Oh, Hannah… She has no son, no child, and her husband’s other wife constantly torments her. Every time Hannah goes to the temple to pray, her rival severely taunts her. You can just imagine the taunts: “Oh, Hannah, where is your God? God must not like you very much if God has not given you a child. Perhaps your God isn’t listening.” It reminds me of a comment once given to me when I was struggling with infertility: “Maybe God is trying to tell you something.” Really? What exactly? I could not believe my ears and this, in a church no less. And then there was the advice and comments from those who were newly pregnant. One friend gleefully said, “Why I just ‘opened myself’ to the Universe, thought positively, relaxed, and it happened.” Sigh. For those struggling with infertility, such comments reek of callousness and entitlement. Hannah’s rival has many sons and daughters to bring her joy and support; yet, she still feels the need to act superior to Hannah in this most painful way. Think of all the baby showers Hannah had to witness every single year for her husband’s wife and family. It’s enough to make anyone desperate.
For this reason, Hannah receives a double portion of compassion and sacrificial offering that her husband brings to her. And he, despite his compassion, thinks he will be “enough” for her. He asks her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
In a culture that defines one’s female status and prestige on the ability to bear children, being barren or infertile feels like a cruel commentary on one’s worth and value. It feels like a burden too heavy to bear. Hannah is not childless by choice. She is not childfree or childless because her husband has turned away from her. She likely surmises that the fault must lie within her, within the body that has betrayed her vision of herself and her ability to be a mother or to mother another. Hannah feels worthless given her lack of a son. Add to that the torment of her rival in the intimacy of family and it is no wonder that Hannah goes to the Temple to pour out her woe to God.
And then, to make matters worse, it is the priest who isolates Hannah even more. The priest overhears Hannah’s sobbing and—what?—he assumes she is drunk and has chosen to make a spectacle of herself. Those who are desperate for society’s affirmation are often regarded as a spectacle because their need makes all of us uncomfortable. Their mere presence, their questions, or their diminishment in a society that is supposedly the greatest of great force us to examine the ways in which we have been privileged, given a free pass, or blessed beyond measure. We want to think that we have earned our present status, yet we are reminded that we’ve had the luck of the draw and society’s approval all along.
Yet, something is theologically disconcerting about this passage and its resolution. The God described in this text sounds more like a Santa Claus figure than the God of the Universe. Hannah prays—really hard—and then she is given a son. That really isn’t the message in this story, though it would seem so. Aside from showing how Samuel was conceived, the story is about a God who takes note of the marginalized—in this case, a woman who is an outcast due to her infertility, an outcast in her own intimate setting, and a marginalized person whom the powerful religious authority misjudges and ridicules. Surely, God will notice the prayers of the oppressed; surely this bullying and ridicule will not be the end of the story for Hannah or us. And so, it isn’t.
And yet, because Hannah has her own healing to do, her story potentially opens up new emotional wounds for others. She makes an outlandish bargain with God, which –though understandable– rankles our sensibilities. She promises that her son will serve God, serve the very Temple establishment that has ridiculed her, and promises that he will drink no wine or intoxicant, and he will grow his hair long. In short, Hannah promises that her child, her son, shall be a Nazirite.
Now, in those days, a Nazirite vow was a voluntary, special vow taken by either a man or a woman to dedicate him or herself to God for a particular time period. As set forth in the book of Numbers, there are three primary requirements for the person who takes this vow:
- To not drink wine or eat any fruit from the vine (grapes or raisins). The Nazirite is to abstain from all forms of alcohol and any product of the vine during his or her vow.
- To not cut the hair of one’s head
- To not touch a dead person.
Because this vow was voluntary, Hannah’s bargain with God is problematic because she vows her son’s life, not her own. Yes, Samuel will go on to become a great prophet, his life being dedicated to God even before conception. And yes, it is a human thing to make “big bargains” with God; we do this quite frequently, thinking that we will somehow earn God’s favor this way. “Oh, God,” we say, “If you only help me to get out of this hot mess of circumstances, I will promise never to touch another drink, cigarette, lottery ticket, double-chocolate cheesecake, porn, or my credit card again.” But this really isn’t how God works; this is how our human nature behaves. We want the edges of our reality to melt away; we need a second or third or fourth chance, and we promise to make good on our promise, until—well, until we slip up again or we “forget” the blessings we already have or we decide the promise was too hard to keep anyway.
The problem with Hannah is that she has promised her son’s life as it intertwines with her own. And we must wonder about that. How does a parent enforce a vow on another human being, flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone? It would be one thing if Hannah promised God to live faithfully every day, or to serve the poor, or to befriend her rival’s children, or to tithe what little means she may have had. It is quite another to promise that one’s future child will live a particular way, in particular lifestyle which may not suit him or her, and for the duration of that child’s life. It is another thing to expect that child to keep a vow that you have made to God. In baptism, parents make vows on behalf of their children. But ultimately, it is the child’s choice whether and how that child will embrace the God that the parent loves or respects. Ultimately, it is the child who voluntarily chooses how and to what extent she or he will honor or privilege God and the church over and above all other things, places, or people.
Because we know, do we not, that our children are not ours to say and do with however we like. To guide and to teach, yes. But not to unduly determine the course of their interests and the structure of their lives; it is incumbent upon us not to dictate our bargains with God over their happiness, gifts and interests.
When I was a child, I once left a note under my parents’ pillow. I was in fourth grade and I did not want to take guitar lessons anymore. I could not tell my parents this without fear of hurting them. And so they did what good parents do—they asked me “why” and then they allowed me to withdraw. Occasionally, I regret not remaining in those lessons because of my appreciation for the instrument, but I am very grateful that my parents’ interests did not override my own choice and autonomy, even at such a tender age.
We see parents who live vicariously thru their children on the edge of the sports field, in the competiveness of academia, in the choices of college, vo-tech, or professional school, and in the expectations of family business or legacy. It is one thing to offer a child or young adult choices, and quite another to determine the child’s future without input from the child.
Yes, there are positives to living vicariously. We live vicariously through novels, through stories, through drama, through music, and through art. Living vicariously gives tremendous lessons in compassion, in trying out potential choices and outcomes, and in understanding life through the eyes of someone who may have very different circumstances and psychological or cultural makeup. As Madeleine L’Engle once wrote in Walking on Water, “We all want to be able to identify with the major characters in a book – to live, suffer, dream and grow through vicarious experience.”
Yet, something is lost and people can be harmed when we choose to live vicariously through our own progeny or through our close relations or even through the sensationalist lives of the rich and famous. Something is lost when we do not live the dreams – even in a small way—that God has given to us and, instead, thrust those dreams on someone else or live only though the experiences of others. As hard as it may be, the parent who responds with empathy and understanding to the child who elects a different path, using their God-given gifts in a different way than expected, is empowering their child to become distinct from the parent, and distinctly their own person. And as hard as it may be for a grown adult, learning to take up an instrument, a pen, or a paintbrush or leaving virtual reality to take up a cause or a class is to engage with one’s own potent possibility, rather than living vicariously through someone else. Even if you don’t become the best or the greatest, you’re still gratefully using the gifts and talents God has given you; you are still fulfilling your own aspirations and not imposing an unrequited passion onto someone else’s storyline.
Because she was grateful to God for her son, and because Hannah had made a bargain with God, Samuel did, indeed, become a great prophet. But I wonder at what cost to his soul?
Sisters and brothers, we are given one life in this world. Like Hannah, we may have to endure disappointment, hardship, personal and societal ridicule. Yet, we can choose to live gratefully in ways that fulfill our dreams without jeopardizing the growth and happiness of another. We can choose to live gratefully, not vicariously through the accomplishments and success of others. And wouldn’t God be pleased if we were to choose to voluntarily serve, play, inspire, lead, and create by being the fullest version of ourselves and not thrusting our unfulfilled selves and unrequited passions onto others?
There is a well-known and beloved story from our Jewish brethren concerning Reb Zusha. Reb Zusha was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his Rebbe, “Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine.”
Sisters and brothers, may you be grateful. May you be you and let others be them. Amen.