Holy Listening in the Hannah Narrative
Rosh Hashanah 5777, October 3, 2016
There’s nothing better than feeling heard.
And there’s nothing more gratifying than being in relationship with someone whom we truly hear, feeling known in return.
We say that the biblical Hannah, whom we just read about in our haftarah, is of theologic historical importance because she invented personal prayer. The fact that she spoke to God in lament and supplication means that she conceived of a Divine Presence who listens, and that is her great innovation.
In an environment where worship was not based in language, but rather in the presentation of sacrificial gifts, and where Israelite worship was a communal act offered by the priest as intermediary on behalf of the collective, Hannah imagined that her individual plea could reach God, and that God would be affected.
Not, herself, a prophet who had dramatic epiphanal experience, she, nevertheless engaged in what Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, 2000 years later, called hitbodedut, pouring out her soul to a divine listener.
In this, she appeared crazy to her clergy person, Eli the priest, …at least at first glance.
Eli’s second take on Hannah, wherein he didn’t just see a mumbling woman, but was drawn in, to really listen, is a touchstone of attentiveness that this narrative we read today – part of our sacred myth – provides for all time. The priest models the shift in perception that is possible when we slow down, let go of judgment, and enter the story of an Other as respectful witness to their pain.
At first, the priest watched Hannah’s mouth, but as Hannah cried, she was “praying in her heart,” and this Eli did not, initially, perceive. A shift was triggered in him by the poignancy of her explanation, and on better thought, Eli stopped trying to silence Hannah’s dirge; instead, he companioned her grief, and by way of his attentive presence held holy space for her intimacy with God.
Listening to what was in her heart, he was moved past her outward appearance of dishevelment, instinctively inspired to do what a well-educated pastor would do: he responded by metamorphosing Hannah’s expression of her longing into a blessing. As he opened to listen with compassion, his inborn empathy flowed to expression, transforming the cultic priest into a compassionate pastor.
In this way, the first personal prayer invited the first therapeutic listening
There is more to learn about listening in this narrative:
If the priest Eli can be said to have penetrated the surface of Hannah’s appearance of drunkenness or psychological impairment with his willingness to listen, Elkanah, her husband, might be said to have penetrated the surface of her grievance, hearing, with the deeper listening of a beloved, the root cause of her distress.
Upon hearing Hannah’s weeping, Elkanah tried to comfort her by offering to fill the void she mourned with his own tender regard for her. “Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” By asking if he is not enough to fill her void, perhaps what Elkana is trying to impress upon Hannah is that she is enough to fill his heart, whether or not she bears him sons.
He has been damned for trying to placate her, as if this means he didn’t respect her womanly sorrow. And maybe his love was such that he just couldn’t stand to see her pain. But is it possible that his acknowledgment of her intrinsic personhood contributed to Hannah’s sense of worthiness to stand, as an individual woman, before her personal God?
And is it possible that with spousal love, Elkanah held his wife in God’s light, and his plea for the root cause of her pain, her sense of self-worth as tied to her ability to conceive, was part of what God noticed?
Elkanah is often read as insensitive to his wife’s frustration with infertility, but reconsidered, with softer-hearted listening on our parts, we hear him, too, crying out. He was crying to liberate his wife from a profoundly embedded social construct.
Eli the priest gives Hannah a second listen, and we have given Elkana a second listen…
And there was another adult member of the family: Peninnah, Hannah’s rival wife, who had given birth to children and whose children each received a portion of Elkanah’s sacrifices when they made pilgrimage to Shiloh. What we know of Peninnah is that she was wont to deride Hannah because of her barrenness, so that Hannah wept and would not eat.
We aren’t given Peninnah’s words, but we know what she sounded like, don’t we? …Or do we?
What would we hear if we gave Peninnah a second listen?
I have a dear friend who teaches this text from 1st Samuel to a class of seventh graders in a Jewish day school. Finding her students too quick to judge Peninnah, she suggested that they formulate of a question they might ask Peninnah so as to better understand her behavior; in this way they would give Peninnah a second chance.
All participated in the brainstorming, imagining a time when they’d been mean…
What they heard, in answer to their questions, was the anguish behind Peninnah’s jibes.
They heard that she did not feel valued as Hannah was valued, that she felt like a surrogate, that she was marginalized by the text, her story not considered, let alone told, and they heard the misery of her need for Hannah to remain barren, so that she, Peninnah could maintain her dignity as the less loved wife.
Playing out their roles in the classroom, “Hannah” told “Peninnah” how she felt: “I desperately want to have kids. I don’t care about Elkanah’s love!” To which “Peninnah” responded: “I want what you have! Take my kids!”
With this, “Hannah” and “Peninnah” moved their chairs closer together.
It was a powerful moment.
Slowly, the class began to discuss how the relationship changed and what was gained when they spoke and listened in this way.
The students felt the women had formed the beginning of an alliance and might be able to help one another as sister wives.
These young teens saw no happy characters in the story, and so, in a subsequent lesson, a support group was convened in their classroom, the circle made up of other biblical characters, chosen and represented by the students, for what they have to offer to Elkanah and Hannah and Peninnah by way of empathy and counsel. Hagar and Leah, the fertile and less loved wives were there for Peninnah, Avraham and Yaakov, husbands torn in their loyalties, objects of jealousy, were there for Elkanah, Joseph the outcast, and Rachel the barren one, were there for Hannah. Moshe and Yitro, the arbiters, facilitated.
Of course, what was most moving, in the classroom, was the way in which marginalized kids jumped in to express their own powerful feelings through these characters.
It is not surprising that such rich teaching on the subject of listening is possible, based on the Hannah narrative. The text asks to be considered in this framework precisely because of Hannah’s introduction of divine listening.
God is listening, and that sets the tone, indeed, the theme, the mida, the quality to be examined and emulated by characters and readers alike.
If God listens, we, who emulate God, must learn how to listen.
Eli, the man of God, the spiritual leader, set a human example for striving to match this holy attribute, reigning back judgment, allowing his mind to broaden so that he could truly hear a woman who seemed so odd, so aberrant.
In truth, Hannah was extraordinary, her revolutionary notion of God drawing the priest, himself, over the threshold of a shift in paradigm, from his concrete role as master of fire-offering into a clerical role based on imagining the possibility of talking to God in one’s heart, and being heard.
Ultimately, we pray to be heard, understood, held, and companioned by God. Forgiveness is part of the acceptance we seek. This, in service of refreshing the relationship.
And we seek the same with our fellows: to be truly known, to be compassionately held in our authenticity, to be able to speak our truths freely and in safety, and to have loving interactions comprised of deep listening and generous companionship.
Seeking and granting forgiveness refreshes our relationships, and we participate so whole heartedly in the work of these Days of Awe because we care; we really care. We don’t want to be alone. We don’t want to be abandoned. We don’t want to shut down conduits of communication. We don’t want to loose connection.
So we take a second look and we ask for a second chance. Teshuvah is about second chances, second takes, second looks, revised hearing, and revised judgment.
Rosh Hashana is a time to question what we think we know, what we think we see, what we think we hear. It’s a time for letting the walls of certainty tumble down so that we are vulnerable and unmoored, acknowledging we may have misjudged and that we may need to ask different questions – listen differently.
And our prayer during the Days of Awe is an outpouring of our hearts, our broken hearts yearning to be held, heard, understood, forgiven, reinstated, revised in estimation, restored to respectability.
We want to tell our truth. We want to be heard on our own terms. And we want to relate, whether to our God or to our fellows in relationships of intimacy, wherein we deeply hear and are deeply heard.
Or Shalom is a family by choice, a beautiful family, talented and generous, and smart, and varied, each in the particularity of our own history and in the individuality of our own soul’s expression. There are sensitivities and perspectives we share that draw us together so that we can raise our voices, as we have and will this morning, in both a cacophony of longing and in a harmony of prayer-song.
But there are also ways in which our experiences and viewpoints diverge, even polarize, and these differences frighten some who hold the community precious.
So, with all the love and affinity, there are things that have been difficult to talk about, like: who is a Jew; like the State of Israel.
We seem a little afraid of confronting one another’s Jewish politics, lest we fracture and loose the dream of Or Shalom, and yet we love one another’s stories and we surely know how to dignify one another’s broken hearts…
(I say this, just having seen 100 positive responses of volunteerism to take care of one another, in the first wave of our Gemilut Chesed survey…)
And truly, is hearing one another’s deeply held feelings about Jewish identity or the struggles of Israeli society so very different from attending to one another’s sensitivities about anything else?
We can make monsters out of the sharp edges of our fears, or we can do the teshuvah of setting aside dogma and listening a bit more deeply to the tenderness of one another’s perspectives.
Embrace of holy listening is, I believe, at the heart of our intention as a sacred community of spiritual friends. For this reason, this month we are embarking on the Or Shalom Dialogue Project for the sake of creating safe space for the difficult conversations.
It is my hope that we are taking a step deeper into our true nature by developing a mechanism for holding one another in heart-centered conversation. We’ll train facilitators and, than, practice our mechanism so that we own it, and can count on it, as a way of convening communal meetings on topics that arise, from time to time, whether in the world at large or within our midst as a dedicated fellowship.
It will be a way of pulling our chairs together, in moments of disparity, not in agreement, but in love.
Holy listening at Or Shalom is practiced by our by our Womens’
Torah Study and by those who participate in our Yizkor Support Groups, it will be a centerpiece of our Shabbat Sheli circle time for 3-5 year olds, and the whole point of “Nechama,” a new Gemilut Chesed initiative, providing a dedicated “listener” to mourners beyond the shiva and sholshim for the full year of avel.
Holy listening is alive at Or Shalom in the gleanings you articulate after my divrei torah, and around the Shabbos lunch tables, and in the resonance of long vocalizations at Chanting and Chocolate that reverberate into the silence with which we follow each chant. We listen as we harmonize with one another and even as we canvass one another for monetary donations.
You have come forward and shared with me that the Vancouver Jewish Community is a place where it is hard to find safe space for a divergent voice. And I believe that Or Shalom has the capacity to become a touchstone for putting love first, respect for human difference first, inclusion of all voices first, before certainty, before opinion, before judgment.
We refer to our synagogue at East Fraser and 10th as the Bayit, our home. And “home” is a place of acceptance and unconditional love.
We are loved by an unending love, and ours are the arms the fingers, the voices; ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles.
V’chein yehi ratzon, and let us say, Amen.