Here I Am - Hineni
For some time now, we have used the phrase Just Show Up as our tagline. We understand that we create community when we Just Show Up. Recently, three members of the community who do not usually come to Sukkot services decided to Just Show Up. Each understood that their presence made a big difference, not just for one another, but for all of us who had come to shul that day. So many of you have made the effort to Just Show Up. It is clear that you understand that seeing one another, and being together is an important element of creating community.
This year, I decided to push a bit more on the idea of Just Show Up. On the second day of Rosh HaShanah I suggested that in addition to Just Show Up, we should all be thinking about saying Here I am. In a sense, Just Show Up is the first step and Here I am is the next. I share this particular sermon with you in Tekiah because I believe it raises some of the most important ideas we can consider: our relationship with God and Judaism, our relationship with the people we love, and our ability to re-imagine what we are doing.
I first went to study Hebrew in Israel during the summer of 1980, just after my freshman year of college. Having studied Hebrew as a day school student and in college, I enrolled in ulpan (intensive Hebrew study) at Hebrew University determined to become fluent. I poured over Hebrew texts trying to enlarge my vocabulary and speak more fluently. I kept a notebook in my pocket, always writing down new words, learning their roots, and trying to discover related words. I was obsessed.
That summer I made some funny mistakes. In class one day, the teacher was taking attendance. In Hebrew the word
for here is Poh. Typically one would say Ani Poh – I am here. My ulpan teacher was
“Rubin” – Ani Poh
“Schwartz” – Ani Poh
“Thaler” – Ani Poh
“Wallk” – Hineni
The teacher looked at me and began to laugh. She said who are you – Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabbeinu? Hineni, she explained is different. Ani Poh means “I’m here.” Hineni means “Here I am.” It is the contraction of the two words Hiney (Here) and Ani (I). Here am I. Nearly 40 years later, I still think about this. The difference between saying “I’m here” and “Here I am” can be felt in English as well.
“Here I am.”
This year, I want to explore what it means to be present for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our community. In this election year, I want to think about what it means to say Hineni – I am a proud American who believes in the ideals and values of this country and I will do all that I can to show my love for America.
Hineni in the Torah and Bible
Hineni actually appears 178 times in the Tanach. It is uttered most often in response to God but it is also spoken from one individual to another. In the Torah itself, the word Hineni occurs eight times – three of them occur in the second-day reading for Rosh HaShanah.
In the Torah, each time the word Hineni is used, it signifies a turning point, a potentially life-changing moment requiring decision, action and resolution. When the Torah uses the word Hineni, the person speaking is saying: “I hear your call. I understand what you are asking of me. And I am prepared and ready to do it, because I recognize, although it is hard, it is also important that I act.”
The person who can say Hineni understands that it means being fully attentive, non-judgmental and emotionally available, revealing one’s whole self in the moment. We hear this word when we are loved, and we say it when we love. When it is absent, we are miserable. When it is said insincerely, we feel betrayed. Can you imagine a time when you experienced the sincere attention and attentiveness of another person? When they put themselves aside to be entirely available to you?
We know when we are speaking to someone whose attention is not entirely on us when we hear the clicking of the keys in the background or see their eyes focused elsewhere. All of us can detect the nuances that accompany this word — echoes of falsehood or distraction as well as tones of truth and sincerity.
In the Torah reading for second day of Rosh HaShanah, Abraham speaks this word three times. He says it to God, to Isaac and to an angel. Each call and each response is so different. Each touches a unique aspect of Abraham’s emotional and spiritual life and each responds to a different obligation. One comes out of awe, another out of love and yet another from pain. All answer the question: “Where are you?”
Hineni – Awe
Let me remind you a bit of Abraham’s story. At this point in his life, Abraham is in a good place. Both Sarah and Hagar have given him sons: Ishmael and Isaac. Abraham is affluent. He has flocks and tents and servants. He’s probably very busy, overseeing his household. In addition, he is worried about Hagar and Ishmael, even though God has assured him they will survive.
And then unexpectedly there is a call or the voice, “And it came to pass that God tested Abraham, saying to him: Abraham! And Abraham responded Hineni — Here I am.”
As I read the text this year, I admired Abraham in a way I had not admired him before. I wondered why he was so able to say Hineni. I realize that the relationship between Abraham and God goes back many years; it is based on a covenant, a spiritual partnership that was established back in Haran. But this year I noted that when God calls out urgently, Abraham stops and turns away from his work and replies Hineni. Here I am! I am ready! I am focused! And I am listening!
Perhaps there were times in Abraham’s life when he was expecting God’s call. While commitment involves being prepared for what we anticipate and hope for, even more importantly, real commitment means being present and responsive to the unplanned and unexpected. Abraham models a relationship in which risk is possible and trust is even deeper — there is no hesitation, no prior conditions, no review of the earlier disappointments or unfinished business. Abraham has no idea why God has called him or what God will ask, but he is ready and responsive. And this year, I found myself admiring Abraham’s immediate response.
As a young rabbi, I found it easy to say Hineni to others and to Judaism.
Nearly 25 years later, my life is different. I don’t feel as confident about such a response. I know God has expectations of me even now. But the world is a troubled place, life is so complex and my understanding of God’s role in my life is less clear. I still believe in God. But I feel a little estranged. I know that some rabbis would not share their own spiritual stories with their congregation. But I want us to have an honest relationship. I am struggling now. I don’t like feeling estranged. But that is how I feel. I come to shul this Rosh HaShanah with the hope that I will rediscover how to have Abraham’s conviction and awe-inspired readiness.
Maybe you can relate to my own struggles. If you doubt God, if you feel estranged and wonder, “Where is God?” — I don’t want you to feel alone. I think it is part of life. These past several years I have spent much time meditating, davening, trying to know what God, or Judaism, expects from me. For this Rosh HaShanah, my goal is to embrace the Hineni attitude. To live life with the hope of doing what God expects of me. God didn’t call Abraham because God wondered if he would answer. God called Abraham because God knew Abraham had a sense of obligation or duty. Because Abraham had lived a Hineni life even before God called. And that is what God and Judaism expect of us.
Hineni for those in our inner circle; Hineni — Love
Later in the story, after walking silently with his father towards the mountaintop, Isaac calls out, “Father?” and Abraham responds again with these famous words. But never more powerfully than this moment. “ Hineni b’ni - I am here, my son,” says Abraham. This time Abraham’s response is not out of awe for God, and perhaps not even out of readiness to respond. This Hineni comes from a place of love. It is a father’s assurance that his son will not have to walk alone. Abraham provides the only comfort he knows how to give in that moment, “We are together, Isaac, facing the trials that God has given us, but not facing them alone. I can’t always make everything right. I am not always the one in control. Only God has all the answers, or at least let’s hope so.” The text continues, as if emphasizing the point that Isaac can depend on his father, “The two walked on together.”
Showing up in our own lives is only a beginning. We learn, at some point in life, that we experience life as meaningful when we connect our lives with others, when we recognize that our struggles and successes are deeply intertwined with theirs. Our spouses, our parents and children, our most loved companions, need to know that when they call us, we will be there to walk alongside them. A child calls, a father answers, “I am here, my son.” I am not too busy, or too distracted. I will set aside those things occupying my energy right now, the trials of my life, so that I can be with you in yours.
Within Abraham’s response, I hear love and I imagine human uncertainty. Perhaps this Hineni is the most familiar to us. We so very much want to be there for our partners as they face challenges at work, our children when they have been hurt, our friends as they struggle with illness. We are here, but we know our answers are not entirely sufficient or complete.
Despite this reality, so many of you at TBE step up to say Hineni. I watch as a middle-aged woman battles cancer and YOU attend to her daily needs. You know you can’t cure the disease, but you can ease her pain. And you do. You bring dinner to a fellow congregant who is in mourning. You know you can’t take away the heartache, but you make one day, a little easier. And you do.
You invite another mother to coffee. You know her child is a challenge and you give this mom a chance to talk about how mothering can be so very, very hard. In all of these instances and in so many more, you realize that while you cannot solve another person’s problems, you can ease the pain. You go. You do. You make yourself present by offering the best Hineni you can.
While over these past 25 years I have felt less secure in the Hineni I offer to God, I have come to understand and feel more attuned to the human Hineni I offer to the people in my life and the members of our community. Watching a couple celebrate their long marriage, and re-affirm their commitment to love, honor and take care of one another; witnessing a couple exchange vows under the huppah; guiding a young couple prepare for their son’s brit milah. Whenever I visit with a congregant, either at home, or in the hospital, or on the phone — all I am really saying is “I can’t solve your problems. But I care.” Sometimes we talk serious issues, and often we simply chat about mundane matters. Sometimes I will offer a prayer or we will sit in silence. But in the end, what matters most, I think is the Hineni — my effort to say that I am here and that you are not alone.
And when I fail, as I inevitably do, it is rarely because I said the wrong thing or offered bad advice. But rather it is because I wasn’t there. I wasn’t available. I wasn’t present. I know some of you are thinking — she didn’t call me. She didn’t visit my mom. This is the hardest part of being your rabbi. I want to be there for each and every one of you. I do. My heart aches when I let you down. And I will keep trying and hope that you will continue to guide me, by calling, emailing and letting me know what you need from me.
There have been many missed Hinenis for which I am truly sorry. And there have been some Hinenis, like Abraham’s to Isaac, where even the most sincere response is just not quite enough; and yet in our flawed humanity we continue to say this sacred word and mean it.
Third Hineni — from a place of profound pain.
But we have not finished the story. The third time we hear Hineni from Abraham, he is in a very different place. We find, despite our own disbelief, that he has ascended the mountain, and bound his son, Isaac, the one he loves, on the altar. He has raised the knife to slaughter him, when an angel’s voice calls to him twice by name, “Abraham! Abraham!”
And again he responds, “ Hineni – I am here.” His awe for God, his love for his child – both have been replaced by pain. Abraham summons himself to be present from a deep place of suffering. He is dedicated to his task, but what he sees before him is anguish, hurt, and injustice.
I believe that Abraham does not pass his test until the moment he answers the angel’s call, which stops his hand and saves Isaac’s life. I believe that Abraham is asked to witness the violence his own hand is capable of, and then to choose another path. I believe that Abraham is asked to acknowledge that his actions are destructive, not constructive. And he must change course.
Do we think we could be open to an encounter like this? Are we open to the many guises in which God’s messengers appear? A stranger, an unfamiliar person or source, telling us to redirect ourselves? Having once set a course, and gotten our pride and our commitment invested, can we be strong enough to turn and change our direction without loss of integrity or self? Can we welcome a new perspective? If someone calls out to us this year, will we pull ourselves away from our iPhones, our computers, our mundane routines to hear the voice and respond?
It is easy to become comfortable in routine, to feel so much at home that we don’t want to disturb the healthy balance of the family. We don’t want to consider making a serious change at work. And yet, like Abraham, at times we need to be pulled away and shown a new course.
I hope I am open to those encounters.
I look forward to new passions in which to invest and I hope we’ll invest in those together. I believe that God’s messengers are calling us even now — asking us to re-examine our deeds, to enrich our relationships, to deepen our own spirituality, to change the world in real and meaningful ways — to say that most significant, challenging and sacred word — Hineni.
Of course, it isn’t always easy. Some of us have had a very difficult year. Some of us have lost jobs, or resources, a partner of many years, a parent or beloved friend. Even or perhaps especially in the face of struggle and loss, we have to find the will to be present for those who have been present for us. And even now, God calls out to us.
Some of us have had a fantastic year with new love and new hope and joy punctuating the days and months. We bring it all here today. The good and the bad, and we try to find the Hineni with it all to say Here I am. This is me. I want to be there for you, please take me just as I am.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to tell a story about hearing the Akedah (binding of Isaac) for the first time as a seven-year-old. By the time Abraham’s hand is stopped by the angel, Heschel described sobbing uncontrollably. His teacher asked him what is wrong, considering they all knew the end of the story, that Isaac is saved. “But,” Heschel responded, “what if that angel had been a second too late?” His teacher answered, “An angel cannot be late.” And Heschel would use this story, decades later, to say to us, “An angel cannot be late, but we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late.”
Let us not delay in speaking a sacred Hineni to those who need to hear it from us.
Let us not hesitate to say it to our God.
Let us open our ears to the world outside and respond to the needs that have no voice but call out to us nonetheless.
The purpose of Rosh HaShanah is to ask ourselves Ayekah? Where are you? Many people we know, and those we don’t, are asking us that very same question. According to our tradition there is only one answer.
Hineni - Here I am!
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, PhD