For many, the High Holiday season is highly stressful and deeply emotional. During my own fertility journey, this season brought up many feelings–pretty much everything from hope to despair. One moment in particular that always has an affect on me is the reading of the story of Hannah on Rosh Hashana. Early on in my journey, I found that story comforting; seeing another woman’s suffering in her struggle to conceive and having her prayers answered resonated with me and gave me hope. But, as the years passed and my prayers were not answered, hearing the story of Hannah no longer served as a comfort but rather began to cause me greater pain.
One year, as I was in synagogue and I knew the story of Hannah was approaching, I felt my heart start to race and my cheeks starts to flush. I knew the tears were about to fall. I was not looking to be “reminded” of my fertility struggle and did not want to hear about Hannah and her “happily-ever-after tale.” So I did what I felt like was the only appropriate choice – I bolted out of synagogue before I could even hear the first line of the story being read and went to cry and pull myself together in the bathroom. I could not allow those tears to fall in synagogue, in public, without the shelter of the bathroom stall door to protect me.
As I reflect on that experience now, I realize a deep irony: Hannah too struggled with the pain of infertility, and she too shed tears. “And Hannah was of bitter spirit, and she prayed to G-d and cried and cried.” (Samuel I 1:10) Hannah, however, did not leave the synagogue. She stayed, with the tears streaming down her face, and she prayed. Her decision to stay was not one that led her to a supportive community or a understanding rabbi. Rather she was assaulted with judgement–the same judgement that propelled me and my tears into the bathroom stall. Eli, the kohen gadol (high priest) was not accustomed to seeing someone pray in this way and therefore he concluded that she must be drunk. “Eli said to her, ‘How long will you be drunk? Put away your wine.” (Samuel I 1:14)
Hannah faced far harsher words than I’m sure I would have had I decided to stay and allow myself to cry in public. I never envisioned being accused of inebriation–it was curious stares and whispers that I was looking to avoid. However, this highly stressful high-holiday moment reminded me that we have much work to do in making our synagogues safe spaces for those struggling to grow their families. Whether someone decides to follow Hannah’s path and allow the tear to descend in public, or they choose my route and opt for a more private emotional expression, their decision should not rest on worry about how others will react.
Perhaps we read of Eli’s judgement and hurtful comment during this vulnerable time of the year so that we can ask ourselves how we can be LESS like Eli. How can we make our religious spaces safe for those whose hearts are broken, for those who need to cry or express frustration or anger, or for those who need to mourn though nobody knows they have experienced a loss? Are we able to hold a supportive space for them by standing near them without judgement and without questions or comments, or any words at all? Can we stand near them, with our hearts only filled with compassion, so that if one allows oneself to cry in public as the story of Hannah is being read–or Sarah is being granted a child at 90, or the shofar is bellowing, or the congregation is praying for new beginnings for the year–s/he may do so in the midst of a communal embrace?