It’s rare these days for me to be asked to address a Jewish organization. Last week featured one such occasion, and here is the text of my address:
We are all familiar with Hannah’s silent prayer in the first chapter of Samuel, pleading for the opportunity to bear a child. But a more puzzling ‘prayer’ appears in the second chapter, after Samuel is born and she makes good on her promise to deliver him to serve full time at the Tabernacle in Shiloh.
The chapter reads: “And Hannah prayed: My heart is overjoyed with God… my mouth is expansive against my enemies, because I am happy with Your salvation. There is none so holy as God… and no bastion like our Lord.” Then she goes on at some length about how the downtrodden eventually rise up and the good guys always win in the end. This sounds like a celebratory poem in the tradition of Moses and Deborah. What is puzzling is that it is not identified as “singing”, the expression used in those instances, but rather as “praying”. How is celebrating creation in general, or personal good news in particular, quantified as a form of prayer?
The answer, I believe, lies in the Talmudic tradition which teaches that when she said there is no bastion like our Lord, there was a double meaning intended. The word ‘tzur’ for bastion (or rock) can also be read as ‘tzayar’, meaning artist. Hannah meant to say that the human being is the greatest work of art in existence (Talmud Brachot 10a).
Why would Hannah be the one person in history to deliver that particular message? I think that is simple to understand. She prayed the hardest for a child and so she appreciated its artistic magnificence the most.
This, it seems to me, is the prayer. When you praise the artist Who made everything we see on this planet, you are leaning on Him a little to keep that beauty at its sharpest.
A good way to demonstrate this is to cite a recent story from Michigan. A group of school kids went on a class visit to a museum, and one bored ten-year-old stuck a piece of chewing gum onto one of the paintings. Even after it was removed, there was a moisture stain the size of a half-dollar that marred the beauty of the painting. A half-million dollar masterpiece had been reduced to a fraction of its value. When we praise God’s masterpiece, it is a way of asking Him to remove its real or perceived blemishes. Any person who needs a healing or a living or a child is a stain on the painting, and it behooves the Artist to clean the canvas.
I believe that this must be our approach to political and cultural involvement as well. We need to focus primarily on the beauty of our nation’s founding documents, its history, its providing of opportunity both past and present, its virtue in war and peace. Highlighting that will make the flaws, such as may stubbornly persist, stand out in ways that will encourage the populace to make the necessary repairs.
In a spirit of admiration for this country, gratitude towards its founders and leaders, and appreciation for the gritty men and women who go out and make it work every single day, we can live in profound happiness and share that with all of mankind.