Rosh Hashana: True Hearing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Rosh Hashana

I’m reasonably certain that those readers of rabbineal-list who are
attending Rosh Hashanah services will hear lots of good Torah this
weekend, so we’ll keep it short for today’s email commentary. (If you
really loved some piece of Torah you heard, pass it along to me- after
all, I don’t get to hear other rabbis teaching on the Days of Awe.)

Back to our haftarah study: the haftarah for the first day of Rosh
Hashanah is the story of Hannah, who was unable to conceive with her
husband, and who took her broken heart into the priestly altar at
Shiloh. She prayed there with such emotion visible on her face that
the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk, and rebuked her. Hannah told
him that she was hardly drunk, but rather was pouring out her soul in
prayer- at which point Eli realized his mistake and turned his rebuke
into a blessing:

” ‘Then go in peace,’ said Eli, ‘and may the God of Israel grant you
what you have asked of Him.’ She answered, ‘You are most kind to your
handmaid’ So the woman left, and she ate, and was no longer
downcast.” (I Samuel 1:17-18)

It’s striking that Hannah is “no longer downcast” as she takes her
leave- even though her prayer, for a son, has not yet been granted,
and indeed there is no assurance, at this point in the story, that it
will be granted. The only thing she has at this point is Eli’s
recognition of her longings- and it was enough to lift her up from
despair.

This private moment between two strangers is a paradigm for building
kehillah, or sacred community: we cannot offer each other assurance
that our prayers will be answered from above, but we can indeed offer
the assurance that our prayers will be heard right here and now. We
can offer each other the gift of presence; of recognition; of some
relief, however short, from the loneliness of the ever-more-busy
modern world- and this recognition of each other’s humanity is a basic
function of religious community.

So wherever you’re going for Rosh Hashanah (or whichever spiritual
community you’re visiting or call home), do remember this: we all come
into the sanctuary with different burdens of heart, and so a warm
greeting, a kind word, or a friendly touch might mean more than all
the sermons and rituals put together. After all- Hannah wasn’t lifted
up by Eli’s priestly role, but by the human connection he offered to
her.

The Days of Awe can be a grand pageant; but right in the middle of the
pageantry, we read a story about the simplest and most meaningful of
human connections: hearing a prayer, seeing a broken heart. This is
where healing begins, and the blessings of the New Year start.

Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year,

RNJL

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