The Haftarah for the first day of Rosh HaShanah describes the birth of Shmuel to Elkanah and his wife Chanah, who had been childless for many years (Shmuel I Perek 1). This parallels the story discussed in the day’s Torah reading, about Sarah giving birth to Yitzchak after many years of childlessness. Chazal (Megillah 31a) teach that these readings are chosen since both Sarah and Chanah (as well as Rachel) conceived on Rosh HaShanah (Rosh HaShanah 11a).
During one of her annual pilgrimages to Shiloh, the site of the Mishkan, Chanah tearfully and quietly davened to Hashem to bless her with a son, promising to dedicate him to His service. Eli the Kohein Gadol saw her whispering, and berated her, thinking that she was a drunkard. After hearing Chanah’s explanation, that she had been whispering in prayer, Eli blessed her that Hashem should grant her request.
Chana conceived and gave birth to a son whom she called Shmuel. Once the child was weaned, she brought him to Shiloh and entrusted him to the care of Eli.
The Haftarah ends with Chanah’s prayer, wherein she thanks Hashem for granting her wish, extols His greatness, exhorts the people not to be haughty or arrogant, and prophesies regarding the Messianic redemption (the beginning of Shmuel I Perek 2).
Chanah the Revolutionary
Most regard this story as a pleasant story about a pleasant woman who achieved her lifelong aspiration through heartfelt prayer, making it appropriate reading for Rosh HaShanah when we pour out our hearts to Hashem in Tefilah. However, I suggest that Chanah should be viewed as a revolutionary figure who, with subtlety, transforms not only her life but the life of her nation with her Tefilah and vision. I seek to uncover eight manners in which the mild-mannered and modest Chanah acts as nothing less than a revolutionary. I acknowledge the debt owed to the Da’at Mikra commentary to Sefer Shmuel, my congregants at Congregation Sha’arei Orah (the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck), and my students at Torah Academy of Bergen County, who shared their insights that help me formulate this essay.
At the outset of the story we find Chanah dissatisfied with the status quo of infertility, unlike her husband who attempts to convince her to be content with life as is (Pesukim 7-8). Chanah’s dissatisfaction with her own less than ideal life reflects her discontent with the current situation of the Jewish People. The Jewish People live in Eretz Yisrael but must bow to the rule of the powerful Pelishtim, the Mishkan is managed by the two corrupt sons of Eli, Chofni and Pinchas, and the Jewish People have no central leader to prod the Jewish People to attempt to improve their lot. Elkanah’s passive acceptance of the less than satisfactory personal situation reflects his and most of nation’s complacency with and unwillingness to confront the serious problems facing them.
New Religious Models for Tefillah, Nezirut and Challenging the Kohein Gadol
Before Chanah we find instances of people in Tanach either praying to Hashem in times of difficulty or uttering Nedarim to Hashem promising improved behavior should Hashem rescue them from their predicament. Chanah is the first to combine the two by praying and making an oath to dedicate the child to Hashem. Nedarim and Tefilah each have spiritual advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, when making a Neder, one does offer something to Hashem; however, one treats Hashem as an “equal” in a certain sense, since one may be seen as striking a “deal” with God. Tefilah, by contrast, does not offer Hashem anything but does express our recognition of Hashem as our superior. Recognizing this reality, Chanah introduces a combination of Neder-Tefilah so as to marshal the advantages of both.
This revolution in Tefilah stands in addition to the well-known change of Chanah introducing silent Tefilah. Additionally, Chanah did not cower under Eli’s misguided criticism. Instead, she respectfully but firmly rejected his suspicions (and may have offered some implicit criticism of Eli as well (see Berachot 31b)).
Similarly, conventional Nezirut involves the Nazir refraining from grape products, contact with dead bodies, and cutting of hair. Chanah, however, promises that she will be given a child, the child will be dedicated to Hashem, and his hair will not be cut (Pasuk 11). Chazal conclude(Nazir 9:5) that Shmuel was a Nazir; however, he was classified a unique Nazir, one whose restrictions apply only to haircutting. This is typical behavior for Chanah – out of the box, unconventional, and breaking new ground.
The Implementation of Chanah’s Promise
Pesukim 21-23 present a conflict between Chanah and Elkanah regarding the implementation of the Neder after Hashem granted Chanah her greatest wish. Elkanah thought the baby should be brought to the Mishkan immediately as he interpreted Chanah’s promise to dedicate the child for his entire life in a narrow and literal manner. Chanah, of course, was willing to think out of the box and interpret the promise in a more flexible and reasonable manner, to apply only after the child has been weaned.
After Shmuel’s birth, (Pesukim 25-28) Chanah again had to politely but firmly insist on Shmuel’s place in the Mishkan, over Eli’s objections (the objection may have possibly stemmed from the fact that Shmuel was not a Kohein).
Chanah’s Thank You Tefillah
Chanah’s revolutionary side finds its greatest expression in her thank you Tefilah of Perek 2. She speaks of kings of Israel and she speaks of the defeat of enemy armies. Many are bothered: How are an anointed king and a victorious army at all relevant in a Tefilah that appears to serve simply as a thank you to Hashem for granting Chanah a child?
One answer given is that in addition to praising Hashem, Chanah posits a new vision for the Jewish people. Chanah couples her personal redemption with the redemption of the Jews of her time. She articulates a vision of an anointed one (2:10), asking at a time when the Jews had been without a king for more than 300 years. This vision was realized, as her son anointed two kings of Israel, Shaul HaMelech and David HaMelech.
The vision of military victories is also part of Chanah’s vision for the future. She foresees the Jews freeing themselves from Pelishti rule, a persistent problem during the events described later in Sefer Shmuel I. Indeed, Shmuel initiated the movement to free us from the Pelishtim in Perek 7 and the two kings he anointed placed removing the Pelishtim as a high priority (see Shmuel I 14:52 and Shmuel II Perakim 5 and 6). Shmuel and his two kings brought about the transition from the Mishkan to the Beit HaMikdash and the introduction of successful kingdoms in Israel. However, Shmuel and his two protégés were merely implementing the vision articulated by Chanah, Shmuel’s mother.
While others were content with the status quo, Chanah saw that things could be better for herself and for her people. With that, we can conclude, as does the Da’at Mikra to Sefer Shmuel, that Chanah drafts and presents the blueprint for all that occurs Sefer Shmuel already in the first chapter (and somewhat in the beginning of the second chapter as well). While Shmuel, David, and even Shaul deserve great accolades for their accomplishments, it all began with Chanah’s vision.
Implications for Rosh HaShanah
Viewed from this perspective, Chanah serves as a role model for the type of introspection that is appropriate for Rosh HaShanah. We should not be satisfied with that which is less than ideal in our individual and communal lives. We should identify that which needs improvement and formulate a plan as to how we will go about planning how we are to improve in the coming year.
Our improved lives over the next year must begin with a vision. That vision should be developed on Rosh HaShanah in the same manner in which Chanah developed a vision for the Jewish People’s future at the beginning of Sefer Shmuel. New paradigms should be willing to be considered as we begin to reinvent ourselves on Rosh HaShanah in the same manner as Chanah reinvented the Jewish People with her willingness to break free from the status quo.
It is most interesting that while men brought about the great changes of Sefer Shmuel, the move from Shofetim to kings, Mishkan to the beginning of the Mikdash, and corrupt rule to righteous leadership, a modest woman was the mastermind of this entire enterprise. Chanah, in her subtle, motherly, and feminine manner was the true revolutionary that freed us from the self-imposed shackles imposed by people with limited vision for their families and the Jewish People. May we all merit to be freed from the shackles and barriers that prevent our spiritual growth.
 Chanah was, observe Chazal (Berachot 31b), the first to address Hashem as Tzevakot (see Pasuks 11).