The last #blogElul poem: Return
Children of Sarah and Hagar (a sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 1, 5775)

New poem: the story of Chanah

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, our haftarah reading -- the assigned reading from the later books of the Hebrew scriptures -- is the story of Chanah, from the book of First Samuel. For the last few years I've offered the haftarah as a storyteller telling a story. This year I'm sharing a poem instead. The poem draws substantially on classical midrash about Chanah. I hope it speaks to you.


Chanah Speaks

We didn't marry for love
but Elkanah (whose name
means "God is zealous")
had kind eyes and gentle hands
and I was not afraid.

How he'd learned
the ways of the marriage bed
I never asked.
We came to know each other
and came

to know each other again
and I walked around town
smiling that secret
newlywed smile.
Until the day I bled.

Regret pierced my heart.
But at the mikveh the women said
it can take a few weeks
don't panic, keep trying.
But I bled again.

And again. And then the moon
waxed and waned
and I stayed intact
and our hearts skipped like lambs --
and then I woke to blood.

The women stopped
meeting my gaze
at the mikveh, fearful
of my barren womb.
As if my eye meant harm.

After ten years
Elkanah took another bride.
The Mishna says
he didn't have a choice.
He needed an heir.

And Peninah provided.
Oh, Peninah provided,
child after child after child
with their chubby thighs
and fists wet with drool.

When the time came
to offer sacrifices at Shiloh
Elkanah brought a cow
and when the priests
had carved her up, some

for God and some for them
and the rest for our feast
Elkanah gave one plate to me
and the rest went down the table
to Peninah and her brood.

I couldn't hate those kids.
But there was a void
where my child should be.
Absence gnawed at my heart
and left me in tatters.

Centuries later the sages would say
I was devout in lighting candles
and going to the mikveh
and burning a pinch of dough
before Shabbat, all the things

a Jewish woman's meant to do.
But what kind
of compassionate God
would keep me barren
because He desired my prayers?

Nine years I watched
as Peninah thrashed in labor.
She overflowed with milk
and though I'd married young
I was a dried-up spring.

On the way home from the shuk
Peninah would needle
did you buy a tunic
for your oldest son?
And in the mornings she'd croon

aren't you going to get up
and bathe your boys before school?
And at 3pm, the poisonous murmur
aren't you going to fix
a snack for their return?

And Elkanah would say
Chanah, my love
why are you crying?
Aren't I better to you
than ten sons?

He didn't understand
my emptiness.
That year when we returned to Shiloh
I draped my veil over my face
and whispered to God

What do You want from me?
Please, God (I said)
please, I'll do anything
You know my thoughts
and my most secret heart.

Why did You give me breasts
if I'll never use them
to nurture new life?
Why have You sentenced me
to this slow death?

Jezebel was wicked
and You gave her seventy sons.
You scatter children
in the countryside like seeds
but my soil is barren.

Lend me a son
and I will dedicate him to You!
Eli the priest shamed me,
thought I was drunk
but when I said no, my lord,

I am crying out
before the One Who hears me
he was chastened
and said God grant your prayer.
And Elkanah knew me.

The sages say
more than the calf wants to suckle
the cow yearns to give milk.
More than I yearned for a son
God yearned to grant my desire.

This time Peninah watched
as my belly swelled
like a ripe watermelon
and I relished every hiccup
every kick to the ribs.

When the baby was born
I named him Shmu-el, "I asked God."
When the time came
to go up to Shiloh I refused
and Elkanah understood.

I couldn't bear to give up
the boy who'd rested on my chest
with his limbs frogged up
who had transformed my body
into a receptacle for holiness

-- not yet.
I stored up every memory:
his wobbly footsteps
and first words, his wee handprint
baked into sun-hardened clay

and though I was still nursing
I conceived again
and again, two more sons
and two daughters
no two of them the same.

When Shmuel was weaned
I returned to Shiloh a different woman.
I carried myself now
like someone who has held
a baby on her hip.

Eli didn't recognize me
but I reminded him
I am the one
who prayed silently
and this boy is my prayer

and as I promised
I lend him back to Adonai.
Shmuel was brave
and bright-eyed, staring
at the bustling precincts

-- pilgrims bringing pigeons
and goats, priests
in their bright linen robes --
and he hugged me goodbye
without a fear in the world.

I had thought
I would grieve
when I came home, but
I can still feel him, tethered
forever to my heart.