Boker tov and Shana Tovah!
We are about to engage in a very powerful climatic moment in the High Holidays, lishmoa kol shofar, the mitzvah of listening to the Shofar.
Hearing the blasts of Shofar each year takes me to a very deep place of longing. At the sound of Tekiah Gedolah, that last, booming, long blast of Shofar, I find myself going to a very personal space that very few Jews go to: the longing for a child that never was.
Hayom harat olam! Declares our Rosh Ha’shana liturgy, translated to “Today, on this day, the world is born anew,” and if you look on page 130 you’ll notice the sequence of declarations: “Tekiah Gedolah!” followed by “Areshet sefattenu,” O God supreme, accept the offering of our lips as we engage in deep prayers, and the sound of our shofar, as we come to stand before you.”
Rabbi Arthur Green describes this moment – “The Shofar sound represents prayer beyond words, an intensity of longing that can be articulated only in a wordless shout.”
And indeed, for a very few of us, this shout, this loud call of the Shofar, does take us to a place beyond words. A small dark place of longing that never really ended, unlike the outcome of Chana’s story in today’s Haftara portion. Yes, the Haftara story for today, First Day of Rosh Ha’shana is the story of Hannah, and as heard the reading of translation of it in English, Chanah was a childless woman who turned to God in desperate and intense personal prayer. According to the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah is the day of remembrance, and the most classic example of God “remembering” humanity occurs when a woman’s infertility ends. Hayom harat olam–today is the day of creation of a world.
Each time a child is born, the miracle of creation is repeated. But some of us never got to experience being hara, pregnant, or giving birth to a healthy child. So we, that small, nearly silent group, are being reminded of loss and grieving at this time of year, every year. The death of hopes and dreams of having children of our own.
If you really listen—or read through the English content of Haftarat Rosh Ha’shana, which comes from the Book of Samuel I—you may notice Chana’s brawl , a motherly figure who struggled with infertility.
The story of Chana is especially heart-rending for Jewish women and men who are barren and childless; a minority within a minority. Such a small group in this community, that rarely discusses this type of loss with anyone.
In this Haftara we learn about Chana, the wife of Elkanah, who expressed her despair to God. She cried and prayed for a child with such passion that the High Priest who saw her thought she was crazed, intoxicated, or both. The story of Chana, when chanted in Hebrew, is meant to sound like a heart piercing cry. The chanting of the Hebrew with the Trope represents the cry of those of us hoping to have had children of our own, but could not. When you listen to Haftarat Rosh Ha’Shana, you can almost hear Chana’s voice praying on behalf of those of us who could not fulfill God’s command to be fruitful and multiply.
Chana was barren and she was ashamed of that. After all, God had promised to reward the fulfillment of our Torah’s commandments with fertility. As it is written in Deuteronomy:
“If you listen and obey my mitzvot, if you keep, and do them, you shall be blessed…. There shall not be male or female barren among you.”
But what about those of us who HAVE been trying to do God’s mitzvot? Who have engaged in acts of Asiyat Mitzvot; acts of loving-kindness? Where did WE go wrong? How did we fail YOU Adonai?
Without children, Hannah felt like a failure. I’m sure that many people in her community thought she was “not right with God” or that she had done something wrong to deserve her bareness. Bitter, angry, and desperate, Hannah made a vow to God.
“Creator of all things,” she began, “if You will see my suffering, if You will remember me, if You will give me a child, then I will dedicate my child to You, all the days of the child’s life….”
When the Sages, our rabbis, discussed the tormented character of Hannah , they tried to handle her bareness with compassion by saying that there is much that the childless can live for. As Rashi taught, “Their good deeds become their descendants.”
Our Sages also said, “whoever teaches Torah to a child of his or her friend, it is considered as if they gave birth to that child.”
Unfortunately, not much has changed since Hannah’s days. Many modern Jewish communities still tend to view and judge childless women, men and couples as “flawed,” “hedonistic,” or “selfish.”
Many of those who were blessed with children still judge the childless as “unblessed;” as having some sort of an inadequacy, failing, or weakness. Those who have one child, but were never granted a second because they couldn’t conceive, often still feel that same painful sting of failure.
Many in those communities also make insensitive—mostly unintentional—comments like, “Why won’t you adopt?” Or “You will regret not having children in the future!” Most hurtful of all is, “What is wrong with you? Aren’t you a woman? You selfish career-driven yuppie!” Whether spoken out loud, implied, or both, these taunts are hurtful and reflect a lack of compassion and respect.
But, unlike Biblical days, many of us barren, childless women, men, and couples DO find courage and make a decision to have a meaningfully spiritual, fulfilling life without raising our own children.
We take the phrase, ha’yom Harat olam, and channel our natural drive to nurture and serve humanity in other ways. Some of us become teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, cantors, rabbis—you name it. Some of us adopt and take care of pets. Many become activists in organizations that save lives. Some live their lives serving others who do have children.
For us, Hayom Harat Olam represents the capacity for relationships—any relationships. We are reminded that birth begins with conception and we each begin our lives as part of another person. When we are born, we become separate, then we spend our lives longing for connection, learning over and over to love, to let go, and to love again; whether loving a spouse, a pet, an art project, someone else’s’ child, or our calling to serve humanity.
The poet Khalil Gibran wrote:
“Your children are not your children: they are the sons and the daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but they are not from you and though they are with you, they belong not to you.”
And unlike in Hannah’s era, in this day and age women and men alike have options and opportunities that allow us to connect to our individual selves; then we can accept with love and gratitude the gifts that are bestowed upon us. Gifts that don’t start, or end, with being a hara, then giving birth to a biological child.
I’ll use myself as an example: while I am not a mother to my own biological children, God has blessed me with the gift of being a part of the lives of many of God’s children, of all ages, by teaching, visiting, hugging, laughing with, and holding their hands. For example, I feel such a gratifying sense of nachas each time one of our children or adult congregants is called to the Torah as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Or when I see a photograph of one of our members posted in a local newspaper for engaging in a community Mitzvah project. My heart breaks when I have to officiate at an untimely death or at a funeral of someone I knew well. That is how involved and connected I feel in my relationships with my children—of all ages.
So if you are blessed with children, please remember to be kind to the childless in your midst. I know there aren’t too many of us here in the town of Wayne, but please remember that what you see on the surface is probably very far from the complete picture. Please don’t be quick to judge like the High Priest did of Chana, or jump to conclusions—one can never know all the private details of someone else’s life.
If you are childless, or if you have ever struggled to have another child but couldn’t, and if at some point you were, or are feeling like a failure like Hannah did, may this be your wake-up call. Please remember that you ARE NOT a failure, and you ARE NOT alone. The choice of how to live your life is yours and only yours to make.
As we listen to the shofar calls, we are reminded to stand together while summoning the courage to yearn, the courage to patiently cultivate hope, the courage to reach out to each other, again and again, and the courage to connect and love.
Like Hannah, if you close your eyes and immerse yourself in a deep state of prayer, you CAN find your unique path to fulfill God’s commandments, while enjoying a full, inspiring, and inspired life.
Listen and meditate during Tekiah Gedola, the last booming blast, that call for God to hear our yearnings and longings.
And even though we may not be able to have all that we want in life, we are granted a new beginning each year. The option to give ourselves an opportunity to forgive, to love and be loved, and transform ourselves from “need” to “fulfillment,” from “want” to “embrace,” and from a darkened heart that sustained a loss, to a new beginning with holiness, completeness, and a sense of a pure, peaceful heart.
Hayom harat olam. May we be brave this year. And knowing all the risks, may we reach out to the world and try to embrace it, like a parent embracing a child.
is this the correct word? In English this means, “a rough or noisy fight or quarrel.
verb [ no obj. ]
fight or quarrel in a rough or noisy way.”
Is Hannah the same as Chana?
I’m really confused whether this is 1 or 2 people.