For the feast of the Holy Family, at the wonderful Portland community where Nick made his Communion--and brilliantly proclaimed the Exodus reading--at the Holy Thursday celebration which included mass, footwashing by all desiring it (my kids have always adored it) and a respectful non-Seder lamb feast. I wore my double set of silver hoop earrings (nose ring would have added authenticity but I'm so not going there!) and bought a cool purply remnant to serve as a veil. It later saw many happy uses in the classic game of "scary purple ghost".
Come in, little one, sit down. Have a cup of wine, and some of these cakes I baked this morning. I know, I know, you’re not my little granddaughter anymore—you’re a lovely young maiden preparing for your wedding. It seems like just yesterday that my miracle child stood under the marriage canopy—and now her firstborn is becoming a woman. Yes, it’s your mother I’m talking about. I know, your uncle Samuel is the one everyone talks about. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Every child is a miracle. And your mother was the first one I got to see grow up. Samuel went away so young…
What was it like? You know the story--I must have told it to you children a hundred times. Everyone in Israel knows how God sent the prophet Samuel, the last of the judges, the kingmaker and kingbreaker—the wise women in the villages love to spin the tale, and the scribes at court have written it all down. What was it really like?…Well, it’s true that the scribes don’t know everything. And there were things I left out of your bedtime stories. All right, then, your wedding present from Bubbe Hannah. The whole story—it’s not all pretty, but it’s the truth. And, God forbid, should you have a like suffering, it may give you the strength to see it through.
There is no pain on earth like being a barren woman. Watching your sisters and friends give their husbands children, listening to endless hints from his parents, seeing the pity and the questions in the neighbors’ eyes. Does he even bother going in to her anymore? How long before he sends her back to her family and tries again with a real woman? Elkanah didn’t divorce me, I’ll give him that. Most men would have. He did love me—but he didn’t understand. “Why is your heart sad? Am I not more than you to than ten sons?” I wasn’t more to him than ten sons, or he wouldn't have taken Peninnah as his second wife. Each year we’d make the trip to sacrifice at Shiloh, and a sword would pierce my heart when Elkanah gave the first portions to her and her sons and daughters. Then he’d try to console me by giving me a double portion, and Penninah would take it out on me later. I couldn’t blame her, really--it told everyone that she only mattered to him as a brood mare. I don’t know which of us was more humiliated.
God had closed my womb—that’s how the scribes tell it. And that’s what I thought, then, too. So I prayed and begged, I cried and screamed, I asked what I was doing wrong, and finally I struck a bargain. After the yearly sacrifice, I slipped into the temple to make one last, desperate prayer. If God gave me a son I would offer him back, dedicate him for life as a Nazirite. My eyes were closed and my lips moved silently, demanding an answer. “Speak, Lord, your handmaid is listening.” At first Eli the priest thought I was drunk—as if God couldn’t hear me, because he couldn’t! But then he joined his prayers to mine, without even asking what I sought, and peace finally descended on my heart. I went back to join in the feasting, and when my husband came in to me, I was sure that I had finally conceived.
Elkanah was ecstatic; Peninnah was jealous and insecure; and I spent the months of my pregnancy torn between fierce joy and terrible grief. Why had I made that foolish vow? I could keep the child till he was weaned—two or three years, four at most—and then he would go to live in the temple and I’d only see him once a year. What would Elkanah say when I told him? Maybe I’d have a girl, and I’d never have to--I hadn’t promised to offer up a daughter. But when my pains came I birthed a son. I saw the joy in Elkanah’s eyes on the day of Samuel’s naming and circumcision, and kept my vow in the silence of my heart. I nursed him myself--let the servant girls do the cleaning and cooking, or help Penninah with her brood! I prayed with bittersweet gratitude as he drank from my breasts in the enfolding darkness of the night, or the bright sunlight of our busy mornings. “Speak, Lord, your handmaid is listening.” I wrestled with the Holy One, dreading the day I would have to let Samuel leave the circle of my arms. And slowly I began to sense that this child had his own destiny to fulfill—that my long years of anguish had been preparation for something more important than another worker with the fields or the herds. If Samuel’s birth was as extraordinary as Isaac’s and Ishmael's, maybe his life would be too.
I finally told Elkanah and Peninnah about my vow when the baby was a year old, and the time came for the trip to Shiloh. They were confused when I refused to go with the family, and shocked when I told them the reason. There would be time enough for sacrifice when Samuel was weaned—my home had become my temple, and for now I would worship with him there. Elkanah’s mouth dropped open, and his brow furrowed with anger. I found myself in a sudden panic. Would he annul my vow? The law gave him that power. It decreed that a man’s word to God was irrevocable, but a woman’s only as good as her father’s or husband’s whim. I had thought I would welcome that way out of my sacrifice—and I found to my surprise that my long struggle with the Holy One had transformed it to a freely chosen offering. It was an answering gift to the one whose motherly compassion I had come to know through my love for my child—the one who opens the womb when it’s possible, and consoles the heart when it isn’t. I looked hard at Elkanah, daring him to forbid me, and before he could speak Penninah shocked me by taking my part. “We have six children, and Hannah only one. If she can give him up, you can do no less.” Then she added, “Besides, you know what the priests say happens when you offer your first fruits to God. Now that her womb has opened, wouldn’t you like it to stay that way?” Elkanah looked at each of us, then nodded slowly and said with quiet resignation, “Do what seems best to you. And may the Holy One establish the word that has been spoken.”
Two more yearly festivals passed until the heartbreaking, joyous day when we all traveled together to Shiloh. Samuel was a solemn, beautiful child, wearing the linen garment I had woven for him. Elkanah slaughtered the sacrificial bull, and Eli looked to him for the ritual words dedicating Samuel to the service of God. I never loved my husband more than when he calmly returned the priest’s gaze and shook his head. Eli’s puzzled eyes searched our circle for another adult male. They lit upon Peninnah’s oldest son, standing between his mother and his shy young bride, but the young man followed his father’s example and remained silent. Finally the priest noticed that every face in our family looked expectantly at me, and his smile grew to match theirs as my voice rang out with triumph. “As you live, my lord, I was the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Holy One. For this child I prayed; and God has granted me my petition which I made. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”
What was that, darling? Then I wasn’t sad anymore? Oh, yes, I was, many times. Your mother and the other children were a tremendous comfort, but they didn’t replace seeing my firstborn grow up. I worried he would forget me, or his brothers and sisters would resent him, even as I was proud of all he did for our people, and the part I had played in it. In choosing Samuel God chose our whole family, and we all made our peace with that in a different way. All we could do was keep talking, and fighting, and listening: to God--and to each other--and to God in each other. And that, little one, is the blessing I will always pray for you and the family you are about to create with your beloved. Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.