December 10, 2019

Table for Five: Rosh Hashanah 5780

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

And Hannah answered and said, “No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit, and neither new wine nor old wine have I drunk, and I poured out my soul before the Lord.” –From the Rosh Hashanah haftarah, 1 Samuel 1:15

Shaindy Jacobson
Director, Rosh Chodesh Society (Jewish Learning Institute)

One of my early childhood memories is sitting next to my mother in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, rifling through the pages of my prayer book. Having recently learned to read Hebrew, sounding out each word was a thrilling, yet thoroughly time-consuming, activity. I recall whispering into her ear, “Mom, how can anyone say this many prayers?” 

Now, as I think about sitting in synagogue with my little girl, and her little girl, I am reminded that this haftarah, “Hannah’s Prayer,” is a foundational biblical source for the institution of prayer. Indeed, the dialogue between Eli and Hannah touches on the essence of prayer in general, and on the Rosh Hashanah prayers in particular. 

Eli’s accusation of Hannah’s “drunkenness” can be perceived as an admonishment of what seemed to be an excessive indulgence in the desires of the material self. “Is this the time, and is this holy tabernacle the place, to pray so passionately for personal gain?” 

“No, you misunderstand my intention,” replied Hannah. “I have poured out my soul before the Lord. I am not merely asking for a son; I am asking for a son so that I might dedicate him to God all the days of his life.” 

Like Hannah, when we “pour out our souls before the Lord,” our prayers stem directly from our pure essence — our Godly souls. And then, on this awe-inspiring day, our “personal” needs and our desire to serve God become one and the same. 

This Rosh Hashanah, may we pray — and be answered — like Hannah, the Mother of Intention.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Poor Hannah. Overcome with pain, she poured out her soul to God in prayer — only to be mistaken for someone intoxicated by wine, not by faith. To pray with true passion to an invisible higher power seems for many today to be dismissed as naïve and purposeless. That’s why I can so readily empathize with Hannah. 

Seven years ago, I was told by my physician that I had an incurable disease and had about six months to live. My prayers intensified to levels I never thought possible. I spoke to God as friend, as confidant, as the one to whom I entrusted the final decision of life or death with complete trust. I am alive to write these words today not simply because God answered my prayers but because my prayers proved life-changing for me. They achieved what prayer was meant to do and what is, in fact, the theme of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: to become a better person by reinforcing our awareness of God’s presence in every moment of our lives. 

What I have learned is that there is a reason why people have such a problem with prayer. It is simply because they misunderstand its basic premise. Prayer doesn’t come to change God. It comes to change us — so that God will look at us differently. It wants us to talk to God because God is inside every one of us and we need to communicate with our inner selves so that we can be inspired to become all that we can be.

Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz
Adat Shalom

Judaism is a tradition of words. We read words in the Torah. We pray words in the siddur (prayer book) and machzor (holiday prayer book). We study pages upon pages of words in the Talmud. In fact, the High Holy Days coincide with the fifth book of the Torah, which in Hebrew is named “Devarim,” meaning words. 

All during the month of Elul, we are encouraged to reflect on our actions throughout the year and apologize. We reconcile through words because not only do words matter, but the way in which we convey them matters a great deal. This is not the case when it comes to prayer, our conversation with God. 

Our verse reminds us on Rosh Hashanah that Hannah prays in her own way for her own concerns. And as unrecognizable as her style of prayer might be to the High Priest Eli, her prayers are accepted and answered by the Holy One. On other holy days like the Passover seder, we read words scripted from the Mishnah. On kabbalat Shabbat, we echo the words of the kabbalists. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur beckon us to rise above time and place and to meet the Divine, and other loved ones, in the great beyond in our own unique way. 

We must close our eyes to see. We move our mouths, yet no sound is emitted. We pray like Hannah. May God accept our prayers as the Holy One did hers. Shanah Tovah U’Metukah — May we all enjoy a good and sweet 5780!

Heftsibah Cohen-Montagu
Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash of the Sephardic Educational Center

What is going on in the dialogue between Eli and Hannah? Why does he think she is drunk? Does Eli the High Priest not recognize intense mindful prayer, a total and intimate connection with God, a state of ecstasy leaving its marks on the worshipper’s face? Eli, the keeper of order and regulations, is confused by Hannah’s spontaneous unrestrained prayer, and she responds assertively. 

The Spanish commentator Abarbanel turns her answer around: instead of “No, my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit,” she says, “My lord, I am not a woman of sorrowful spirit.” In this interpretation, Hannah asserts the strength of prayer that comes not from sorrow and not from drunkenness but from the meeting place with the infinite and the unknown. Natural prayer, as she understands it, is pouring out her soul before God — using a Hebrew word which literally means “face to face.” 

The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is often seen as a parallel to the prophecy of the birth of Isaac to Sarah, childless like Hannah. But we also can see Hannah’s prayer as an echo of the phrase repeated throughout the Musaf service: “Hayom Harat Olam” — today is the birthday of the world. On Rosh Hashanah, the day when the first man and woman were created, Hannah prays for liberation from infertility, face to face with God, boldly confronting insecurity and chaos, but in contact with a moment of becoming, the instant before a new creation.

Salvador Litvak

There is a time to pray and there is a time to pour out one’s heart before the Lord. Hannah already tried prayer, and her situation remained miserable: a beloved but childless wife whose fertile rival mocks and bullies her. So she enters the Holy Temple and pours out her heart before God. The High Priest Eli spots her and does his job, rebuking a pilgrim who seems to be violating the prohibition on entering the Temple while intoxicated. After learning that her supplications stem from a broken heart, however, he adds his own prayer that the Lord should grant her worthy request.

Ironically, this exchange leads our sages to teach not only that the Lord answers those who sincerely cry out to Him, but also that formal prayer should emulate Hannah’s in certain respects. Prior to this event, all prayer was recited aloud. From Hannah’s example, we learn that 1) the Amidah (the Standing Prayer) should be recited quietly; 2) the words nevertheless should be enunciated; and 3) the words should be spoken so quietly that they are not heard by others.

I cannot recommend enough that we learn from the spirit of Hannah’s prayer as much as its form. There needs to be a moment in every service we attend, or every prayer session we perform privately, in which we cry out from the depths. God hears those entreaties, and so do we. It can be both surprising and illuminating to hear what our needs truly are, when we let our hearts flow through our silent lips.