Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Rosh Hashanah (Haftarot)

“And Hannah prayed”

The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashana, taken from 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10, tells the story of Hannah and the birth of her son, the future judge/prophet Samuel. The reason for reading this particular passage on this day is not altogether clear. Like the Torah reading, it concerns a barren woman being blessed with child, but that is rather begging the question: why, after all, is Genesis 21 chosen as the Torah portion for the 1st day of Rosh Hashana? Neither of the answers traditionally given is fully satisfactory: the tradition that Isaac was born on Rosh Hashana; and the fact that this chapter is adjacent to the profound, deeply significant (if problematic), religiously weighty story of the Binding of Isaac, read on the second day, We shall return to this point later.

The haftarah begins by telling us that a man named Elkanah used to visit the Sanctuary in Shiloh every years with his two wives, Hannah, who was barren, and Peninah, who had numerous progeny, but was less beloved than Hannah. Hannah, like most women, wanted a child of her own more than anything else in the world; over the course of time, she even became angry and embittered over this, and refused to eat the portion of the sacrifice her husband gave her. Neither of the male figures in the story seem to understand her: her husband, Elkanah, pleads, “am I not better to you than ten sons” (v. 8; I can imagine many women I know saying “only a man could say such a thing: how can a husband, no matter how devoted, be a substitute for a child of ones own”). After the meal, she goes to the sanctuary, and begins to pray, weeping bitterly, moving her lips without her voice being audible, and makes an oath that, should she bear a son, he will be dedicated to the service of God. Eli the priest, observing this scene, misinterprets her silent, deeply emotional prayer, for drunkenness. She explains that she has not touched wine, but is “pouring out her heart” to God. In due time, the child is born, with much joy and celebration, they bring special sacrifices to Shiloh, and Hannah recites a hymn of thanksgiving to God brought as the conclusion of our passage. This psalm is largely impersonal, but does include several important points, to which we shall return below.

I see the choice of this haftarah as somehow emblematic of our own experience of Rosh Hashana, as a day of deeply emotional, personal prayer. The focus in this story is on an intensely personal prayer, concerned with the most basic, elementary human concerns—thus summarized in the Hebrew phrase, banai hayyei umezonei: “children, life (i.e., health), and livelihood.” Indeed, the Talmud sees Hannah’s prayer as paradigmatic for all prayer, inferring from it many laws, such as the rule that the central prayer of the liturgy, the Amidah, must be recited silently, with the person’s lips moving, but inaudible except to himself.

This type of emotional, personal prayer forms a sharp contrast to the solemn, elevated, theocentric language of much of the Rosh Hashana liturgy: the majestic proclamation of Malkhut Hashem, of God’s Sovereignty, and the sweeping, cosmic vision of all that implies. Perhaps: beneath the surface, these personal, existential concerns constitute a central counter-theme of Rosh Hashana. Anyone who has ever seen the copious tears shed at an old-fashioned Rosh Hashana davening; who has felt the sense of anxiety, uncertainty, even terror that can be palpably felt when the Cantor sings Unetaneh tokef and comes to the words: “who will live and who will die…” understands this sub-text of Rosh Hashana. And in truth, they are really the same: the majesty and grandeur of God’s Kingship which we proclaim on this day also implies our own dependence, frailty, and existential insecurity as human being. It is this which leads us to pray for our mundane, concrete needs as people—for health, for the well-being of our loved ones, for financial succor… ultimately, for life. We do not know the text of Hannah’s original prayer for a child, but we do have her more formal song of thanksgiving. That poem moves from specific celebration of God making “the barren woman bears seven children, and the forlorn has many children” to a more general celebration of God’s power over the cosmos: “The Lord kills and brings to life, brings down to Sheol and raises up; makes poor and makes rich; brings low and exults…” (2:5-8).

But this is not only a sub-text. While Malkhuyot & Shofarot may be filled with grandeur, a long-range theocentric view of world history (Shofarot takes us on a tour from Sinai to the Messianic redemption, via the Levites playing on their instruments in the Temple), the middle blessing, Zikhronot (“Remembrances”), focuses on the existential, here-and-now reality of Divine judgment, of the events of the forthcoming year being written down on the heavenly slate.

I recently wrote a long essay on Pesukei de-Zimra, and its role as a form of preparation for prayer. There, I spoke of three groups of psalms that feature prominently in the Siddur: Pesukei de-Zimra; Kabbalat Shabbat; and Hallel. Yet all three of these represent a very particular kind of psalm: hymns of praise, celebrating the goodness and greatness of God. But if one looks at Tehillim, at the Book of Psalms as a whole, one sees something quite different: there are very many psalms, perhaps the majority of those in the book, expressing human pain, worry, anxiety, concern about enemies, etc.; psalms in which the Psalmist writes in the first person singular about his own situation, fears, conflicts with his enemies. It is these psalms that speak to the hearts and souls of the Tehillim Zugger, the ordinary Jew who recites psalms as a form of prayer in times of trouble.

Interestingly, even though these psalms hardly feature at all in the ordinary liturgy, the two psalms added during this season of the year: Psalm 27 (Ledavid Hashem ori), added during the month of Elul, and Psalm 130 (Mima’amakim), said during the Ten Days of Penitence, are filled with expressions of personal emotion and human need.

(It seems significance that a sugya in Avodah Zarah 7b, which I came upon almost by accident, speaks of Tefilah ("prayer”) and bakashat tzerakhim (“asking [God] for ones needs”) as two quite distinct entities. It would seem that the essence of prayer in Judaism is something other than what is understood by that word in the English language. Rather, it would ideally seem to be Divine service, a selfless, disinterested turning of ones heart and mind toward God, without any ulterior thought or motivation. Prayer, in this sense, begins to become a rather elusive concept. But this subject is one to be treated another time.)

Returning to personal prayer and Rosh Hashana: surely, the beginning of a new year is a time that may evoke very mixed, even terrifying thoughts: What will this year bring? The unopened calendar pages represent the unknown, the essential insecurity of the human condition. Even the young, the healthy, beautiful and successful, cannot know for certain what a new year will bring. Anyone who has lived even a little knows the vast variety of unpleasant surprises—accident, illness, unexpected financial reverses, collapse of key personal relationships, not to mention random violence, terror, and war—that life can bring.

Here in Israel, after a year of Intifada, there is certainly a sense of trepidation and uncertainty as the year opens. With the shocking events of the closing days of the year in New York and Washington, and the drums of war beginning to beat, Americans may well join us in the great cry from the poem Ahot Ketana: “May the year end together with its curses / May the new year begin, bringing blessing.”

“The people left from the sword have found grace in the desert”

Due to the lateness of the hour, I cannot discuss the haftarah for the Second Day, Jeremiah 31:1-19, at any length. I will only point out in passing the powerful , emotional laden images of Rachel weeping for her children, and God speaking as a compassionate father, longing in his very innards for “my beloved son Ephraim.” I would suggest as a theme for reflection during the reading of the haftarah the relation between this haftarah and the Zikhronot blessing of Mussaf.


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