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.)
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.
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. I deserve a little more R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You’d better Think, I wanted to tell Elkanah. Think about what you’re tryin to do to me.
Peninah’s worth increases with every child she has following her skirts.
My worth 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 I knew it had.
So I left 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? "’Sober up!".
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. "…may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him."
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… maybe even if the gates of prayer are shut, the gates of tears are not.
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 like a purge.
I got up off that floor, dried my tears, and 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 the LORD for him."
As soon as I saw him, though, I was sure I’d made a terrible mistake by dedicating him to Temple service. How could I have made such a vow? How would I keep it?
Every year when we returned to the Tabernacle, Elkanah would ask, “So? Are you bringing the boy this year?” and every year I’d put him off.
He’s not old enough.
He doesn’t know his aleph-bet!
He’s not ready.
The truth was, I was not ready. But I did it, Sarah. I kept my vow. I brought him to the temple, and I left him there.
We all do it, don’t we?
At some point we all release 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, the end of the driveway, an airport gate, a college dorm room.
We all 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 butchered your heart, but you waved good-bye, and you watched them go.
They all go. They all find other men and women to love; they leave our houses and make homes 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 her safe…
Misheberach…Please, God, heal him.
So many of the stories we tell from this bimah end in the middle. (Most good stories do.)
You died offstage, Sarah. There are 54 parshas in the Torah. One is named after a woman, and you die in the first verse.
After my triumphant declaration of victory at the end of this haftarah, I’m never heard from again.
My first prayer was the anguish of my heart
My second was a record of my joy, my thanks, my conquest!
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 very 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.
We returned to Shiloh every year, and as time passed I had more children to shlep along.
And every year…. Every Year… I’d bring Samuel a new set of robes, guessing how much he’d have grown.
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, the musician, the artist.
I hope he does not judge me too harshly for my vow, my promise made for him without his permission. It was my words, but his life.
He went on to become a big deal, a real macher.
He was the last of the judges, and he appointed the first of the kings. He fought with his elders, and he was a warrior who protected the holy ark, and the covenant inside.
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.