By Cantor Hollis Schachner
Each year I sit on the bima on Rosh HaShanah as the Torah and Haftarah are read and I fixate on the painful dramas played out by Sarah, Hagar and Abraham, Chanah, Peninah, and Elkanah. Each year I return to the question: Why? Why these stories, why this theme, why do we have to revisit the pain and infighting, the bitter rivalries between the women, the befuddled husbands, the deus ex machina happy endings, why now, why!!?, on this day of apples and honey for sweetness and blessing for the new year?
One answer, according to Rabbi Yaakov Menken:
Why do we read this Torah portion on Rosh HaShanah? How does it add to our observance of the Day of Judgement, our consciousness of G-d’s Kingship, or our obligation to desist from sin and to return to Him and His ways? The Talmud [Rosh Hashanah 11a] says that G-d “remembered” both Sarah and Chanah on Rosh Hashanah, answering their prayers to have children. Therefore the Torah reading on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah concerns the birth of Yitzchak, while the Haftorah concerns Chanah’s prayer and the birth of her son, the prophet Shmuel. By reading these portions, we not only recall their greatness, but we inspire ourselves to pray as they did.
Ok. Prayer is powerful. That’s a good lesson, one I can buy into as a cantor, one whose purpose is to elevate the collective prayers of our people on our holiest days. But plenty of individuals pray, pray a lot, pray hard, waiting for the moment they will be “remembered” as Sarah and Chanah were. What of them, waiting, waiting, praying and waiting, to be remembered? What of the rest of us around them?
What of me?
Just before Rosh HaShanah in 2003 I learned that the pregnancy my husband Jeff and I had been eagerly awaiting was ectopic. Not only was it unviable, a painful loss in and of itself, but it was a rodef as Jeff put it, a “pursuer” that was after my health and could threaten my life. The protocol was a drug that would wipe the folic acid from my system and thereby dissolve the pregnancy over the next few weeks.
I sat on the bima that year listening to the stories of Sarah, Hagar and Abraham, Chanah, Peninah, and Elkanah while waiting, waiting, and strangely, fearfully hoping to miscarry successfully.
That same year Rabbi Andy Vogel, my dear friend and incredible clergy partner, spoke about the fertility challenges he and his wife had faced, unbeknownst to our congregation, on their way to welcoming their second beautiful girl into their family and into our community. He knew what was happening to me and gently warned me about his sermon, giving me the “out” if I needed to leave the bima. I stayed put and listened.
Rabbi Vogel taught us to “remember” each other. He reminded us that each individual person walks into shul with a prayer in their heart. We have no inkling of the nature of the prayer in the heart of the person sitting next to us. But we have an amazing amount of power to support that prayer or to eviscerate it.
I was so comforted by his candor, his bravery in speaking publically and vulnerably about his very personal, complicated journey. In speaking out he gave a voice to my own inner life. He made me feel safer with his honesty.
The day after Yom Kippur in 2003 I was rushed into emergency surgery for a perforating fallopian tube. The Holy Days had been a total blur, I’d been internally-focused, yet all warm smiles on the surface. In the months that followed I prayed like Chanah, I went to the mikveh, I let my body heal and tried to have hope. My doctors were optimistic, but even they were blown away when I found myself unexpectedly pregnant two months later. Jeff and I sat in my doctor’s office in cautiously excited shock and watched her scroll the little wheel.
The due date: Kol Nidrei.
On Rosh HaShanah 2004 I sat again on the bima, hugely pregnant and just ten days shy of my official due date. Few knew that I’d sat in that same seat facing them the year before with a belly full of loss and fear. Given how proprietous Jews are about children there was an atmosphere of extra celebration in the room—our Temple was about to have a baby! There was an OB-GYN stationed in the front row, I suppose someone on the ritual committee feared my water might break in the middle of Avinu Malkeinu. My son was born before Yom Kippur.
Almost eleven years, five additional pregnancies and one daughter later, I continue to think of the sermon Rabbi Vogel gave during my first of what would be many subsequent miscarriages.
I’ve thought of Rabbi Vogel’s words every time a congregant asked me point blank if I am expecting. Or spoke to me with their eyes trained on my midsection instead of my face. Or exclaimed gleefully, “It’s time to have another!!” Or told me how disappointed they will be if I am on maternity leave when it is their child’s turn to become Bar Mitzvah (I’ve tried to take that one as a compliment). I could write a book—or maybe do a stand-up comedy act—about the unthinking, culturally sanctioned unkindnesses that well-meaning people have eviscerated me with over the years. It has become a bit of an inside joke for our professional staff:
“Contrary to popular opinion, the cantor is not currently pregnant.” Fairly regularly I will share the most recent ridonkulous comment and my colleagues will laugh sympathetically and offer up a knowing “b’sha’ah tovah! (“may it come in a good hour” are the words traditionally said upon learning of someone’s pregnancy).
With dark humor I share my “stupid things people say” fertility-related horror stories. With laughter I try to teach others how to avoid being the (always anonymous) subject of one of those stories. But my laughter is like Sarah’s was when she learned she would finally carry a child—conflicted, disbelieving, a little bitter, a little amazed. I’m stunned again and again by those small eviscerations.
This year, we can try harder to “remember.” We can remember that each individual person walks into shul with a prayer in their heart. We have no inkling of the nature of the prayer in the heart of the person sitting next to us. But we have an amazing amount of power to support that prayer or to eviscerate it. Not just on our Holiest days, but every time we set foot in our synagogues, or run into an acquaintance at the grocery store, or share a meal in a friend’s home. We can strive not to be unintentional Peninahs, tormenting the Chanahs with our reflexive, unthinking words.
We can strive to remember each other.