Thursday, August 30, 2012

What was Hannah really praying for?

As you may know, we have a weekly Talmud class at our synagogue (9:30 AM every Thursday! Join us!). It's a lot of fun—often confusing, usually challenging, informative and, sometimes, inspiring. Today, we came across a passage which really caught me—it's a great example of how the Talmud can subtly tell a story that makes it hit home that much harder.

Were studying Berachot, page 31b, and it’s expanding on the story of Hannah. If you don’t know the story (from the first chapter of 1 Samuel), Hannah was unable to conceive a child, and so she begged God to give her a son. But, she uses some strange phrases (or, at least, some noteworthy ones) including “zera anashim – seed/offspring of men.” It probably just meant, “male child,” but it's an unusual form. And so, the rabbis wonder what that phrase means, exactly. Several sages offer their interpretations:
Rav said: a man among men.
And Samuel said: an offspring who anoints two men as kings. And who are they? Saul and David.
And Rabbi Yochanan said: An offspring who is the equal of two men. And who are they? Moses and Aaron…
And the Rabbis say: “male offspring” means: offspring which is “absorbed,” among people.
[This next section seems to be a commentary on that last opinion]
When Rav Dimi came from Israel he explains that means: Neither tall nor short; neither thin nor stocky; neither pallid nor ruddy, neither brilliant nor foolish.
It seems like a rather random collection of interpretations, without much meaning to it. Until we realized that it was building. What did Hannah want? The first guess was that she wanted “a man among men.” A real man. The best of the best.

No, that won't be enough. She wants a man who is great enough to anoint not one, but two kings!

No, even that isn't good enough. She wants someone who is better than Moses and Aaron, put together!

And then, the pinnacle: she doesn't want any of that. She wants someone who can't even be distinguished from his peers. She wants a generic boy. Really, that's because she doesn't care about his qualities, about how he is. She just wants him.

She just wants a son.

I know some people who have struggled with infertility. The rest of us, those of us who are luckier, might dream about what our children will be like. About what great qualities they might have, and what great things they might accomplish. But, to those for whom children don't come so easily, they realize that they only want one thing: their child. What they're like, what they'll do, isn't important.

And, when the rest of us hear their prayer, we realize that they're right. Even if we didn't realize it, that's all we wanted, to.

No comments: