It is a puzzling story: Chanah, a prophetess, stands before the holy ark at the Tabernacle at Shiloh; her lips are moving, but her voice cannot be heard.

Eli the High Priest is watching her. He waits until she finishes her prayer and then challenges her: “How long will you be drunk? Put away your wine.”

Chanah responds humbly: “No, my master. I am a woman of aggravated spirit. I have not drunk wine;... I have poured out my soul before G‑d.”

Why was she praying? She was childless and she wanted a son. Her husband had told her: “Am I not better for you than ten sons?” Inside, she knew the answer was “No.” She wanted a son. Standing before G‑d in the holy sanctuary, that was the only thing on her mind.

When Eli heard her response, he changed his tone and replied: “Go in peace. The G‑d of Israel will grant your request.”

The story calls forth many questions: Why did Eli think that she was drunk? He knew her; she would come to Shiloh every year. Besides, she was well known among the Jewish people for her righteousness and saintly character. Moreover, even if he did not know her, Eli should not have jumped to hasty conclusions. This is especially true since he was the High Priest, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people.

And if he did think she was drunk, why did he wait until she finished her prayer? He should have had her removed from the Sanctuary immediately.

In resolution, it can be explained that he did not think that she was drunk in a simple sense. After all, he saw that she was praying sincerely. But what was she praying for? Her own needs. That in his mind was akin to drunkenness. Just like a drunkard is totally absorbed in his stupor and can’t accurately perceive the world, a person can be so absorbed in what he or she wants that they can think only of their personal desires.

That is what Eli meant when he told Chanah that she was drunk: that she had this one persistent thought: that she wanted a child. That was all that she could think about. She was praying to G‑d, but instead of focusing on what G‑d wants or on the spiritual needs of others, all she could think of was her own need and desire.

How did Chanah’s reply answer that objection?

Chanah was telling him that her desire for a child was not a result of a personal need or want. Rather, she had “poured out her soul before G‑d” and that was the source for her request.

On the verse, “Being both hungry and thirsty, their soul languished within,” the Baal Shem Tov comments that, at times, the source for a person’s hunger or thirst is his soul. He may think he wants the food or the drink because of his material needs, but in truth it is his spiritual mission that is prompting the particular desire. Within every material entity, there are sparks of G‑dliness. Every soul has specific sparks that it is destined to elevate and refine by using those material entities for G‑d’s purpose. That is the core of soul’s seeking material things.

Chanah told Eli: “I poured out my soul before G‑d.” I wasn’t asking anything for myself. My desire for a son comes from the core of my soul. It is not my desire; it’s what G‑d intended for me and I am asking for the opportunity to carry out my mission. When Eli heard this explanation, he could not help but bless her that her prayer be answered and her need fulfilled.

This story was chosen as the Haftorah for the first day of Rosh HaShanah. Rosh HaShanah is the Day of Judgment. On this day, we all pour out our hearts in prayer, asking G‑d for a good and sweet year. It is quite possible that many of us will be concerned with our own wants, personal desires or needs, forgetting the larger picture — that the world as a whole is being judged and we are but a small speck in this immense picture. Nevertheless, if we are truly sincere, if our wants and desires come from the core of our souls, then G‑d will certainly respond, granting us our requests, providing us all with a year replete with His blessings.

Looking to the Horizon

When describing the shape of the shofar sounded on Rosh HaShanah, our Sages state: “The straighter, the better.” The call of the shofar expresses an outcry that emanates from the depths of our being and touches the very depths of G‑d. This short expression of our Sages gives us insight on how to fulfill that service, for pashit, the term used for “straight,” relates to the terms pashut, meaning “simple,” and lifshot, meaning “to remove one’s garments.”

Within each one of us, there exists a soul that is simple. Like G‑d Himself Who is the integral, uncompounded Truth of all Being, so too, there is an element of ourselves that belies definition, wholly undefined and incalculable, an actual spark of Him. The simple, non-musical call of the shofar reminds us to search deep within our hearts and summon up this G‑dly potential.

Every sounding of the shofar is a microcosm of the Ultimate Future when G‑d will “sound the great shofar for our freedom.” It is not only that then as now a shofar will be sounded. Rather, just like the shofar’s call sets the tone for the spiritual service of Rosh HaShanah, the sounding of the great shofar will sensitize us to the message of Redemption.

That shofar blast will introduce an entirely new approach to life experience. At present, there is a somewhat of a dichotomy between the essential call of the shofar and our ordinary life experience. On the level of the shofar, all other experience is peeled away, losing significance. But when one is involved in one’s ordinary experience, it is very hard to hear the shofar’s call.

In the era of the redemption, all this will change. We will be able to appreciate how all existence is an expression of His true being and the simple call of the shofar and the awareness of G‑dliness it generates will resonate through all experience.