Haftarah from Rosh Hashana 5777

Haftarah is 1 Samuel, 1:1-1:28, text from MyJewishLearning.com, read by Hannah

Italicized text written by Hannah Mermelstein and Gretchen Virkler, read by Gretchen

1:1. There was a man from Ramatayim of the Zuphites, in the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Yeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.

There was a woman from Vermont whose name was Gretchen, daughter of Joanne, daughter of Pat. There was a woman from Pennsylvania whose name was Hannah, daughter of Ruth, daughter of Phyllis.

1:2. He had two wives, one named Hannah and the other Peninnah; Peninnah had children, but Hannah was childless.

When we met, I told Hannah, “I’m having children. If I have a partner, they can choose to be involved or not.” And Hannah, who had always thought she’d love to have one life with children and one without, said, “If we’re together, I will be your co-parent.”

1:3. This man used to go up from his town every year to worship and to offer sacrifice to the LORD of Hosts at Shiloh. Hophni and Pinkhas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the LORD there.

1:4. One such day, Elkanah offered a sacrifice. He used to give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters;

1:5. but to Hannah he would give one portion only-though Hannah was his favorite-for the LORD had closed her womb.

Open womb or closed, we were missing one key ingredient in the baby-making process. So we asked Hannah’s brother to be our donor, and he said, “That makes sense.” This was the plan for three years, and it seemed simple. But it was not meant to be. After several months of trying, the strain on his relationship with his future wife was too great, and he backed out. Frustrated and heartbroken, we returned to square one.  

1:6. Moreover, her rival, to make her miserable, would taunt her that the LORD had closed her womb.

We began the expensive process of buying sperm from strangers. Parts of it were fun. Choosing between the filmmaker who loves the Moscow subway system and the dark-haired blue-eyed librarian who loves the color yellow. There was a playfulness, a renewed hope. And then there was the pregnancy test: negative.

1:7. This happened year after year:

This happened month after month.

Every time she went up to the House of the LORD, the other would taunt her, so that she wept and would not eat.

Every time we tried, we thought, “Will this be the month?” After a total of seven tries, I was still not pregnant. No explanation, no apparent problems, no pregnancy.

1:8. Her husband Elkanah said to her, "Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?"

It seemed like everyone else was pregnant, and we resented each one. I needed a break.

1:9. After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose.

One day Hannah was doing a puzzle that her parents had made for her with a collage of family photographs, and she picked up a piece that showed her mother’s 9-month-pregnant belly. She teared up and decided, “I want that.”

The priest Eli was sitting on the seat near the doorpost of the temple of the LORD.

1:10. In her wretchedness, she prayed to the LORD, weeping all the while.

Meanwhile, we dared to think about finding another known donor. We asked a friend, and while he said no, the asking in and of itself was healing to us.

1:11. And she made this vow: "O LORD of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the LORD for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head."

After just over a year of trying to get me and then Hannah pregnant, using donors both known and unknown, Hannah joked about wearing a sign to our Hannukah party saying, “Ask me about being my sperm donor.” That was not okay with me, so instead she just told everyone she was going to. A friend said to us, “How about my partner?” We asked her if we could all talk, and she said, “I see this as his decision, but I think it’s a beautiful thing to do for friends.” The would-be donor then told us, “I'm very happy to be able to do something that would make my friends so happy.”

1:12. As she kept on praying before the LORD, Eli watched her mouth.

The first month with our new donor, Hannah did not get pregnant. The second month, she did.

1:13. Now Hannah was praying in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard.

At 7 weeks, we heard a heartbeat. At 11, there was none.

So Eli thought she was drunk.

We were in shock.

1:14. Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? "’Sober up!"

What we thought was the size of a fig or a lime was never bigger than a kidney bean. Hannah wrote at the time, “I want these dead cells out of me. I don’t want these dead cells out of me.”

1:15. And Hannah replied, "Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the LORD.

1:16. Do not take your maidservant for a worthless woman; I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress."

Our sadness was overwhelming, yet we did not know how to grieve. We were not exactly mothers, but not exactly not. How, as fiercely pro-choice feminists, could we be in such mourning for a fetus that was still months from viability, let alone birth?

1:17. "Then go in peace," said Eli, "and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him."

1:18. She answered, "You are most kind to your handmaid." So the woman left, and she ate, and was no longer downcast.

We reached out for support, to Kolot and to others. We designed a ritual with the help of Cantor Lisa B. Segal. We took comfort in shared experiences, and in our love for each other. We tried to accept that we cannot control everything.

1:19. Early next morning they bowed low before the LORD, and they went back home to Ramah.

1:20. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah and the LORD remembered her.

One month later, while we were not sure we were ready to try again, we did not want to wait. It took us 13 tries to get one pregnancy, how many would it take for another? One, as it turns out.

Hannah conceived, and at the turn of the year bore a son.

Hannah conceived, spent nine months worrying that she was feeling too normal, asking her doctor for ultrasounds almost weekly, feeling the joy of the first kicks and the healthy anatomy scan, and in the middle of February, bore a daughter.

She named him Samuel, meaning, "I asked the LORD for him."

We named her Ellen Pessl, after her great-grandmothers.

1:21. And when the man Elkanah and all his household were going up to offer to the LORD the annual sacrifice and his votive sacrifice,

1:22. Hannah did not go up. She said to her husband, "When the child is weaned, I will bring him. For when he has appeared before the LORD, he must remain there for good."

1:23. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Do as you think best. Stay home until you have weaned him. May the LORD fulfill His word.” So the woman stayed home and nursed her son until she weaned him.

Hannah’s recovery from pregnancy and birth was difficult, both physically and emotionally. But mostly, these last 7 months have been wonderful as we have watched our little Pessl Pie grow. We sit and stare at her chubby cheeks, her giant eyes, her expressive eyebrows. We kiss her feet and she smiles, we bump down the stairs and she laughs. We read her books and she calms down. We put her on our shoulders and she squeals in delight. We babble in conversation. We marvel at the joy she takes in food, and in life.

1:24. When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with three bulls, one ephah of flour, and a jar of wine. And though the boy was still very young, she brought him to the House of the LORD at Shiloh.

1:25. After slaughtering the bull, they brought the boy to Eli.

1:26. She said, "Please, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you and prayed to the LORD.

1:27. It was this boy I prayed for; and the LORD has granted me what I asked of Him.

1:28. I, in turn, hereby lend him to the LORD. For as long as he lives he is lent to the LORD."

We reflect on our journey. Even as we post hundreds of pictures on social media, we think of those who want to be pregnant and are not, those who want children and do not have them, those who are going through miscarriage. We tell our story in the hopes that shared experience can offer comfort, that those who sow in tears will reap in joy.

And they bowed low there before the LORD.




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