In a Midrash, the Israelites are standing at the foot of the sea. There is seemingly no way across, and the Pharaoh’s army is approaching from behind.
The people, in a panic, turn to Moses their leader. Surely he will know what to do, what is next for them in their journey. They cry out, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you had to take us out to the desert to kill us? (Ex. 14:11-14) What does Moses do? He turns to God, as he always has. He prays, and prays, and then prays some more. And nothing happens. Until finally God answers in an unexpected fashion. According to the Midrash, God says, Mah Titzak elai? Why are you crying out to Me? My children are on the verge of drowning in the sea. There is only one thing to do right now Moses, tell the Children of Israel to “start walking.” (Shemot Rabbah 21:8)
God is reminding Moses that his prayer, while noble and for a good cause, is actually pulling him further away from the problem in front of him. Be with your people now, and do the thing that you see needs to be done. Show up for those who need you.
Prayer can be powerful. But here the ancient rabbis are reminding us that sometimes prayer is answered by a call to action. Prayer leads to conviction, prayer leads to social justice. The trick, say the ancient rabbis, is hearing the answer when it comes. For Moses, the answer is, “it is time to focus on the task before you.” This sentiment is summed up in a single word, which appears several times in our Machzor. It is perhaps the most important word we will share today. The word that challenges us to avoid the trap of mindlessness and passivity, and to start doing the thing that needs to be done. To focus on the task before us. To show up.
That word is “Hineni.” Here I am.
This word mostly shows up in Torah when the thing to be done is something hard. The response is something like: 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.
In other words, Hineni is the word the Torah uses to bring us, fully present, into a moment. In our liturgy, the Cantor sings, “Hineni, here I am, with deep humility…” to prepare all of us for the service.
The first time we hear “Hineni” is the very first chapter of Torah, the story of Adam and Eve. Having eaten the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve attempt to hide from God, terrified of what the consequences might be for disobeying God’s command. God calls out, “Ayekha? Where are you?” And Adam, in that moment, decides to take responsibility. He responds, “Hineni – here I am.”
Here we are. All of us in one room, sharing this moment of reflection and calm in our lives which can be so hectic and busy. Here we are, trying to take responsibility for our mistakes, and our choices. But even here, even now, we are not able to set aside distraction, and to fully say “Hineni.” We read the prayers, say the words, sit quietly. But we don’t hear that God is calling to us – telling us to start walking, to become more fully present in our own lives and in the lives of others.
There are so many distractions which keep us from being fully present in modern life. We are pulled by incessant screens all around us; by stress and anxiety, by work commitments, and by sheer overload. Our to-do lists drive our every waking moment. We are ruled by traffic patterns and grocery shopping; the endless minutia of daily and weekly tasks. We are pulled away from those whose voices we need to hear, away from those who love us and need our attention.
We are distracted, even from knowing that which we most desperately need to know – ourselves, our emotions, our deepest existential thoughts, our yearning, even our own pain.
The first level of Hineni is to find a way to be more present in our own lives. Rav Kook, the noted mystic and first Rabbi of the State of Israel, expressed it this way,
“I am in exile. The sin of the first human being, which estranged him from his true self, was that he turned to the advice of the snake, losing himself. He did not know how to clearly answer the question “Ayeka?” because he did not know himself. He lost touch with his true “I-ness”, his truest self. We must seek our inner selves. When we seek, we will find.”
I am reminded of a powerful book called Let Your Life Speak by the noted educator Parker Palmer, he says “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”
We know there are seemingly insignificant choices we make every day that matter, and we know that even not choosing, is a choice. We choose blessing, or curse. We choose to ignore the cell phone when we are with a friend, or we choose to be more present with the phone than with those around us. We choose to check email before bed, rather than check in with those under our same roof. We spend too much time at work, not enough time with our families. We battle with the internet which pulls us away from the dinner table. 24/7 distraction is available everywhere. Many of us do not even try to recharge our batteries when we can. According to surveys, almost half of all Americans took zero percent of their vacation days last year.
We cannot be our best selves when Hineni is so far away. We can communicate faster and with greater ease, and yet we feel less connected, less bonded, and less intimate with each other. We can Facebook or Instagram with friends half-way around the world,
and yet we feel more alone, more isolated, and less present. On this day, we strive to be here, to heed the call, and to respond “Hineni.”
The next time we hear “Hineni” spoken in the Torah it is Abraham, using this word three separate times in the story of the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac. He says it to God, he says it to Isaac, and finally, he says it to the angel. Each call and each response is different, yet each communicates something deep about Abraham’s journey, and by extension, our own.
Abraham’s life has been tumultuous, but as the Torah portion begins, he is in a good place. He has a loving wife who has given him a loving son, a handmaid and another son he cares for. He has servants and many flocks, a full and busy life. And then, unexpectedly, there is a voice, a call – “And it came to pass that God tested Abraham, saying to him, “Abraham!” And Abraham responded, “Hineni, here I am.”
We experience life this way. Days are busy, full of commitments.
But when Abraham received The Call, he recognized it as important immediately, he dropped what he was doing and answered – fully present.
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. “Hineni” appears almost two hundred times in the Hebrew Bible, but never more powerfully than this moment. “Hineni b’ni – I am here, my son” says Abraham. This time his response is not out of awe for God, and perhaps not even out of readiness to respond. Perhaps we imagine Abraham dreading the question he knows will follow. “Where is the lamb for our offering?” Isaac asks.
This Hineni is a more familiar one to each of us. 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. The text continues, as if emphasizing the point that “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.
The Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that “the most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Abraham understands, he responds immediately to Isaac with “Hineni.”
When we miss the chance to be present with our closest loved ones, we may not notice the damage done until it is too late to repair. We may not notice the distance that begins to grow, the hurt born, hope lost. Our distraction causes those we love to withdraw, the Divine presence that once lived in the space between us starts to fade. “Hineni – I am here.” I am here to see, to nurture; to be present for you in the ways that you need me.
Recognizing the call of our loved ones is a lifelong pursuit. Rabbi Jack Riemer reminds us in a reading we include in our Selichot liturgy, “Judaism begins with the commandment: Hear O Israel! But what does it really mean to hear? The person who listens to the words of his friend, or his wife, or his child and does not catch the note of urgency; notice me, help me, care about me, hears – but does not really hear.”
In this instance, Abraham responds to his God, and to his son, with immediacy and a full heart. 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 presence 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.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to tell a story about hearing this part of the Akedah 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.”
This third level of “Hineni” commands us to become aware, not only of ourselves and those we know, but aware of suffering and injustice around us. Our tradition commands, “Remember the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our texts teach us, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” and, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.” “If I am only for myself, what am I, and if not now, when?” And yet every news cycle is filled with devastating stories of the suffering of others – ISIS kidnapping thousands and massacring thousands more;
almost twelve million refugees seeking asylum from Syria, risking their lives – these stories move us less and less to respond. They feel far away, as if they do not affect our brothers and sisters, our neighbors. Even when the stories are closer to home, we too often feel that same disconnect when victims are brown or black, a shade darker than you or me – when we hear stories of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, of Tamir Rice, who was 12 years old when he was killed while holding a toy gun. Walter Scott in North Charleston, and Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Their angels, it seems, came too late, even if by a few precious seconds.
It is you and I who are being tested. We witness this injustice and violence and are responsible for it. We know our justice system is broken, and we know that an underlying, ubiquitous racism is real, and it is in us. Minorities do not receive fair and equal treatment in our country, and if Jews will not stand up, who will?
Like Abraham, we are being called. How will we respond? Becoming more fully present in our own lives, and in the lives of our loved ones, can we then learn the hardest lesson, and become fully present in our world? We cannot be in touch with suffering in the world if we have not first developed an empathy for ourselves and others. Here is Abraham’s real test, it is ours as well. Can empathy turn into compassion? Can we avoid tuning out the degradation and frustration that scrolls along the bottom of our TV screens during “the big game,” and take seriously our call to “remember the stranger,” those who are most disenfranchised in our society?
A few months ago the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Religious Action Center for the Reform movement partnered with the NAACP on an historic march. On this, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, rabbis were called from all over the country to carry a Torah scroll for a thousand miles – from Selma, Alabama to our nation’s capital, Washington DC.
Almost two hundred rabbis participated in the march, transferring the Torah scroll each day, and showing solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters, created very much in the image of God, who are still suffering from the erosion of the Voting Rights Act and severe marginalization.
For the past fifty years, the Jewish community has felt a unique solidarity with the African American community. We have marched together up the mountain but there is much work still to be done. You may not be aware that both the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s social justice arm in D.C.
On this most recent historic march, rabbis walked with leaders from the African American community. And many, many stories were shared person to person. Some of these were later shared over social media and in articles. One story in particular has stuck with me.
Rabbi Jill Perlman, of Massachusetts, shared the march with Keshia Thomas, whose name you might not remember. But her story you might.
Keshia Thomas had recently quit her job to walk the entirety of the march, feeling called, in her words, to fulfill a life-long commitment to social justice work. A photograph of Keshia, from when she was a teenager in 1996 had been chosen as one of Life Magazine’s most iconic images from that year.
There are many a ways I might demonstrate to you what Hineni looks like. Countless problems confronting our world, more projects and organizations and volunteer opportunities than any one of us will get to. But Hineni is more than just a commitment to scheduling time or donating money. It is a way to view the world, being more in tune, more aware than others. I can think of no better example than Keshia Thomas. This is what Hineni looks like:
Almost twenty years ago, the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Only seventeen Klan members showed up, and hundreds responded to protest the rally. Suddenly a man wearing a Confederate flag and Nazi tattoos was targeted by the crowd of anti-Nazi protesters, and they began to get violent. Crying, “kill the Nazi” they kicked and beat the man with the wooden sticks of their signs.
But Keshia, who had chased after the man as well, did something very different. She explained later that she felt as if angels lifted her up and laid her down to protect that man. The man, who would clearly not have done the same for her, was saved from boots and sticks by her body, and the entire event was documented by a series of pictures showing every emotion, every second of her heroism. Her act of kindness transcended even the boundaries of hatred, to connect with the humanity beneath the flags and swastikas; to take a stand against violence, and for radical change and hope. Twenty years later, Keshia marches on for justice.
Thich Nhat Hanh also writes, “When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight.”
How many of us would have done the same in Keshia’s place? How far would we be willing to go for our ideals? Would we be present enough to see what needs to be done, and to do it? Would our angels be there in time to lift us up, and lay us down?
Keshia’s “Hineni” response begins by simply seeing others as full human beings, the image of the Divine in the world. All people, of all colors and backgrounds. And that requires an openness to hearing the call, when it comes. These moments catch us by surprise, when we are asked to step up, to step in, and to risk everything, even life and limb, to change the world.
My colleague, Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, wrote of this call another way, “I must admit,” she writes, “I don’t feel confident about [responding the way Abraham did]. I know God is calling me even now. But the world is a troubled place, life is so complex and my understanding of the Divine role is much less clear. Like many of us, I come here today [on Yom Kippur] with the hope that I will rediscover Abraham’s conviction and awe-inspired readiness. In truth, my goal would be to embrace the ‘Hineni Attitude” even before I sense God’s voice; to live in anticipation of the call. After all, God didn’t call to Abraham because God wondered if he would answer. God called to Abraham because he knew he would respond.”
It is work to respond. It is the work of calming, quieting down, noticing, and acting in a manner that says Hineni, I am here, and I am ready to bring God’s presence into every relationship, and every encounter. The work of pursuing dignity and justice for every human being remains for us long after the final shofar blast of Yom Kippur.
Hineni – I am here. Today I will hear the call that brings me into the present moment with myself. Hineni – I am here. Today I will focus more of my attention, love and care towards those people I know need that from me. Hineni – I am here. May today be the day we dedicate ourselves anew to the rebuilding and repair of the world.