The Song of Hannah
By Eva Etzioni-Halevy
A Biblical Novel of Love, Temptation, and the Making of a Prophet
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 fourth month of the year, 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, unable to lift 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 to the man who had his seal of approval even against her will. My father, and my mother as well, were of noble spirit and would not force me into what I might find repugnant. But they bestowed their blessing on my suitor, Hanoch's, 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 press oil out of me 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 my father and my mother and me 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 on two stories, with an imposing stairway leading straight from the front yard to the second floor. In the eyes of my spirit I caught a glimpse of myself as the mistress of this house, gleaming like a star in the night's 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 were rushing back and forth in haste to carry out my orders. And I knew myself to have the regal bearing that made me well suited 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 man would.
As I was treading the path through the vineyard, I vowed to myself that the only consideration that would weigh with me was whether he was the man ordained for me, the one with whom I would be able to fulfill the secret mission of my life. So 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 from it and a dark horse racing at great speed came into view. Since our people, the Israelites, had not adopted the custom of breeding horses, I had never seen one before. But I had read in the Torah about the Egyptian Pharaoh's horses, those that had pursued the children of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. So I had no doubt as to what the animal was that now appeared before our eyes.
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. I craned my neck to look up at him, but before I could, he dismounted from the horse's saddle with flair and tossed its reins to two youngsters who came forward to receive them. As it was hot and the horse had been cantering up the slope of the hill, it was sweating profusely and the youngsters began wiping it off with damp mops, as they led it away.
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, came forward to stand before us and his eyes were 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 straight on, and although he had disregarded my friend, Pninah, I told him both our names. He demanded to know what it was that we wished to buy, and the vendors handed it to us without delay. His help brought great relief, for it released us from the necessity of jostling amongst the crowd. But when he refused to take payment, we simply placed the silver we had brought with us on the stall's counter and withdrew to make place for the others.
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 attached to it, as prescribed by Torah law. But unlike all other fringes I had ever seen, its tassels were laced with silver threads and shining 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."
We rode out of the square, and when Pninah noted that Hanoch was smitten with me she fell behind so that we were free to talk. Hanoch recounted that he was twenty-six years old, his father's youngest son. "Since my father owns only one property," he continued, "the younger sons took up trading. Having prospered in trade, I bought a merchant ship, which, together with the trading caravans I own, is the source of my livelihood."
I was aware that Hanoch was the richest man in all the surrounding areas, for 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 then, during which 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. Since 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
Like my parents, I believed that Hanoch was indeed the embodiment of a dream. He had set out with a silver pouch as empty as if it were riddled with holes; and although he was still young, he had amassed his riches with the power of his own brain and the diligence of his own hands. Yet he had the distinguished appearance of one who had been rich since birth. What more could any maiden ask for? But still I vacillated.
In the solitude of my walk amongst the vines, I finally made my decision: I resolved to consult Pninah. Beforehand 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 her help.
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.
This excerpt from the book "THE SONG OF HANNAH" was reprinted by permission of
the author. The book may be purchased at www.evaetzionihalevy.com
from the September, 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine