"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, December 12, 2005

About Child Commodity Futures

Earlier I posted an essay authored by Guillermo Sostchin (a prominent Cuban-Jewish attorney in Miami) but written by me as what I like to call a contract-writer. The book comprises a range of life lessons that he derives from Biblical narratives using some traditional commentaries as background for his incisive analyses.

Reading the fabulous post by Herb London about people seeing children as commodities, I recalled having seen something recently on the subject. Rummaging around, I found that in fact I had written for Mr. Sostchin a piece some months ago on that very subject. Here it is for your scrutiny and edification.

And he (Elkanah) had two wives, the name of one was Hannah and the name of the second was Peninah, but Peninah had children and Hannah had no children…
And the other wife (Peninah) would anger her again and again to hurt her, because God had closed her womb. She would do this every year when they went to the house of God, then she would anger her, and she (Hannah) would cry and not eat.
And her husband, Elkanah, would say, “Why are you crying and why don’t you eat? Why should your heart feel bad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” And Hannah stood up (one year) after eating in Shiloh… And she was bitter of spirit, and she prayed to God and cried and cried.
Then she made a promise and said, “God… if… you give your maidservant a child among men, I will give him to God all the days of his life…” (Samuel 1:2, 6-11)

This story is read in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. It behooves us to ponder for a moment the message of this saga and how it relates to the observance of the New Year holiday. To do this, we must first examine the events themselves and plumb their underlying meaning.
The first thing that cries out for understanding is the fact that Hannah’s prayers were never answered before this day. After all, she was crying and fasting for many years, as described in the text. Why was none of that effective before this one special time?
Secondly, we wonder at the conduct of Peninah, her self-appointed tormentor. The Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) explains that she had good intentions; she was trying to motivate Hannah to pray. Yet we see Hannah crying and fasting and presumably praying, but Peninah will not back down, year after year.
Furthermore, Peninah’s manner of teasing also requires an explanation. Rashi cites the tradition that Peninah used to say to Hannah, “So, have you bought a jacket for your elder child or a vest for your younger child?” What was the purpose of using this particular approach?
Another peculiarity worth noting is the method that Elkanah uses in trying to soothe his stricken wife. He offers his love for her and his giving to her as a substitute for having ten children.
Aren’t these things apples and oranges? Having a child is one kind of desire and need and having a husband is another desire and need; one does not take the place of the other.

We would suggest that there was a flaw in Hannah’s original request for children, and it was this shortcoming that prevented her prayers from being answered.
Even her tears and her fasting went unheeded because God was waiting for her to reorient her thoughts and feelings in a way that would make her a person of true greatness. And ironically it was Peninah who had correctly diagnosed the problem from the outset.
Hannah’s initial desire for a child was a desire to “receive” a child. Indeed most ordinary people think of a child as a gift that they receive for themselves, for self-validation, almost like a possession.
This may be acceptable for average people, but a person of potential greatness like Hannah was called upon to live according to a higher truth. Her job was to be selfless, to ask not to be able to take but to be able to give. She had to learn to ask for a child strictly for the purpose of giving to a child and for giving to God by bringing up a human soul.

As long as she cried and fasted to receive a child, her prayers were not answered. Peninah, in an effort to communicate the solution to this quandary, kept asking “Have you bought a gift for your child?” The prayer has to be centered around the commitment to give of yourself, not the self-centered urge for fulfillment in parenthood.
The best proof for this is found in the cooing words of Elkanah. “Am I not as good to you as ten sons?” This argument works only on a woman who wants a child “to be good to her”.
In the search for self-validation, a particularly solicitous husband can replace what a child gives a mother. It is only in the search for a venue of giving to the helpless that the husband cannot step into the role reserved to the child. Once Hannah realized her mistake, she returned with a new prayer.

This time she came in as a giver, not a taker, promising to consecrate the child to the service of God in the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Once she made this the substance of her prayer, God was willing to answer it immediately.
This is a lesson to us on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, when we request a year of life and a good livelihood. We must remember to seek those gifts not for self-validation or self-aggrandizement but to have the opportunity to make a contribution, to make a difference in God’s world, to make the world a better place.

6 comments:

brmerrick said...

Thank you, Mr. Homnick, for a poignant and truly excellent post. Just what I needed to read!

Matt Huisman said...

We would suggest that there was a flaw in Hannah’s original request for children, and it was this shortcoming that prevented her prayers from being answered.

I would only clarify that this 'flaw' is not necessarily sin, but rather a part of a process of conforming Hannah's will with God's overall plan. The point being that not every tragedy is the result of a disobedience or lack of favor in the eyes of God.

And ironically it was Peninah who had correctly diagnosed the problem from the outset.
Hannah’s initial desire for a child was a desire to “receive” a child.


You're being very generous to Peninah here. There is a view in some circles that God does not allow bad things to happen to good people, therefore, if something bad happens to you - you must have done something wrong. At best, I think you can give Peninah credit for that line of thinking (which would put her on par with some of Job's friends) - but it's far more likely that we have another Leah/Rachel relationship here.

Some of us might suggest that this is merely a case of God using all things - including a jealous Peninah - for good.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Yes, Matt, on the first point I think that's an accurate understanding.

On the second point, the analysis of Peninah's actions is based on that quote from the Talmud that she had good intentions. In any case, the analysis of Hannah's situation does not depend on this detail; it stands as an auxiliary element.

Matt Huisman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt Huisman said...

I missed the part about the quote being from the Talmud - maybe I'll look into Peninah again.

Anyway, I love the insight from your tradition Jay - thanks for the posts.

Kathy Hutchins said...

This may be acceptable for average people, but a person of potential greatness like Hannah was called upon to live according to a higher truth. Her job was to be selfless, to ask not to be able to take but to be able to give. She had to learn to ask for a child strictly for the purpose of giving to a child and for giving to God by bringing up a human soul.

Caring for children does, I believe, lead most people out of selfishness into self-giving in a way few other common human experiences can. But we are forced into it by their incessant bawling helplessness, which fires a crucible of charity and self-denial we previously did not suspect lay within us. To demand of Hannah that she make this leap before she was granted children does indeed mean that her holiness was great.

I second Matt, Jay -- thank you for all your fascinating posts on these topics. We read this story during each liturgical year, but the focus is almost exclusively on Samuel, not on Hannah's sacrifice. (And, I regret to say, the story is also the source material for one of the most insipid hymns in the dreadful Gather hymnal, Here I Am, Lord. I get the creeping willies every time I hear the thing.) I have learned a great deal from your erudition, and hope to learn much more.