Friday, October 24, 2014

Chodesh Tov! Lesson From Biblical Shiloh, Prayer and Human Nature

Chodesh Tov, Everyone!
It's the first day of Rosh Chodesh Marchesvan, the Jewish Month of Cheshvan when winter truly begins. Winter here in the Holy Land doesn't always mean freezing snow. It's supposed to mean blessed rain, at the right time, the right quantities, gifts or rewards from G-d for our proper behavior.

Today some friends and I went to Shiloh Hakeduma, Ancient Shiloh, Tel Shiloh, the location of many Biblical stories, narratives that are being confirmed consistently by archaeologists working here to discover our past.

Shiloh has always been a location for prayer.  I, davka, prefer praying in Shiloh than in the more popular (non-synagogue) prayer sites. I just don't get "turned on" by graves, and the  Kotel littered with "Santa letters" is a "turn off." And since the Israeli Government has inexplicably allowed the Muslim Waqf to dictate what Jews can or can't do on our holiest spot, the Temple Mount, the next holiest, to my count when eliminating tombs and cemeteries, is Shiloh, specifically the area where it's believed the Mishkan, Holy Tabernacle had stood for close to four hundred 400 years when Shiloh was the administrative and spiritual capital of the Jewish Nation. That was just before the era of Kings and the building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

One of the most well-known Shiloh stories from the Biblical era, is the story of Chana, Hannah. Chana was barren. She was married to Elkana, who had a second wife, Penina (Pearl) who did have children. Despite her inability to give him children, Elkana loved Chana more than he loved Penina. The situation was difficult for both women. Chana would have given anything for a child, and Penina was jealous of the favoritism Elkana bestowed on Chana.

The family/clan made the pilgrimage to Shiloh for all of the Holidays to pray there. One year Chana made an extra effort to pray to G-d. She prayed silently with all of her soul and might. Only her lips moved,  because G-d can hear what's in our hearts and minds, there's no need to shout. Chana's yearning for a child wasn't for her own personal selfish maternal needs. She understood the chaos and lack of leadership among the Jewish People and wanted to bring a son into the world to be a leader in G-d's name. She promised that if G-d would give her a son, that son would be brought to Shiloh to be trained by the priests there to lead the nation.

Eli, the High Priest, blessed her after hearing her story, and the next year Chana gave birth to a son. When he was weaned, she brought him to Shiloh and entrusted him to be educated by Eli.

Her subsequent "thank you prayer" to G-d is what is known as תפילת חנה Tefillat Chana, Hannah's Prayer, 1Samuel Chapter 2.

The line that fascinates me the most is:
ה  שְׂבֵעִים בַּלֶּחֶם נִשְׂכָּרוּ, וּרְעֵבִים חָדֵלּוּ, עַד-עֲקָרָה יָלְדָה שִׁבְעָה, וְרַבַּת בָּנִים אֻמְלָלָה.
5 They that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry have ceased; while the barren hath borne seven, she that had many children hath languished.
I actually disagree with how it's generally understood. For those who aren't familiar with Hebrew, please look at all those dots and symbols on the bottom of and sometimes the tops of the Hebrew letters. They are the vowels. Without vowels, the letters can be pronounced frequently as different words meaning different things. The one I'd give a different meaning to is  שִׁבְעָה shiv'ah, seven, which I'd pronounce as sav'ah, satisfied.

Chana was satisfied with her one son; that's all she had prayed for. When more children were born to her, that was wonderful, but that isn't what she had asked for. Numbers weren't her priority. I've been telling people my theory for a few years already, and most people agree once they think about it, because the Bible was written without vowels.

The accepted commentary from the midrash for the next few words, that the mother of many was miserable, a better definition than the "languished" in the translation above, is usually explained that with each new child born to Hannah, one of Pearl's died. I can't imagine Hannah gloating over this. Today, at the Tel, when I told one of the women about my reading of שבעה she continued and said that Penina's personality was to be miserable. She wasn't happy even with her many children. The אֻמְלָלָה feeling miserable/depressed is an antonym for being satisfied with life, Chana's emotional state.

Some people manage to always see the best and be happy, while others are always finding fault in their situation. Chana does begin the story unhappy, wanting a child, but instead of being jealous wishing bad on others, she prayed to G-d, knowing that her fertility was in G-d's hands. She made her deal with G-d and didn't renege. Her precious first born son was sent to serve G-d, and he was Shmuel HaNavi, Samuel the Prophet who anointed Israel's first two kings, Saul an David. He did what he was born to do. He changed the world. Shmuel, like his mother accepted that they were just tools of G-d.

We all must learn to stop saying "I want..." and learn to hear what G-d wants us to do and be satisfied with it.

Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom

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