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Chana and Penina

Chana and Penina

A Lesson In Sensitivity


Chana and Penina were both wives of the same man, a holy and righteous man named Elkanah. Penina had many children and Chana had none. When it was time to bring a sacrifice in the Sanctuary, the whole family would journey to the Sanctuary in Shilo.

My sister-in-law and I both became pregnant at the same time. She was pregnant with her first, and I was pregnant again after a devastating loss, pregnant with what I hoped would be our third child. We were not close, but we were connected by the bonds of the family we shared.

Chana was heartbroken At that time, Penina would ask Chana "Where are your children?" And Chana would be heartbroken. She would cry and not eat her portion of the sacrificial offerings. When Elkanah saw that Chana was crying, he would comfort her, saying, "Why do you cry and why do you not eat? Why are you heartbroken? Am I not as dear to you as ten children?"

Again, my baby died mid-term, and I went from pregnancy to surgery, to have the now-dead contents of my uterus removed. My husband tried to comfort me. "Look at our beautiful family. We have two lovely children. Isn't that enough?"

Yet, despite the special connection she shared with her husband, Chana was not comforted.

She went to the Sanctuary courtyard, and silently poured out her heart to G‑d.

The day that would have been my due date was especially heartbreaking. I don't think it is possible to process the full impact of a mid-pregnancy loss until one's due date. Until then, I was just relieved not to be feeling so sick anymore. I was relieved to no longer require daily injections. I was relieved to no longer worry about the constant threat of miscarriage.

Yet, when my due date arrived, the realization hit me that there would be no baby. My milk came in nonetheless, despite the months that had passed since the loss. My heartbreak came at a time of great celebration for the family. Our due dates were close. My sister-in-law had delivered a baby girl, and suddenly every conversation revolved around her new daughter, the new grandchild and newest addition to the family.

Eli, the high priest, observed Chana's prayer. He mistook Chana's silent sorrow for drunkenness, and he rebuked her.

I was happy for her and yet, every mention of the baby tore into me, bringing fresh waves of grief until I felt like I was drowning.

The realization hit me My grief was fresh. It was raw. It was part of me. It was also all that remained of the soul that had entwined with mine for several months, not long enough to have been born, but certainly long enough to be mourned. I explained to the family that although I was happy for my sister-in-law, my grief was too fresh and I could not participate in the family celebrations.

Yet I was told that my loss was months ago, and I should not make such a big deal about the miscarriage

Chana answered him "No, my Lord, I am a woman of aggrieved spirit. I have drunk no wine. I have poured out my soul before my Creator."

I consulted with a rabbi whose opinion I valued. I confessed my heartbreak and the "indulgent nature" that my grief was viewed as by the larger family. "What shall I do?" I beseeched him.

"You have a right to mourn," he told me. "Right now, you and your sister-in-law are like Chana and Penina. It is too close to your own loss to expect you to be able to rejoice with her now."

Eli answered "Go to Peace. The G‑d of Israel will grant the request you made of Him." Chana was comforted, and she returned to her family.

While my husband and children attended yet another round of family celebrations I could no longer face, I remained behind, alone in my hotel room. I sought refuge in my prayer book.

"Oh G‑d" I prayed. "It was Your will that women become mothers. It was Your Will that Jewish families be large and vibrant, continually growing from one generation to the next. How then am I to understand why some women, like Chana, are denied the ability to have children at all, while others, like myself, are prevented from being able to continue to bring life? How do I understand why some souls enter the womb, but not the world? How do I face these trials without becoming bitter or feeling abandoned by You?"

My tears stained the pages of my prayer book. Like Chana before me, I poured out my soul to G‑d.

Yet I hesitated to pray for another child. Doctors had helped me twice to become pregnant, yet they could not sustain those lives that had taken root. I prayed instead that G‑d direct me, and show me what to strive for.

I sat alone with G‑d and my grief Across town, my husband sat with his family, while I sat alone with G‑d and my grief. I could not part with my grief, and I was not permitted to make my grief a part of the family's story.

We read the story of Chana and Penina on Rosh Hashanah, when we pray for a good, sweet year. We pray for abundant blessings. Yet I believe there is a lesson in their story, cautioning us that with blessings come responsibility. We are not meant to flaunt them, and inadvertently cause heartbreak and pain to others.

This message is beautifully demonstrated in the actions of a simple woman I once knew. She worked as a secretary in a school where there was a teacher on staff who had been married many years, but had no children. This secretary chose not to display any pictures of her children at work. "I can see my children at home whenever I want," she once explained to me. "Why should I display their pictures at work knowing that it might bring grief to someone else?" Her quiet self-restraint demonstrated how deeply she had internalized the story of Chana and Penina.

Is it possible to truly never cause pain to someone else, especially to those we are close to, like members of our own families? Perhaps not. Yet if we recognize that sometimes our bounty can bring pain to another, we can strive for a higher way of living – for the ability to have and yet not hurt other people with what we have. Surely, like that secretary, we must try to make room for the hidden pain of others.

Robyn Cuspin is a therapist living in Israel.
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ruth housman marshfield hills, ma September 30, 2011

Chana and Penina I read this most sensitive, heart rending story with its beautiful ending, right after reading, above, a tribute to a child who died within less than a day, a contribution to Chabad, with the words, I will, one day, go to G_d and my child, though my child cannot come to me. It seemed so "right" to read this piece after seeing this, and so "pregnant" with love and that heart break.

I must believe we are all of us put through some terrible hardships, that do tear at us, at the very fabric of meaning, causing us great sorrow, and then, as happened here, an opening of the heart, towards others, and towards the meaning of suffering itself.

Perhaps G_d suffers with us, knowing, the supernal story will have, ultimately, a "happy ending" and that resolution comes later and also forgiveness. THIS: a time of forgiveness and repentance. Can we also forgive G_d for the sake of our stories, knowing we were never forsaken? If not now, I think it is coming.

Of Human Bondage: LOVE. The "AV" within. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem September 28, 2011

Still greiving I experienced my first misscarriage at 16 weeks almost eight months ago. Greiving has been a whole new experience for me. Its been very frightening and has left a big impact on me with anxiety and unfortunately depression. But also I have to say that my experience has led me to reach out to Hashem in ways like never before. Praying that my depression will lift very soon and that I will be emotionaly stable to try again in the future. Thank you for your article. Reply

seena bala cynwyd, PA/usa September 27, 2011

chana and penina Brilliant & Beautiful. I related to all the women, even though I was the miscarrying, motherless childless character for years. By the grace of G-d, that changed. Blessings for a sweet year FULL of responsibility!! Reply

Yehudit Cleveland, OH March 2, 2011

I am sure that your story will be comforting to many, and give many others insight. Thank you for sharing it. May you continue to use the knowledge gained from facing your challenges to benefit others as well as yourself, and may G-d bless you with much revealed good. Reply

Elisheva Cohen Ft. Collins, CO September 6, 2010

We are never alone I feel Hashem is involved with each of us no matter how painful our current situation is. The pain we feel is to help us do teshuva and get closer to Hashem. We are living in very diificult times. Increased assimilation and divorce makes our families very fragile today. One of my step-daughters is planning to marry a gentile and my adopted daughter has decided to reject me to search out her natural mother. I feel no one could possibly understand what pain I have been through. Hashem must have a plan. Reply

Leah Rosenstein Detroit, MI September 6, 2010

Being sensitive I lost a baby, born prematurely, and at the same time was told that I could not safely have another child. Thank G-d, I had been blessed with other children, including a twin of the baby who passed away, but it was awhile before I could face certain activities and not everyone was understanding. I "told off" an individual who did not realize that he was being insensitive.
When we are blessed with something that others are not, we have to be sensitive to cues that the other person is not ready to join in the celebration. My single cousin cries at weddings and it would be fine for her to just come in and say mazel tov and leave, if she cannot enjoy the simcha.
I believe that what Robin is saying is not that the sister-in-law should have avoided celebrating but that the family should have been sensitive about her attendance.
Those who are in pain may need to find a way to remind others about respecting their feelings. Reply

Miriam Adahan Jerusalem September 6, 2010

GRIEF Thank you for your honesty. We have no control over our grief. For as long as it chooses to be with us, it will be. At the same time, we can choose to increase our faith. Two tracks.... Reply

Hinda Bayla August 30, 2010

blessings As a single woman, never married, without children, I understand your grief and am sorry your familly cannot be forthcoming with love and support that you so need. I know first hand what it is like to feel alone in my pains, as it seems to be so hard for many people to understand and empathize. Pain and suffering are frightening and uncomfortableand definitely not fun.
I hope I am different because of my suffering and the efforts I have made to heal my own difficulties. And that others will benefit from my expriences, as I comfort and support them, with G-d's help.
Your writing is also certain to comfort others; I do not believe we are meant to be alone, to feel alone with these challenges. Kol Tov.

P. J. Southam Hannibal, MO September 18, 2009

Chana and Penina This is one of the most helpful and beautifully written pieces on a difficult subject I have ever read. Thank you. Reply

seena bala cynwyd, pa September 17, 2009

chanah & penina I lost 4 pregnancies...3 before my son and one after. the loss the pain, the questioning, the impact on faith and purpose.......all of these were immeasurable. May you be blessed with sweetness and good life. Reply

Elisheva Cohen Ft. Collins, CO September 16, 2009

Pain and suffering It is hard to be as sensitive as the secretary in your story. For me the pain of infertility resulted in no births ever. Hashem heard my prayers and I adopted one child. My second husband has 4 children who rejected him when he and his wife divorced...before I met him. After 29 years he has united with 3 of the children and 4 grandchildren. Pain comes in many packages. We need not suffer and feel alone. I still feel pain when I see pregnant women and feel Hashem choose for me to be barren. I never nursed a child; although I was mother to a child from the day she was one day old, I had her converted and she has 2 beautiful children. I feel that in spite of our pain we need to learn to be satisfied with our lives and Thank Hashem for all we receive. Reply

Sarah Z Israel September 14, 2009

brilliant A beautiful and honest piece. Thank you so much for sharing such depth and vulnerablity for us to learn from - may you be blessed with all revealed good. Reply

Rena E. Stroudsburg, Pa./USA September 14, 2009

A Lesson in Sensitivity Your story touched my heart and I cried. 19 years ago ,I was pregnant and miscarried a son. I already had 2 daughters. I was surprised at the comments "well-meaning" people made to me not understanding the depths of my loss. It hurt me deeply the way I was criticized that all I could give birth to were daughters,no sons. Both my husband and I were found lacking by some family members. 3 years later, I gave birth to our daughter, Chana Gavrielle who will be 16 on Rosh Hashanah. A few months ago someone who would come often by my office, commented on the pictures of my grandchildren and about her daughter's third miscarriage.
It hit me that each time this woman saw the pictures of my grandchildren how sad she looked. So I removed the pictures. She noticed and asked how come and I told her I had seen her pain. She thanked me and we cried together and I told her about my loss so many years ago. In that moment we bonded as women,as sisters,no longer strangers.
Thank you, Robyn . Reply

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