Ḥanna, who was barren, suffered so much that on the holidays she could not bring herself to rejoice before God in the Mishkan at Shilo. While her family ate the meat of the sacrificial offerings and rejoiced, she withdrew and cried. “Her husband Elkana said to her, ‘Ḥanna, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?’” In response, Ḥanna joined the feast.
After they had eaten and drunk at Shilo, Ḥanna rose. The priest Eli was sitting on the seat near the doorpost of the sanctuary of the Lord. In her wretchedness, she prayed to the Lord, weeping all the while. And she made this vow: “O Lord of Hosts, if You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant, and will remember me and not forget Your maidservant, and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.” (1 Shmuel 1:8-11)
From the depths of her bitter pain she was able to offer a heartfelt prayer. This opened the gates of heaven and enabled the birth of the soul of Shmuel, the greatest prophet of Israel after Moshe Rabbeinu.
The Sages say (Berakhot 31b):
From the day that God created His world, no one referred to God by the name Lord of Hosts (Tzeva’ot) until Ḥanna did. She said before Him, “God, Master of the universe, out of all the many hosts that You have created in Your world, is it difficult for You to grant me one son?!”
Appropriately, the name that Ḥanna introduced in her prayer was actualized by her son, the prophet Shmuel. He was the one who had the privilege of revealing holiness to the masses (tzeva’ot) of Israel in its land, as well as establishing generations of prophets, founding Israel’s monarchy, and planning the building of the Temple.
There is another powerful description of Ḥanna’s prayer:
As she kept on praying before the Lord, Eli watched her mouth. Now Ḥanna was praying in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard. So Eli thought she was drunk. Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!” (1 Shmuel 1:12-14)
In other words, Ḥanna’s prayer was so extraordinary and innovative that even the high priest Eli initially thought that she was drunk.
Ḥanna replied, “Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the Lord. Do not take your maidservant for a worthless woman; I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress.” “Then go in peace,” said Eli, “and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.” (ibid., 15-17)
Not only did Ḥanna’s prayer lead to the birth of the prophet Shmuel, but the Sages derive several laws from her prayer: supplicants must pray with intent, must form the words with their lips, and must not raise their voices (Berakhot 31a). From the depths of her pain of childlessness, Ḥanna revealed new laws and uncovered new understandings of prayer. This is an example of how the pain and distress of infertility can bring blessing to the world.