Eid mubarak!
The pause before change

Reading Hannah anew

The most powerful moment of my Rosh Hashanah came about in this way: I arrived at the synagogue early for services on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah so I could set up for the childrens' service (and, if there were time, run through my assigned Torah verses a few more times.) While I was there getting ready, the rabbi got word that the congregant who usually reads the haftarah in English couldn't make it, which meant we needed a pinch-hitter. He asked if I could do it. I said sure. Someone handed me a sheaf of English pages; I glanced at them, confirmed that every page seemed to be there, and tucked them into my machzor.

Fast-foward: the children's service has gone fine, my leyning went without a hitch, and now it's about to be time for me to read the haftarah. I will read the whole thing in English, interspersed with brief sections of chanting by our visiting student cantor. I unclip my sheaf of pages and realize that at the top of the first page, it says "Haftarah for Rosh Hashanah - Second Day." But it is not the second day of the festival; it is the first day. Cue a moment of panic. What scanty preparation I did was for the wrong portion; how did I not notice that? Never mind; I know that the text of the haftarah can be found in the machzor, so I turn to it there, and I begin to read the text cold, without any preparation at all.

I've heard this haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah almost every year of my life. I know perfectly well that there's a fascinating thread which runs through both readings for this morning: in the first one we learn about Sarah conceiving Isaac and then banishing Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham's tent, and in the second we hear the story of Hannah, who was barren, and who cried out to Adonai and then bore a son. I should have known that the text I was about to read was steeped in the theme of women's bodies and women's longing.

But somehow, in the flurry of the morning, I had completely forgotten what story I was about to read until I started reading it. Here's how it begins:

There was a man from Ramathaim of the Zuphites, in the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives, one named Hannah and the other Peninnah; Peninnah had children, but Hannah was childless. This man used to go up from his town every year to worship and to offer sacrifice to the Lord of Hosts at Shiloh. — Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord there.

One such day, Elkanah offered a sacrifice. He used to give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he would give one portion only — though Hannah was his favorite — for the Lord had closed her womb...

I think that's when my voice started to quiver.

(If this isn't familiar -- or even if it is -- you can find the story here: Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. That link takes you to I Samuel 1:1 - 2:10, though in my shul we only read the first chapter of I Samuel, which can also be found in bilingual edition here at Mechon-Mamre.)

Unlike Hannah, I have not known infertility -- though I have many friends who have, and I have grieved with them from a distance. Unlike Hannah, I did not spend the first years of my marriage yearning for a child; Ethan and I have been blissfully happy together just the two of us, making our life together along with our extended families (both blood and chosen.) But in the year since last Rosh Hashanah we have decided to try to conceive; conceived once, and lost the pregnancy; and then conceived the son who is now spending his third trimester in my womb.

These facts completely change this story for me. Before now, I resonated with the part of the story where Hannah pours out her heart silently to God. Many call this the first example of private petitionary prayer in the Jewish lexicon, and I have always loved the fact that (in our sacred story) it was a woman who invented this form of communication with God! Now, standing in front of my community with my burgeoning belly pressed against the lectern, the story takes on a completely different cast. I understand Hannah in a new way. Given the muffled sniffs and hasty blowing of noses I'm hearing from around the sanctuary, I think that I may be transmitting some of this new understanding to everyone who is listening, too.

I make it through the haftarah without crying, but it is a near thing.

I don't know what this haftarah reading will feel like next year, when (God willing) I will have a nine-month-old in my arms. But reading it aloud this Rosh Hashanah was an incredibly powerful experience for me, an unexpected gift.