The Paradigm of the Barren Woman: How God ‘Remembers’ on Rosh Hashanah
Remembering the Barrenness of Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah
According to the Talmud,
בראש השנה נפקדה שרה רחל וחנה.
On Rosh Hashanah, Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were remembered.
Their stories are punctuated by an act of divine intervention: God “remembers [ז-כ-ר]” or “takes note [פ-ק-ד]” of them. Rabbi Eliezer connects the mysterious name of the day, called “a memorial of trumpet blasts [זכרון תרועה; zikhron teruah]” (Lev. 23:24), to God’s “remembering” these women (Sarah in Gen. 21:1, Rachel in Gen. 30:22, and Hannah in 1 Sam. 1:19 and 2:21).
None of these women are mentioned in the nine acts (i.e., verses) of “remembering” [zikhronot] in what has become the standard liturgy of the Musaf prayer, but their stories are at the center of the Torah and haftarah readings, where God’s act of remembering is imbedded in a set of complex narratives (Sarah in Genesis 21, Hannah in 1 Samuel 1, and, indirectly, Rachel in Jeremiah 31).
Divine vs. Human Memory
The acts of divine healing for these biblical women set up a paradigm for the mode of God’s memory. For humans, memory is an act of re-collection, assembling past events in our mind as a reconstructed narrative. It works associatively rather than linearly. Just as the Shofar’s horn might curve, its wail rising from low to high pitch, so memory is curved. Remembering is a means of re-constructing ourselves as we stand in the present.
It is difficult, however, to speak of the memory of God, who is omniscient. Human memory entails forgetting, but for God, as the coda (מעין החתימה) to the zikhronot states: “There is no forgetting before Your throne of Glory, nothing is hidden from Your sight [אין שכחה לפני כסא כבודך ואין נסתר מנגד עינך].”
The biblical stories, I suggest, are not about God’s re-collection of past events or his remembering something he had forgotten. Rather, it’s about punctuated moments in history when the divine presence intervenes to create significant change. I suggest that each of these women’s stories conforms to a common paradigm, in Robert Alter’s terms “a type scene,” where barrenness and conception becomes the fertile ground for the working of divine providence.
It is this model of God’s act of “remembering” that serves as inspiration for our bared and barren souls on Rosh Hashanah.
The Paradigm of the Barren Woman in Tanakh
The Hebrew Bible contains six stories of barren women:
- Sarah (Gen. 18:9-15),
- Rebekah (Gen. 25:19-26),
- Rachel (Gen. 30:1-8, 22-24),
- The unnamed wife of Manoah and mother of Samson (Judges 13:1-24),
- Hannah, wife of Elkanah and mother of Samuel the prophet (I Sam. 1:1-28),
- The Shunnamite woman, an acolyte of the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 4:8-17).
All these women suffer a prolonged period of infertility, sometimes exacerbated by the presence of a less-beloved though more fertile co-wife. The woman’s barrenness is only relieved by miraculous intervention.
The Price of Divine Remembrance
Alter suggests that all these episodes include variations on an “annunciation scene” in which a prophet, divine messenger, or even God appears to the woman with the promise of conception. The son born of this divine intercession is then heroically given over to the service of God (Samson and Samuel are both consecrated as Nazirites even before conception).
Sometimes this entails a brush with mortal danger (Jacob and Joseph), or even death and resurrection (the Shunammite’s son). As Susan Ackerman avers, “God who opens the womb has the right to demand, in some fashion, the life that comes from it.” This is poignantly illustrated on Rosh Hashanah, when we read the fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah on the first day and the near sacrifice of that promised son, Isaac, on the next.
“And the LORD Took Note of Sarah…”
What does this paradigm tell us of the workings of God’s memory? The opening verse of the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah resounds (Gen. 21:1):
וַה' פָּקַד אֶת שָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמָר וַיַּעַשׂ ה' לְשָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר.
And the LORD took note [paqad] of Sarah as He had promised, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken.
The term paqad, translated variously as to “take note,” “call to mind,” “remember,” or “visit,” is synonymous with the verb zakhar. Both are used in reference to conception:
וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת רָחֵל וַיִּשְׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ אֱלֹהִים וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ.
And God remembered Rachel; God heard her and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22).
וַיֵּדַע אֶלְקָנָה אֶת חַנָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ וַיִּזְכְּרֶהָ ה'.
Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her (1 Sam. 1:19).
כִּי פָקַד ה' אֶת חַנָּה וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שְׁלֹשָׁה בָנִים וּשְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת...
For the LORD took note of Hannah and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters… (1 Sam. 2:21).
This intimate act of creating a child after years of barrenness speaks more movingly of God’s remembering than the great punctuations in biblical history mentioned in the zikhronot. According to the aggadah (b. Rosh Hashanah 11a), their decades of barrenness came to an end on the day the world was born or, more precisely “was conceived” or “became pregnant,” as we say: “ha-yom harat ‘olam.” So the conception of the promised son is comparable to the creation of the world, eternity condensed into a kernel of time.
In all these three examples of healed barrenness, what happens is the natural conception of a child, but from the divine eye, it is the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise that God always intended to keep. Metaphorically, it may be likened to the focus of dispersed light into a beam, like a laser, the focal point being the mother through whom the bearer of the covenant, in the case of Sarah, is born, as it says “through Isaac the promise of seed will be fulfilled” (Gen. 21:12).
God’s act of remembering, then, is like an arrow, which gathers momentum from the past and directs the promise towards some point in the future. But time, for God, does not travel along a linear line, as we humans feel time’s arrow. Rather, God enters time and opens up portals to eternity for us in the fulfillment of the promised future. One such portal is Rosh Hashanah. As we stand in the presence of God, hearing the wail of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we (like the promised son) become the focal point of that beam of light within the divine eye—in judgment and in hope.
God Remembers Rachel in Jeremiah
The conception of the barren matriarchs symbolically represents our return and God’s forgiveness most poignantly in the haftarah of the second day. According to Jeremiah, Rachel cries out from her grave as the Israelites are driven into exile. In her lifetime, she never settled in the promised land of Canaan, never mothered her children to adulthood, dying prematurely in childbirth by the roadside (Genesis 35:19-20).
From that burial place on the border between the land of Israel and exile, according to Jeremiah, God hears “lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children; for she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:14). And God answers her cries:
כֹּה אָמַר ה' מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם ה' וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב. וְיֵשׁ תִּקְוָה לְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ נְאֻם ה' וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָם.
Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the LORD: your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer. 31:16-17).
The people, Israel (the Northern tribes) are called Ephraim (Joseph’s son; Rachel’s grandson), the “dandled son,” later in this passage. God reassures the matriarch (Jer. 31:20):
זָכֹר אֶזְכְּרֶנּוּ עוֹד עַל כֵּן הָמוּ מֵעַי לוֹ רַחֵם אֲרַחֲמֶנּוּ נְאֻם יְ-הוָה.
I do remember him still therefore my womb murmurs within me. I will surely have compassion on him, says the LORD.
Memory here is preserved in the murmuring womb, once barren, and then filled with child; that very womb now yearns for the lost child—the banished Ephraim (representative of the ten lost Northern tribes of Israel). God’s remembering, zakhor ’ezkarenu ‘od (emphatically expressed by the tautological infinitive), is aroused through identification with the matriarch, and resonates through the doubled, “raḥem ’araḥmenu” (from the verb, root: ר-ח-מ), suggestive of the Hebrew term for womb, reḥem. Just as God remembers the barren woman (ז-כ-ר and פ-ק-ד), so God’s is stirred through compassion for the lost child, Israel/Ephraim, and promises to bring the people back from exile.
God’s Maternal Compassion on Rosh Hashanah
Following the sounding of each series of shofar blasts we break out in song, recalling that this is the day of the world’s creation (ha-yom harat ‘olam), and that we stand before the Almighty, pleading for mercy – either as his servants or as his children. If, as children, we stand before God, we plead that He have compassion upon us like a father for his sons [raḥmenu ka-raḥem ’av ‘al banim].
Yet the model of mercy comes from the barren women, the mothers Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah who were healed, and know the longing within their wombs to bear children. Above all, the matriarch, Rachel—barren for so long and buried upon childbirth—becomes the quintessential intercessor beckoning for the return of her lost children. It is she with whom God comes to identify, the God Who, with womb-like yearning, desires that we as His children return to the divine embrace.
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September 29, 2016
September 19, 2019
Dr. Rachel Adelman is assistant professor of Hebrew Bible in the rabbinical program at Boston’s Hebrew College. She holds an M.A. in Jewish Studies from the joint Baltimore Hebrew University/Matan Program, and a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her first book is titled The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill 2009).
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