Struggling with infertility is a loneliness like no other. I have been blessed with two children, but I can still recall the feelings of isolation, hopelessness and, in some sense, failure, until I conceived my longed-for first child. Jewish tradition not only validates this emotional state, but also elevates it by telling Hannah’s story publicly every year.
Hannah, the heroine of the haftarah that is traditionally chanted on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, desperately wanted a child. Although she’s not the first biblical woman to experience the pain of infertility, she is the first woman to confront God about her situation through personal prayer. In a number of midrashim, Hannah is acknowledged to have introduced the model for the contemporary way we pray and approach God.
But like many inventions, there were missteps in Hannah’s journey. When Eli the High Priest saw Hannah moving her lips and praying soundlessly, he assumed she was drunk. Hannah quickly corrected him. “I am a woman who is hard of spirit,” she said. “I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul to God.”
Hannah’s barrenness echoes that of the matriarchs. Like Sarah and Rachel, she went through a long period of yearning for a child. And like her forebears who found concubines for their husbands, Hannah encouraged her husband, Elkanah, to take Peninnah as a second wife. A midrash further explains that Hannah reasoned that if she told Elkanah to take an additional wife, God would liken her to Sarah and Rachel and also remember her with a child. But Peninnah, who gave birth to many children, turned out to be Hannah’s cruel rival. Each year the family would go to Shiloh to offer a sacrifice, and Peninnah would taunt Hannah about her childlessness. After almost two decades, a despondent Hannah had enough heartbreak and confronted God in bitterness and desperation.
Hannah forthrightly calls God to account for the injustices in his world. Another midrash depicts her comparing her situation to a woman who has been issued a death sentence. While this idea of a life without children as being the severest of punishments does not resonate with modern sensibilities, Hannah is a woman of her time. In the Hebrew text she refers to herself three times as a maidservant—a woman who observes God’s commandments. Her piousness alone is justification for demanding God to answer her prayers.
Alicia Jo Rabins, a teacher of Bible, a poet and a songwriter who has authored a curriculum on biblical women called “Girls in Trouble,” describes Hannah’s call to prayer as “the most radical fertility technology of her time.” Rabins asks: “Is God a partner in Hannah’s transformation, or a force activated through her demands?” For Rabins the story is “a complicated interplay between Hannah’s power to change her life, and her reliance on forces beyond her control. On one hand, Hannah’s decision to take action after years of suffering is a crucial part of changing her story. But on the other hand, Hannah cannot change her destiny alone; God needs to ‘remember’ her in order for her to conceive.”
This is the season to honor Hannah’s brand of ferocious and brave worship. In that spirit I have also been reading Belle Boggs’ beautiful memoir, “The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood.” There’s an undercurrent of supplication in Boggs’ book too. In researching her memoir she came upon a phrase, “disenfranchised grief,” coined by another writer. In an interview with The Atlantic, Boggs explained: “Disenfranchised grief is grief for a loss that cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported. And fertility fits into that category really well because it isn’t something that we are comfortable talking about. Because it is an experience of loss if you’re trying for something and it’s not happening.”
“Disenfranchised grief” perfectly captures Hannah’s state of mind as she prayed to God for a child. Her prayer was a deceptively spontaneous outpouring of grief. It was a beautifully articulated expression of a deep, recurring disappointment. As we move into this High Holiday season, many of us will confront our own disenfranchised grief. May we pray as authentically and movingly as Hannah.