An Opportunity to Listen
Jennifer Rubin Raskas is a participant in OTS’s International Halakha Scholars Program (IHSP) and Washington, DC Director at the Hartman Institute of North America
During Rosh Hashana, we will read Torah and Haftorah selections that center on the travails of four women in Tanakh in anguish over wanting children or wanting to protect their children: Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, and Rachel.
Why do we read these four accounts specifically on Rosh Hashana? What lesson can we learn individually and collectively from the imperative to read their stories on this day of judgement and remembrance?
The Gemara [Brachot 29a] teaches that God answered Sarah, Hagar, Hannah and Rachel’s prayers on Rosh Hashana. Perhaps we read their stories in the hope that God will answer our prayers on Rosh Hashana, too.
The Gemara further states that we model our prayer on Rosh Hashana after Hannah’s prayer in Shmuel Aleph [2:1-10]. Hannah mentioned God’s name nine times in her prayer, so we recite nine blessings in the Mussaf (additional) prayers of Rosh Hashana.
I would like to propose an additional lesson, which begins with noticing that although God listened to these women, and in many ways answered their prayers, there were people around them in their moments of most intense anguish and travails who did not listen.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading focuses on Sarah and Hagar. First, Sarah seeks to protect herself and her young son when she feels he is threatened by Yishmael. Avraham is displeased with Sarah’s demand. God has to tell Avraham: “All that Sarah asks, listen to her” [Breishit 21:12].
Four verses later, we find Hagar crying alone in the wilderness because she cannot feed her exiled child and is sure he will die [ibid., v. 16].
We can picture the anguish, devastation, hopelessness, and tears that she cried alone. But God listens, and sends an angel who reassures Hagar: “Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy where he is” [ibid., v. 17].
The Haftorah we read on the first day of Rosh Hashana focuses on Hannah, whose anguish over not having a child is compounded by three people around her:
Pnina, her husband’s other wife, angers Hannah in reference to her inability to bear children [Shmuel Aleph 1:6].
Elkana, her husband, in effect minimizes her pain by asking if he is not better than ten sons [ibid., v. 8].
And as she prays, Eli, the priest, accuses her of desecrating herself in Shilo through drinking wine, which is ironic since just a few verses earlier we read that Hannah’s anguish is so strong she cannot bring herself to eat [ibid., v. 14, v. 7].
On the second day of Rosh Hashana, we read in the Haftorah about Rachel crying over the exile of her future children [Yirmiyahu 31:15]. Earlier in Tanakh, she had cried about her inability to conceive, saying to Yaakov, “Give me children or I will die” [Breishit 30:1]. Instead of hearing and validating her pain, Yaakov becomes incensed, and defensively asks, “Can I take the place of God, Who has denied you children” [ibid., v. 2]?!
Each of these four women experienced anguish over their lack of children or fear for their children that went unheard, invalidated or, worse, criticized, by those around them, even when God heard and answered their cries.
However, something beautiful happens every Rosh Hashana. Though the people around them did not originally hear these women’s cries, we, through reading their stories, have the opportunity to actively listen to their words.
And not just on any day, but on the day of judgement and remembrance when we are primed, through the shofar, to hear sound – as we listen to 100 shofar blasts, in memory of yet another mother crying for her child, the mother of Sisera [Tosefot on Rosh Hashana 33b].
On this day of hearing, we hear their anguish and pain. We even listen to Hannah’s prayer in full.
In this way, we are invited to change the ending of their stories. The stories of these women must no longer end with their voices going largely unheard by the people around them. Their voices and stories are carefully heard by the entire praying community of the Jewish people on one of the holiest days of the year.
If we listen intently, these stories have the power to sensitize us to human suffering and transform us into more empathetic and compassionate people.
Throughout the days of selikhot, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we ask God, “Sh’ma Koleinu!” “Listen to our voices!” We praise God for being “Shome’a Tefilah,” Hearer of our prayers.
May the experience of listening to the stories of Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, and Rachel increase our own capacity to listen intently to those around us. And with this increased ability to listen, may we merit that God listen to, hear, and answer our deepest prayers.