Yesterday was the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana; a day on which Jews all over the world begin an annual 10-day period of reflection and repentance. During the service I attended yesterday, the Haftarah reading was a selection from the Prophet Samuel:
A man from Ramataim, named Elkanah, had two wives; Hannah and Peninah. Peninah had children, but Hannah was childless. "The Eternal One had shut her womb." When Elkanah went to worship God, he offered a sacrifice, then offered portions to Peninah and her sons and daughters, but gave a special portion to Hannah, who he loved most.
Peninah would torment Hannah constantly, year after year, about being barren. Hannah would weep and not eat out of grief for the children she didn't have. Elkanah, her husband, would ask:
Why do you weep?
Why don't you eat?
Why are you so unhappy?
Am I not better to you than 10 sons?
Hannah prayed to God in bitter grief: "Take notice of my affliction. Keep me in your mind. Do not forget about me, your loyal maidservant. If you give me a son, I will dedicate him to You for life and no razor shall touch his head."
Hannah prayed silently, but her lips moved, and she was taken to be a drunk by the man at the temple. He told her to get a hold of herself. She explained, "I am a woman distressed in spirit. I have been pouring out my soul before the Eternal One, speaking of my abundant sorrow and torment." The man wished her well and she left to return home with her family.
Once home, Elkanah and Hannah made love and God remembered her. At the turn of the year, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son, who she named Samuel.
My mind tends to drift a lot during long services like the one on Rosh Hashana, but this story had my full attention. While the language was a bit dated in the way that Biblical readings are, and multiple wives are no longer acceptable, the rest of the story could have been written about a couple today. Hannah felt unfulfilled and lonely without a child of her own, despite having a husband who loved her, a family structure around her and her faith. No amount of special treatment could make the difference to her. She could not understand why others had been blessed and she had not, especially when a spiteful, mean cow like Peninah had been granted the gift of motherhood. Hannah's grief overshadowed everything else in her life and threatened the intimacy and bond in her marriage.
It interested me too, that Elkanah is cast as a loving, but somewhat clueless sidekick, rather than an intuitive, understanding partner. He couldn't see that their marital relationship, while close and true, couldn't take away the deep yearning Hannah felt to mother a child. This may be because Hannah didn't open up to her husband about her feelings; she saved that for God. Hannah walked around, making her misery known by crying and refusing food and expecting Elkanah to read her mind. Surely, he should understand that she felt confused about why she hadn't been granted a child by the God she loyally worshipped, hurt and resentful that he had children with another woman, humiliated by the insensitivity and cruelty of the other woman, and unsupported by her partner.
What does all of this tell us?
The urge to mother is primal.
Relationships, good and bad, work in much the same way they always have. It just takes more honest communication to breach the gaps. Keeping ourselves to ourselves leaves our demeanor and actions open for interpretation by others.
Sometimes, letting someone in on what you are going through brings understanding and support you need.
It's always better to rise above, with personal strength and self-respect, than to lower ourselves to the level of a person lacking in generosity of spirit.
When we have exhausted all our own resources in pursuing what we want, it's human nature to fall back on hope and faith. It keeps us going when we think all is lost.
We have come a long way, with modern science and medicine giving us more options than simply prayer to help provide the family life we want to create, and for that we should be grateful.
That sometimes miracles do happen, for which we have to supply our own explanations.