Thursday, 11 September 2014

Channah: Getting Angry With G-d: Legitimate Responses To Pain

Channah: Getting Angry with G-d
Legitimate Responses to Pain

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the pain and the prayers of Channah (Hannah), the mother of Samuel the Prophet. It is a positive sign for us, since it describes Channah’s prayers being answered. Her story also gives us an insight into how to deal with the pain and anger that can result from living through a difficult situation.

The Rambam (Maimonides), in his great halachic work the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot De’ot 2:3) extols the benefits of the ‘golden mean’: every character trait is praiseworthy in moderation, but all extremes of behaviour should be avoided. About anger he abandons his praise of moderation:

“And there are some traits which are forbidden for a man to accustom himself to, even in moderation, but rather he must distance himself from even the slightest expression of them ... And thus anger (ka’as) is an exceedingly evil trait, and it is fitting for man to distance himself from it to the utmost extent, and to train himself to not get angry, even over a matter which is deserving of anger.”

The Talmud (Berachot 54a) gives us guidelines on how to respond to pain: 

“On good news one says: ‘Blessed is He Who is good and does good’. On bad news one says ‘Blessed be the True Judge’ must bless [G-d] for the bad as one blesses [Him] for the good, and for the good as one blesses [Him] for the bad.”

No matter what happens to us, we must respond to it by blessing G-d, since He is the Source of both our joy and our suffering.

Taking these sources together, what, according to Torah, is a legitimate response to pain? Must we only turn to G-d with acceptance and positivity, as the Talmud implies? Is it wrong to feel that we do not like what we are going through? May we express pain, bitterness, and negativity to G-d? What about anger: can we ever get angry? And can we ever get angry with G-d?

When the Haftorah opens, Channah is infertile. Her husband Elkanah has another wife, Peninah, who has many children and taunts Channah about her lack of offspring. Regularly each year, Elkanah and his family travel to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at Shiloh for the festival offerings. Each time, Channah watches her husband serve a portion to each of Peninah’s children, while she receives only her own portion, albeit a double one out of her husband’s love for her. On one of their visits, Channah pours her heart out to G-d, promising that if she were given a son, she would dedicate that son to His service. Her prayers are answered: she gives birth to a son, Samuel, who became a great prophet and leader of the Jewish People.

The book of Samuel gives us unusual detail about Channah’s response to infertility: she becomes angry at G-d. The word ka’as כעס - angry - is used about her four times in these ten verses. Two further words for anger occur here, which are unusual synonyms. Rarely does the Tanach describe people as angry for personal reasons. Fury is frequently attributed to G-d, and many prophets and other leaders express their ire on G-d’s behalf. Only a rare few become outraged for personal reasons; those who do generally come to very sticky ends. The text never dwells on their anger; it is usually mentioned and dismissed with only one or two ‘anger’ words. Channah is actually the winner of the ‘most angry Tanach character’ award: the next ‘runner-up’ is Moses, who became angry five times over the course of four books and forty years in the desert. It is clear that Channah does not just feel a passing wave of fury at her situation. We are told that every time they went to Shiloh, Channah become angry, year after year after year.

In verse six, it is written:

And her rival angered her greatly, because of the re’imah, because G-d had closed her womb
וְכִעֲסַתָּה צָרָתָהּ גַּם־כַּעַס בַּעֲבוּר הַרְּעִמָהּ כִּי־סָגַר ה' בְּעַד רַחְמָהּ:

The word re’imah is very unusual. The word ra’am רעם means thunder, and it is almost always used to mean precisely that. Here, however, the commentators all translate it as relating to anger. We can picture the image they had in mind; someone with a black cloud over her head, always scowling and clanging the pots and pans. Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (the Malbim), comments that she was doubly angry: her rival provoked her anger, and she was always angry from within:

That she was always ‘thundering’ and complaining, because G-d had closed her womb.
שהיתה מרעמת תמיד ומתלוננת על כי סגר ה' בעד רחמה

This is not just a women who found it painful three times a year when they went to Shiloh. She was not only angry when provoked by her co-wife. This sounds like a woman who was constantly suffused with anger.

Perhaps it is unfair to draw attention to Channah’s anger. After all, she was in a very difficult situation. She lived with the pain of infertility, month after month of disappointment, for years. Her co-wife rubbed salt into the wound both intentionally and unintentionally. Channah’s husband Elkanah, while evidently meaning well, trivialises her pain:

...Why is your heart broken? Am I not better to you than 10 sons? (Sam I, 1:8)
...וְלָמֶה יֵרַע לְבָבֵךְ הֲלוֹא אָנֹכִי טוֹב לָךְ מֵעֲשָׂרָה בָּנִים:

Channah’s pain, bitterness and suffering are made very clear.

However, we do not expect our biblical heroines to display such anger. Perhaps she should realise that G-d put her in this situation, and accept it as His Will; be grateful for what He has given her, channel her strengths into other areas. But Chanah does not do this. She does not follow the examples of our foremothers Sarah or Rachel, also infertile for many years, who turned to surrogate motherhood by asking their husbands to have a child with their handmaidens. But what she does do is pray.

At the height of her pain at Shiloh, after watching her co-wife accept portion after portion of the festival sacrifices to give to her many children, realising that her husband does not share her anguish, Channah quietly moves away to pray to G-d. She stands alone, praying silently with only her lips moving, focused on pouring her heart out to G-d. It is a powerful image, which our Sages took as the model when establishing formal prayer (Brachot 31a). Yet  according to the Midrash, even Channah’s prayers were not what we are used to.

The Midrashim pick up on the unusual language that Channah uses, and explain what lies behind her choice of words. One midrash describes Channah demanding a child from G-d:

“Creator of the Universe! There are creatures of the Upper world, and creatures of the Lower world. The creatures of the Upper world do not eat or drink or have children or die, but live forever. The creatures of the Lower world eat and drink and have children and die. I do not know which I am; if I am a creature of the Upper world, since I do not have children, then it must be that I also do not eat or drink or die, but will live forever. If I am a creature of the Lower world, who eats and drinks and dies, then I must also have children” (Midrash Pesikta Rabbati 43).

In effect, Channah is insisting that since G-d created her to be mortal, He is obligated to give her offspring. Another Midrash is even more surprising:

She said, “If You do not remember me [and give me a child], then I will seclude myself with another man, so that my husband will suspect me of adultery. He will bring me before the Priest to drink the Bitter Waters [for the Sotah ritual], but I will be found innocent of adultery. Then You will have to give me a son, as it says in Your Torah ‘And if she is not impure but is innocent, then she will have children’” (Ibid).

The Torah describes the procedure for a woman who is suspected, but not proven, to have committed adultery. Called the Sotah ritual, the suspected woman is brought before the Priest at the Mishkan (or Temple) and made to drink ‘bitter waters’. If she has committed adultery, she will die a nasty death. If the woman is innocent, she is promised a child (or increased fertility if she has children already). Channah threatens G-d; if He does not give her a child of His own free Will (as it were), then she will force Him to by making herself into a Sotah. Hardly the kind of prayer to which we are accustomed.

What is even more surprising about Channah’s prayers and her anger is that they worked. G-d did not punish her for showing a lack of faith in Him; on the contrary, He rewards her with a son, and a son who becomes a great leader as well! The commentators, who usually criticise biblical displays of personal anger, are entirely silent on the topic, not even raising the issue. According to mori v’rabbi Rabbi Ari Kahn, this lack of rabbinic response means they considered her anger to be so self-evidently valid that there was no need even to mention it. In the text itself, after Channah prays, we are told that Eli the High Priest confronted her and accused her of being drunk. She defended herself, saying “I’m not drunk; I’m angry”; to which Eli responded by giving her a blessing. Does anger towards G-d merit a blessing!?

So Channah’s anger is blessed by man, rewarded by G-d, and seen as self-evidently valid by the Rabbis. How can we reconcile this with the Talmud’s instructions to ‘bless the bad’, or with Maimonides’ clear injunction to avoid even a trace of anger? Can anger then be legitimate? Can it be a valid way to respond to pain?

To my mind, there was something special about Channah’s anger. Channah did not complain or wallow in bitterness. She took all her anger to G-d, and used it to power herself towards a positive outcome. The Malbim (Sam I 1:10-11) writes that there were four things which helped her prayers to be heard: G-d listens to the prayers of the broken-hearted; she prayed with total focus to G-d alone; her prayers were accompanied by tears, and the gates of tears are never sealed; she took upon herself a vow which would raise her up in her time of pain, as our sages recommend.

I think that these can be restated as four ways in which Channah’s anger was unique: It derived from her pain and despair, not from jealousy, selfishness, or some baser motive. Second, her emotions were directed solely and completely towards G-d. She did not get angry with her husband, or her co-wife, or her fertility doctor (as it were!); she recognised that only G-d can remedy her situation. Third, she used her anger as fuel to drive her prayers to Heaven. Finally, by making a vow, she took positive action to change her spiritual state. All of these transformed Channah’s anger into something worthy of Divine favour, something vastly different to the anger about which Maimonides writes. His warning concerns something that drives us away from G-d, but Channah used her anger to achieve the opposite result.

The Talmud quoted above is not really as harsh as it seems. It discusses the possibility of reciting an identical blessing over both our good and our bad experiences, but rejects this option. We say two different blessings, one for bad things and one for good things, because we are not expected to respond to them equally. What is required is that we articulate, through a blessing, our recognition that both the good and the bad come from G-d. Channah fulfilled this requirement by bringing all her pain to G-d. The Netziv writes that to respond equally to both the good and the bad is an extra-ordinary ideal, but not something expected of the average ‘man in the synagogue’. We do not have to pretend that we feel the bad is really something good.

The great kabbalist the Shlah Hakadosh tells us something very powerful. He writes that ‘blessing the bad’ means that one must serve G-d with all one’s heart, even when it is broken. This does not mean that we have to pretend that we are not broken-hearted at all. We may, and possibly should,  acknowledge the pain, anger and suffering we are feeling; but like Channah, we are obligated to serve G-d with those very emotions.

This, then, could be a deeper reason to read the story of Channah on Rosh Hashanah. If we are able to see the positive within our bad experiences, that is wonderful. But if, like Channah, we feel bitterness and rage at the situation we are experiencing, then we have her example before us: to bring our emotions to G-d and take positive action (however small that may be) to transform it into something that draws us closer to Him.

May we all merit to have our prayers heard and answered this year. 

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