The Song of Hannah
THE BOOK OF HANNAH
What hurt before, no longer hurts. The grief of years gone by no longer clings to me. The pain I have inflicted and the pain inflicted on me then, the horrors of the wars, all these are long gone, overtaken by a new grief. Yet the memories are still as clear as the water that flows down the river Jordan, as strong as the blazing sun was on that day, in the month of the Festival of the Wheat Harvest, the day that determined my life.
I had slipped out of my house stealthily to walk in the vineyard behind it, to be alone, balanced on the edge of the nagging doubts in my heart. What lay within my reach was beyond any maiden's dreams, yet my hand would not stretch out to grasp it. As if it were weighed down with lead, I was unable to lift it up to take the man who was both rich and handsome and wanted me for his wife, as my father and mother ardently wished me to do.
Another father might have given his daughter, even against her will, to the man who had his seal of approval. My father, and my mother as well, were of noble spirit and would not force me into what I might find unbearable. But they bestowed their blessing on my suitor, Hanoch, and his offer. And the gentle words they uttered day after day, with the aim of convincing me to do the same, bore down on my soul as the massive stones in an oil press squeeze the olives, to extract oil from them.
I was determined that no one, not even my parents, would compel me to do something against my will. Yet I could not deny their claim that the decision could no longer be postponed, and this was the day on which I would make it.
The day before, Hannoch had paraded his riches before our eyes, tempting us, and I had not been impervious to their allure. He had brought us to inspect his house, a mansion of unequaled size and elegance. It was the only house in the entire hill country of Efraim that was built with stories, an imposing stairway leading straight from the front yard to the second floor. In my mind's eye I caught a glimpse of myself as the mistress of this house, glowing like a star in the night sky in a bright tunic that shimmered in silvery splendor, standing at the head of the stairway, issuing instructions to a host of maids who would rush back and forth in haste to carry out my orders. And I knew myself to have the regal bearing necessary for this exalted position.
The apparition beckoned seductively and I was sorely tempted. But I banished it with the speed at which lightning tears the sky, for it held no merit and was unworthy of me. I resolved that if I became Hanoch's wife it would be not because he was rich, nor yet because he was tall and handsome and refined. Not even because he had stormed into my life like a whirlwind, as I had long dreamt that my husband would.
As I was treading the path through the vineyard, I vowed that my only consideration would be whether he was the man ordained for me, the one with whom I would be able to fulfill the secret mission of my life. If I wavered, it was because I had no certainty of whether he was that man...
Suddenly we heard the noise of hooves pounding the ground. A whirl of dust arose and a dark horse racing at great speed came into view... The crowd fell back in awe before the horse and its rider, a young man who reined it in forcefully until it reared and neighed. As I craned my neck to look up at him, he dismounted from the saddle with flair and tossed its reins to two youngsters who came forward to receive them.
The crowd had now parted to clear a path for the man who had alit from the horse to approach the stall he evidently owned; and when the vendors caught sight of their master they bowed so low that their noses almost touched their knees. The young man disregarded them, and came forward to stand before us, his eyes riveted to mine.
"I am Hanoch the son of Uziel," he proclaimed, "and you must surely be the most beautiful girl who has ever made a purchase at one of my stalls. What is your name?"
I met his gaze, and although he had disregarded my friend, I told him both our names...
Hanoch led us to the side of the square and asked where we had come from. When he learned that we were from Shaar Efraim he instructed the boys in charge of our donkeys to bring them out, and one from his own stable as well, as he wished to accompany us.
In the ensuing silence I had an opportunity to observe him. He was undoubtedly the most handsome man on whom I had ever set eyes. He had straight hair, as dark as his horse's mane, and large black eyes and finely sculptured features. His well-crafted linen garment and head covering were of the lightest shade of gray. His shirt had a fringe laced by a blue thread at its corner, as prescribed by Torah law. But unlike all other fringes I had ever seen, its tassels were laced with silver threads that shone in the sun, and there was an enormous golden seal hanging as a pendant around his neck. He uttered his words in a slightly nasal voice that oddly pleased my ears.
I remembered him proudly riding his horse a little while ago, and he conjured up in my mind an image of a prince from a distant land. I was deeply impressed with his looks and his noble demeanor, and when the donkeys were brought around I said, "We will be glad of your escort."...
...a kinswoman of mine had previously made a strenuous effort to catch this enormous fish in her net for me. But he had firmly declined her services, saying that he preferred to find his bride by his own efforts.
This memory brought a smile to my face. When Hanoch asked what made me smile, I gave him an account of what had happened.
He laughed. "I have tried to eschew my destiny, but it has nonetheless caught up with me and brought us together."
His words struck a chord in my heart, and I thought that perhaps destiny had caught up with both of us.
Several weeks had passed since our first meeting, and during that time Hanoch, in his eagerness for me, had pledged himself to deliver into my father's hands a bride price so enormous that it would enable our family to live in prosperity all the days of their lives. As my father was not a rich man, the offer was tempting and he and my mother were keen to accept it.
I had to admit that, as they claimed, he was indeed as different from all the other young men who wanted me as gold was different from copper, precisely as I had hoped that the man in my life would be. Even so, I did not have the certainty about him that I had expected to have...
In the solitude of my walk amongst the vines, I finally made my decision: I resolved to consult Pninah. She had always relied on my advice, and I had given her the best I could muster. Now our lives had taken a different turn, and the time had come for me to seek help from her.
My decision to seek Pninah's advice was the most important one I would ever make. It was to lead me inexorably towards what fate had in store for me, which neither she nor I would be able to change.
THE BOOK OF PNINAH
It was a blazing summer day and I was tending our flock on the hill under the scorching sun, when I saw a figure running towards me. At first the sunlight blinded my eyes. When I shaded them with my hands, I saw that it was my younger sister, Hagith, and I was deeply disappointed.
By that time I had been a shepherdess for a year, and in the valley of the shadow of death for a week, and it was someone very different I had been hoping to see. That someone was the man who had cast me into that valley. And when he'd found out, he had asked: "Can you not do anything about it?" Followed by: "I need some time to think it over." And finally: "Don't be in a worry."
Bitterly, I thought that this was like throwing a stone down a hill, then advising it not to fall.
As a shepherdess, I had had much leisure to gaze in to the distance and spin dreams threaded with the gold of sunshine. The flawless lover, whose image I had conjured up in my restless mind, would not have required time to think it over; but my real lover did.
And time--five interminable days--had passed but he had not returned. Had he now sent my sister to me with a message? I could not believe it. If he had something to tell me, he would do it himself. So apparently he had not thought it over, or else his thoughts had led him to abandon me in the pit in which he had placed me.
I had never heard of a disaster like this befalling any girl in our tribe. So I was in the throes of fear, yet I could not yet name it.
For I could not imagine what my parents would do when they found out.
Would they give me up to the elders, to die by stoning as set out in the Torah?
Or even worse, would they submit me to the death of shame by keeping me at home to face my sin? Would they expose me to scorn, to be shunned by all, an outcast in the midst of my own tribe?
Whichever decision they made would still leave me to my fate, from which only my lover, and he alone, could rescue me...
It had begun one day in the third month of the year. The heat was oppressive as I herded my flock towards the spring. This was one that would soon dry out, but at that time the water in it was still flowing. For the rains had been plentiful that year and had continued to pour down even into the beginning of the summer, the time of the wheat harvest. A small pool of water had formed in front of the spring and the sheep and goats and lambs crowded around it to drink.
The hills were used for pastures, and this hill was set aside for our flock alone. So I slipped off my dress and my shoes and hung them on a bush beside me, making my way amongst the sheep's soft woolly bodies and plunging into the shallow water. I delighted in its coolness and drank from it out of my cupped hands.
When I came out, I was startled to see a strange man staring down at me.
He was tall, his head covered by profuse, bushy dark hair that protruded from his cap on all sides. He wore a light-brown garment with a fringe, laced by a blue thread at its corners. It was sleeveless and reached no further down than his knees, revealing his muscular body. He was holding a lamb under his arm and regarding me boldly, impudently.
I was hot with shame. I snatched up my dress and covered myself with it, clamping it to my body as if he were about to wrest it from me.
"I liked what I saw before much better," he said brightly, and I liked the sound of his laugh ing voice.
"Who are you?" I gasped.
"I am Elkanah, the son of Yeroham, your new neighbor. You must be one of the daughters of Elad, the son of Amihud, and Bathel. My father told me about you."
"Yes, I am the elder daughter, Pninah... Turn around so I can put on my dress."
"May I put it on for you?" he offered, preparing to set his lamb down on the ground.
"No, just turn."
He showed me his back, and I drew my gray dress overhead, noting with even greater embarrassment that it was plain, ill fitting and faded, and that my hair fell over my shoulders in damp disorder.
" Now ... let's sit down in the shade of that tree."
...With water still dripping from my body, I walked with Elkanah towards the tree... I sat with my legs crossed in front of me, only partly covered by my damp dress, which was too short, exposing my bare legs to Elkanah's view ...
...before I anticipated his intent, he came close to me. For the first time, I inhaled the intoxicating smell of a man. My face almost touched his hairy chest, but he lifted it with his hand. He bent over me and his lips were hovering over mine, just barely touching them. An instant later, his hand and mouth were gone and he had left.
No man had kissed me before and I did not know whether this was to be deemed a kiss , or not. Yet that night as I lay on my bed I felt a strange burning within me such as I had never felt before, nor suspected that I could... Thus I tossed and turned and rolled over for a long time, my sheet crumpled into a bulky heap underneath me, before I finally fell asleep.
In the morning , in the hope that Elkanah would visit me again, I arrayed myself in my best blue dress... When I saw Elkanah stride over from the other hill, the flames were mingled with mortification. A man I had never seen before had barely touched my lips and I was trembling with desire to be close to him ...
Like yesterday, his kiss came suddenly. This time his lips enfolded mine, his teeth biting, until I felt my lips bleeding, as, clawing my shoulders, he gasped:
"Pninah, watching you naked yesterday has caused me to be crazed with desire for you. You must let me still it , or I'll go out of my mind."
My feelings were jumbled. I was reluctant yet eager, recoiling but lured, determined to push him away, as I reached out to him, overcome both by his desire and mine. Fear wrestling with passion, fear vanquished.
Thus I succumbed to him, to my fate...
During the two weeks that followed, we met every day except the Sabbath; our flocks were sadly neglected. Lust, love and fulfillment entwined together until we could no longer tell them apart. There was perfect harmony in the rhythms of our bodies, as they poured their love into each other.
Then the Sabbath came, and the first day of the week, and Elkanah did not come. ..
Each night I pin ed for him, aching for his touch, and telling myself that the next day he would come. But when the next day came, he did not. There was no sign of him. Nothing.
One night, as I lay on my bed, I felt a strange sensation in my breasts. They were hard and swollen, and ached at my touch and I was frightened ... Each month, my flow came at the first light of the new moon, when it was still a sliver in the sky. Now the moon was almost full. Yet the rags that I had laid nearby to absorb my blood were still untouched, piled up in the wooden case, staring at me accusingly for failing to use them...
Then I knew that I was truly in the valley of the shadow of death, and into my heart came the words of a psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd...
even though I walk
in the valley of the shadow of death
I fear no evil for you are with me...
Having recited the words, I was overcome with a feeling of comfort, as if in some strange way I had come close to God.
My fears momentarily laid to rest, I went back to my bed and slept. And in the morning, I strode over to the next hill to seek out Elkanah, as I had not dared to do before.