The Haftorah of the first day of Rosh Hashanah is the story of Chana, then childless, later to be the mother of the prophet Samuel. How she prayed in the Tabernacle for a son, how she was misunderstood by Eli the Priest, and how so many laws about our prayer today are derived in the Talmud from the way she prayed.
A little more about Chana, which is especially relevant to this point. Her husband Elkana had two wives, herself and Peninah, who had children. Peninah would tease and needle Chana about her childlessness. Seems cruel and it must have felt horrible for Chana. But the Talmud says that Peninah meant well. She felt that Chana should pray to have children, but was complacent and accepting of her lot, until Peninah’s teasing got to be unbearable. So while this isn’t recommended behavior, there’s more to Peninah than meets the eye.
A BAAL SHEM TOV STORY:
Once the Baal Shem Tov traveled off somewhere with a group of his students. They arrived at a poor man’s home, who was quite delighted to have such illustrious guests. He offered them snacks and drinks, but the Baal Shem Tov asked if they could stay for dinner. Now, this man hardly had enough for his own family, but he made do and he and his wife creatively stretched the food to be able to feed everyone. Then the Baal Shem Tov asked if they could stay the night.
Come morning, and the Baal Shem Tov asked about breakfast. The students lowered their eyes in shame. How could their Rebbe, the saintly Baal Shem Tov, known for his special sensitivity and concern for his fellows, impose on this poor household this way! They saw how the husband and wife scrambled to put dinner together. How could they be asked to do breakfast as well? Surely he noticed the poverty in the home!
And it didn’t stop with breakfast. The Baal Shem Tov asked for lunch and then another dinner. The students were going out of their minds, but dare not say a word. The husband and wife borrowed ingredients from neighbors, they put this and that together, they managed but it was not easy at all.
Then the Baal Shem Tov and his students left. Once out of ear-shot of that home, they asked, how could we have imposed on such poor people? It does not seem at all to be the way of the Baal Shem Tov. What was behind all this? The Baal Shem Tov explained: I saw in heaven that this couple was destined for wealth, all they had to do was pray for it. But they were so happy with their lot, they felt no lack and no need, so the blessing was locked away, inaccessible. Our imposition caused them to pray for sustenance, to pray for resources.
Sure enough, not long after, this couple stumbled upon some riches and lived charitable lives henceforth.
UPPING OUR PRAYERS
Between the Peninah story and this Baal Shem Tov story, the message should be clear. Sometimes we need to up and increase or deepen our prayers. What we pray for, what we envision on our horizons, our hopes and dreams may sometimes be much smaller than our potential. Let’s think how we can ramp it up a bit, kick it up a notch, broaden our horizons, take it to the next level. We may be praying but not at the level and not for the types of things we could and should be.