Following Channah's Example: A Prayer for Rosh Hashanah
The Haftarah portion for Rosh Hashanah comes from the first two chapters of 1 Samuel, and it tells the story of two, very unhappy women. Both Peninah and Channah are married to Elkanah and both carry within their hearts a profound and lasting grief. Peninah had been blessed with the children she hoped for but was denied her husband’s love, while Channah was told often by her husband how much he loved her but had not achieved the dream that she held closest to her heart, the dream of having children of her own.
The portion begins by providing us with a window into this family’s life and then follows the adults as they travel to Shiloh to make their sacrifices at the temple that was once there. At Shiloh, the Haftarah tells us, Elkanah and Peninah made their offerings as they usually did.
But Channah was feeling “marat nefesh” or “bitterness of spirit” because she wished so desperately for children. In her grief, she goes to the temple and offers her prayer in a remarkable way.
She allows herself to be taken over by her prayer; she weeps and speaks to God with such power and force that her words are silent, reverberating only in her heart. When Eli, the High Priest of the temple in Shiloh, sees Channah praying, she appears to be so overcome that he thinks she is drunk and he actually chastises her for being in a sacred space while intoxicated.
After Eli- incorrectly and arrogantly- rebukes Channah, she answers, “No. A woman of sorrow am I. I drank neither wine nor spirits, but poured out my soul before the Eternal. Do not take your servant for a worthless woman. All this time, I have spoken from the depth of my anger, from the greatness of my grievance.” (1 Samuel 1:15-16) Eli is convinced by her explanation and replies that he hopes that the Eternal will answer Channah’s prayers.
The Haftarah then goes on to tell us that Channah is fundamentally and miraculously transformed by her experience of prayer, and because of that experience, when she returns to her family, Channah conceives and then gives birth to her son who she names Samuel- a name she explains by saying that she requested him from the Eternal.
The rabbis of our tradition lift up Channah’s faith and her willingness to allow herself to sink entirely into the experience of speaking to God. They name Channah as the most powerful role model for all those who seek to address God through prayer.
Think about how remarkable this is. Channah is a woman with a spirit of bitterness, a woman who prayed from the “depths of her anger” and the “greatness of her grievance.” And yet... Channah is the Jewish tradition’s model of prayer and piety.
This year especially, I find great comfort in Judaism’s emphasis on Channah’s example because in addition to many joyful and uplifting emotions, I think that there are a lot of us who are walking into the Days of Awe with spirits tinged with bitterness, anger, and sorrow. And yet...what we learn from Channah is that we do not need to ignore those emotions in order to pray “correctly.”
Instead, our tradition’s embrace of Channah teaches us that our prayers will only have power if we allow ourselves to feel all that we are carrying and if we address God from the truth of our current reality- a reality which is shaped by many things- including pain, anger, and grief.
Channah teaches us that in order to be faithful we must also be human, and so, I offer this prayer with gratitude for Channah’s bravery and strength.
On this Rosh Hashanah,
We pray to the God of Channah.
We pray to the God of Peninah.
We pray to the Rock upon which we shelter during the storms of our lives.
We pray to the Scribe of the Book of Life.
To You, Oh God, we are praying to you.
Are you listening?
As one year ends and another begins, we call out to You.
We are grieving. We are anxious. We are hurting.
We are together and yet far, far apart.
Nothing is the same as it once was, nothing except the love that we have for one another.
Avinu Malkeinu, where are You? Where have You been?
Perhaps our voices sound different now, now that we are praying from the depths of our anger, from the greatness of our grievance, from our sorrow and bitterness.
Today, we mark the anniversary of the world’s creation, a day when we would normally come together in joy and friendship and celebration.
And yet, this year, we honor this holy day in separate homes, flung far across the country and beyond.
We are angry. We are scared. We are tired. And yet we are present.
Make sure that You count us. Make sure that You listen.
We pray to the God of Channah.
We pray to the God of Peninah.
We pray to the One who created us and who allows us to feel the depths of emotions that currently shimmer in our hearts.
We ask that we be transformed by our prayers today just as Channah was all those years ago.
We ask not that you fix us because we are not broken.
We know that these emotions are our reminders that we are wonderfully, painfully human.
Instead we ask that when we leave this virtual synagogue, You will give us the courage to face the parts of our lives and our world which are causing such desperate sorrow.
We pray that You will help us honor the pain that we carry and that You will push us to seek the help of friends and family if our burden becomes too heavy for us to bear by ourselves.
We pray that You will wrap us up in the comfort of knowing that we are not alone even though we are distant.
We pray that we will be spurred into action by the knowledge that our voices, tinged with pain and sorrow, are part of a choir of people, singing in their home-bound tabernacles all around this world.
We pray that by honoring the anger, the grief, and the bitterness that we carry, we will be able to carve out more space for the joy and laughter that continues to exist in our world.
We pray that when we stand before You and welcome 5782, that our voices will resonate with less grief and more hope, less illness and more health, less anxiety and more satisfaction.
We pray that we will be transformed by our prayer, and that through our own transformations, we will have the power to transform the world.
And we say together. Amen.