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Climbing the Ladder of Prayer


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Climbing the Ladder of Prayer

By Mendel Weinberger

The Haftorah, the portion of the Prophets, that is read for the first day of Rosh Hashana tells the story of Chana, the mother of the Prophet Samuel. Her transformation from a sorrowful, barren woman into a heroic Prophetess of Israel contains much food for thought and instruction on how to approach G-d in prayer. In fact she is the model of how we recite the silent Amida (standing prayer) according to Jewish Law.

The commentators don't tell us too much about Chana as a person. She was the wife of Elkana, one of the righteous, G-d fearing men of Israel. He tried to serve as an example to others by travelling to the Mishkan (the holy Tabernacle that existed in Shilo before the construction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem) several times a year on the Pilgrimage Festivals, encouraging his fellow Israelites to join him and his family. Chana was the dutiful wife, accompanying her husband and relying on his prayers to bring down the blessing to bear children. She suffered silently for close to twenty years, while witnessing Penina, Elkana's second wife, bear ten sons and several daughters to him. She bore the taunts and insults of her rival wife without complaining, holding her pain inside until it was too much to bear. During those years, she had time to contemplate the spiritual state of the Nation of Israel and feel the pressing need for a leader to raise the people up from their inclination for idol worship and sexual misconduct (see the Book of Judges 18 - 19).

Chana's story begins as she and her husband arrive in Shilo to celebrate one of the festivals. It is not clear exactly which one. An important part of the ritual is the eating of the Korban Shlamim (the Peace offering). The meat of the sacrifice is distributed to each one, and even though Chana receives a choice portion, she refuses to eat it. Her heart is broken and she begins to cry. Elkana knows why she is upset but he rebukes her for what he thinks is self- indulgence. "Why do you cry?" he asks her. "One should only cry over the dead. Why don't you eat?" he chastises her. "We are commanded to eat of the Korban Shlamim." "And why is your heart sad? It is a Festival Day and we are obligated to be happy."

Elkana concludes his rebuke with what he hopes will be a consolation for Chana and says, "I am better for you than ten sons" (Samuel I 1:8). His meaning being ' I love you more than I love Penina, even though she has given me ten sons'.

Chana doesn't answer Elkana. She cannot. Her spirit is so broken, she can take no comfort from his words. She realizes that Elkana has stopped praying for her and does not understand the deep pain her childlessness causes her.

Chana gets up and walks to the sanctuary herself. This is the first rung on the ladder of her prayer. This 'getting up' represents Chana's taking responsibility for herself, for her own problem. She realizes that there is no one to rely on anymore and she must make the effort herself. This is the beginning of Chana's growth and the first step for anyone who desires to approach G-d. There are teachers to show you the way and assistance that comes from above, but one must make the journey alone.

When Chana reaches the Mishkan (Sanctuary), the verse says, "She was bitter of spirit and prayed to G-d and cried" (Samuel I 1:10). The Hebrew words for bitterness of spirit are marat ruach. This is not a feeling of depression or self-pity. Rather, Chana felt her own pain deeply, and instead of trying to distract herself from it, she faced it honestly. She was intensely present in the moment and her tears were the true expression of this feeling of anguish. It was precisely this honest expression of emotion that drove Chana to pray to G-d and confront Him with her pain. This is the second rung on the letter of Chana - being honest with herself and with G-d; Feeling her pain and expressing it openly.

When Chana prayed to G-d, the verse says she prayed al Hashem - literally on G-d. The commentators say she reached above the G-d of Creation, above the G-d who decrees each individual's circumstances in life. She prayed to G-d as the source of Mercy, the One who can reverse an unfavorable judgement and bestow unlimited blessing here on earth. The nineteenth century commentator Malbim says that one of the reasons Chana's prayer was answered was because she prayed to G-d alone. The custom of the Israelites of Chana's generation was to pray to G-d through intermediaries. These intermediaries were the angels (Michael - the angel of kindness, Gavriel - the angel of Strength, Rafael - the angel of healing etc.). This wasn't idol worship, but it was not what the Torah intended for Jewish prayer. Chana broke through the illusion that there are powers independent of G-d's Will in the world. She focused her mind and heart on the One transcendent G-d who encompasses all physical and spiritual existence.

Verse eleven says, "And Chana made an oath and said, 'G-d of Hosts, if you will see the poverty of your maidservant, and remember and not forget your maidservant, and give to your maidservant seed of men, I will give him to G-d all the days of his life and no razor shall come upon his head.'". Chana begins by humbling herself before G-d and asking Him for exactly what she wants. But at the same time she mentions what she is willing to give in return. She, so to speak, negotiates an agreement that will involve a great sacrifice on her part. Any woman who has borne a son and has nursed him knows how great the love and attachment is between a mother and child. Chana's willingness to give this up shows her ability to transcend her own ego and maternal instincts. This is the third rung on the ladder of Chana's prayer. She is ready to negotiate with G-d and give up the very thing she is asking for. All she wants is to be the channel that conceives, gives birth, and nurses the child. She realizes that all children belong to G-d, so whether she keeps him for two years or twenty years, eventually she must let him go to fulfill his destiny.

Verse thirteen states, "Chana spoke to her heart…" In Hebrew the words al liba mean literally on her heart. The commentator Tosephos says she spoke about what was on her heart - her breasts. She said, "You created everything for a purpose - eyes to see, ears to hear, feet to walk upon, breasts to suckle a child. These breasts of mine, why did you give them? Give me a son and I will nurse him." Here Chana challenges G-d to be just with His creation and allow her body to fulfill its purpose. This is the fourth rung of Chana's prayer - a challenge to G-d, demanding that G-d be fair with her. This way of challenging G-d is a desirable trait and shows how our relationship to G-d is not meant to passive, rather it must be an active and passionate dialogue with Him.

Verse thirteen continues, "…only her lips moved and her voice was not heard, and Eli thought she was drunk." Ordinarily, our speech keeps us conscious of the world around us. When Chana's voice was not heard, it indicated that she had gone within herself - into the deep recesses of her heart. She lost contact with the outside world and only her consciousness of G-d's Presence was real to her. Even though she was standing in front of the High Priest, she was not embarrassed. She was praying in a way that no one had ever prayed before and that's why Eli thought her drunk. Someone who is inebriated loses their inhibitions and will often say or do things they would never do when sober. Usually this is to their disgrace. Here, what looked like drunkenness was Chana throwing off the constraints of the ego and letting her soul express itself without inhibition. This is the fifth rung of the ladder of Chana's prayer - the uninhibited expression of the soul which goes beyond words and which reaches G-d's Essence.

When Eli saw that Chana's lips were moving but no sound emerged, he rebuked her sharply and said, "How long will you remain drunk?! Remove the effect of the wine from yourself." (Samuel 1, 1:14) Chana answered him softly awith great humility, "No my Master, I am a woman of broken spirit, wine and strongdrink I have not drunk. I have poured out my soul before G-d." (ibid. verse 15) Eli listened to Chana's answer and realized he was wrong. He then blessed her that G-d should answer her request of Him. Chana climbed the five rungs of prayer and arrived at the place where the soul and G-d merge into one. She made herself fertile ground for the seed of prophecy planted in her soul. When her son Samuel was born, she nursed him for two years and when he was weaned, she brought him to the Mishkan in Shilo. Chana gave Samuel to Eli to raise as she had promised. Then the Spirit of G-d rested upon her and she prophesied (see Chapter 2, 1-10). Chana was a woman who rose to the challenge of her life, achieved her soul's purpose, and brought great merit to her people Israel. She broke the rules of convention and revolutionized the way we pray to G-d. This is her legacy for all generations.


from the October High Holiday 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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