnoticed, we were cruel.
When we were blessed, we forgot to be kind.
It was a miserable journey home after leaving Samuel at the temple for the first time. My arms ached with the weight of his absence, feeling his phantom body in my embrace, as someone who has lost a limb feels what’s gone.
We returned to Shiloh every year, and each year I had more children to shlep along, 3 boys and 2 girls. And every year…. Every Year… I’d bring Samuel a new set of robes, guessing how much he’d have grown over the year.
Before I knew it he was taller than me. He’d tease me, but I secretly enjoyed looking up to my son, the leader, the prophet. I hope he does not judge me too harshly for my vow, my promise made for him without his permission. It was my plan, but it’s his life.
He went on to become a big deal, a real macher.
He was the last of the judges and appointed the first of the kings.
He was gifted with prophecy, but he was always my baby, my little Shmuley.
My first born.
My gift from the universe and back to it… the prayer of my heart.
(The actual text from the book of Samuel can be read here.)
(The actual text from the book of Samuel can be read here.)