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From Sorrow Comes Something New

From Sorrow Comes Something New

Woman in silhouette, looking sorrowful

“I am a woman of sorrowful spirit.”

This is how Hannah describes herself in the Haftarah portion we read on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. She claims her sorrow.

Hannah's greatest desire was to have a child. In a world in which a woman's worth was determined by her ability to bear children, the fact that Hannah could not meant enormous sorrow, as well as shame. It was a shame that Peninah, Elkanah’s other wife, capitalized on, intending to make Hannah feel less-than. Hannah didn't need reminders. She had already internalized the shame and disappointment until she became a shadow of herself. She weeps until she can no longer eat.  

So Hannah went to the temple, year after year, to do what was expected of her. She brought her portion of the animal to sacrifice to the priest. And year after year, the sorrow swelled inside her, until it broke through, like torrential rains flooding a river. 

When it did, Hannah could no longer perform what was expected of her. When she got to the temple, her sorrow took over. You could say it possessed her.

It would take quite a lot of shaking and writhing for the priest to assume Hannah was under the influence. I imagine her rocking back and forth, eyes closed tight, her lips moving in her ardent and feverish prayer. I see the priest staring at her in dismay, unable to explain her behavior other than to assume she was in an altered state. He wasn't wrong. She was in an altered state, one where emotions bypass the mind, making her act foolishly, out of the ordinary.

Sorrow does that. So does rage. And grief. But so do ecstasy, joy, love.

It wasn't Hannah's rational mind that was speaking to God, it was her emotional body. All that protocol, the ritual and custom about how to pray, all of that was washed over by the certainty of her sorrow. And so, we have the first record of prayer as we now know it.

Today, we are so accustomed to speaking directly to God that it is hard to imagine praying any other way. Hannah, by paying attention to her sorrow, by surrendering to her emotions, found her truth and from that truth her greatest desire was born; she became pregnant with her son. Hannah gives us permission and inspiration to do the same. And so, today, we pray directly to God, whispering our deepest desires with the expectation that they will be met.

We live in a culture that tells us to temper our emotions. As children, we get messages from parents, teachers, and peers that we are too sensitive. Girls are told they are too much so, boys are told to man-up. We apologize for our tears instead of celebrating them. When we do that, we create a world that is industrious, efficient, driven by our rational mind. We need that. That's how bridges and highways and space stations are made. But our emotions – sorrow, rage, joy, wonder, disgust, awe – these are what make us human. When we shut down our emotions, we shut down our life force. We become depressed. Hannah shows us that tears are our way through. So are unbridled expressions of love. And dancing with abandon. 

For the past few decades, I have been working with young women in South Africa, many of whom have suffered unspeakable violence, a violence meant to cause shame, silence, and obedience. I help to create safe spaces for these young women, places where they can cry and scream and wail, space to surrender to sorrow. And then, we dance. Because before we can be free of our sorrow, we must first live in it. Pure sorrow, without shame.

I've seen this scenario play out in my own life. As a journalist, I tell the stories of people who have surrendered to their sorrow and rage, who are no longer governed by social, religious, or cultural expectations. These are the people who make things happen. People like the girls in South Africa who demanded a new school where they could study without the threat of stray bullets. Or Claressa Shields, the girl boxer who fought for inclusion in a man’s sport and for the protection of her family and her city, Flint, Michigan.

People like Bongi Mkhabela who marched out of her Soweto classroom in 1976 to start the student protest against the apartheid government. People like Claudette Colvin who, in 1955, at the age of 16, was enraged by having to sit in the back of the bus because she was black. Without thinking, she sat down in the front of the bus and was arrested, paving the way for Rosa Parks to do the same within the year.

It is from sorrow and longing, rage, grief, love, bliss that we create something new. Hannah gives birth to a son. Sorrow gave birth to Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo and the student movement that followed the Parkland shootings. 

It only takes one person to expand our imagination of what is possible, to give us all permission to express our truest selves. Hannah's sorrow revolutionized prayer. What will our tears create?

Sue Jaye Johnson, a member of East End Temple in New York, NY, is a filmmaker, journalist, and TED Resident. Learn more about her work on her website.

Sue Jaye Johnson
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