The true test of a people’s power is not in the wars they win or the territory they conquer, but in the way they treat the powerless and voiceless in society. It’s a test the Jewish people failed as the book of Shoftim ended. The exploitation of the weak, especially of women, defined a society which at once desperately needed, and was infinitely far from, the stability and power brought by a sovereign king. So it is fitting that the book of Shmuel, which will tell the story of the first Jewish kings, begins with the story of hearing the voice of an oppressed woman.
When the text says about Chana ‘and her voice was not heard’, it’s not only making a statement about the way she prayed. She was a woman whose voice was not heard- not by her husband, whose obtuseness to her pain was responsible for perhaps the most classic insensitive husband line of all time, nor by Eli the High Priest, who reads her passionate pain and anger as drunkenness.
But when God hears her voice, salvation is born. In fact, while she names the child ‘Shmuel’, ‘The Lord has heard’, the explanation she gives mysteriously, but quite deliberately and obviously, hints at Shaul, the king Shmuel will ultimately anoint, mentioning the Hebrew root of the name seven times in the chapter, with the final time being a mention of his exact name.
The Rabbis of the Talmud took their cue from God, and listened carefully to Chana’s voice, accepting it as authoritative in ritual matters (apparently, they didn’t realize this was not a Jewish thing to do). “How many great laws do we learn from these verses,” exclaims Rav Hamnuna (Berachot 31a), using an unusual word for great (‘gavrevata’) which plays on the word for ‘male’. Chana operated in a world of male power, a world which the book of Shoftim demonstrated was not doing too well. In that world, according to rabbinic midrashim, she stood up, corrected, and taught a thing or two to the high priest, and even faced off against God. Her message is clearly expressed in the prayer which the rabbis paid homage to in the second blessing of the Amidah prayer. “God kills and gives life..He raises the poor from the dirt, from filth he raises the impoverished.” This is true power, the only sense of power appropriate for “God’s king, and to raise the horn of his messiah.” (2:10)
This is a blog of short reflections on Tanach, following the 929 project’s daily study.