There is a Hassidic story about a young man who was so busy trying to make a living that he just couldn’t keep track of the everyday stuff of life. Each morning he woke up in a panic trying to remember where he had put his clothes the night before. Things got so bad for him that he wasn’t able to fall asleep at night. He was so nervous that he wouldn’t be able to find things when he woke up. One evening, however, he came up with a great idea. Taking pencil and paper, he wrote down exactly where he had placed each item of clothing. He placed his notes on the nightstand by his bed and quickly fell asleep. He slept peacefully, knowing that he would find everything just perfectly in the morning. And indeed he did.
He woke up, took the notes from his nightstand and read off each item in turn. “Pants – on the back of the chair”- and there they were. He put them on. “Shirt – on bed post” and sure enough there was his shirt. He put it on. “Hat – on desk” and there rested his hat. He placed it on his head. In a few minutes he was completely dressed, calm and cheery. But suddenly a great dread came upon him. “Yes, yes” he said aloud. “Here are my pants, my shirt, and my hat; but where am I?” He looked and looked and looked but he couldn’t find himself anywhere. And that, according to our story, is true of each of us as well.
Where are we? This question is at the center of these days of introspection. The word hineini – “here I am” accompanies us throughout our prayers and our readings on the High Holy Days – inviting us to think deeply about our response. On Erev Rosh Hashanah we open with a prayer called Hineini. The prayer leader chants: hineini –here I am, poor in deeds, beseeching You – meaning God, on behalf of the community to accept our prayers.
And then during the Torah service on Rosh Hashanah, when we read the binding of Isaac, hineini takes center stage. Just before God gives Abraham instructions to take Isaac up the mountain, God calls out “Abraham,” and Abraham answers: hineini. Hearing that Abraham is fully present and ready, God tells him: “Take your beloved son and sacrifice him up on the mountain.” And tomorrow hineini appears yet again in our Haftarah reading as God’s response to the Israelites, ensuring them that if they take care of the needy God will be there for them.
Hineini is actually used fourteen times in Torah – each time in a memorable and meaningful story; stories that teach us about being receptive, about taking action, even sacrificing for someone or something. And so this evening, my question is this: Where in our own life-story, do we need to be more present, more responsive and even sacrifice for something bigger than ourselves? As our personal circumstances change, as the world around us changes, how do we re-calibrate our response? Do we need to amplify our hineini in response to the brokenness of the world; in response to the needs of family and friends? Or perhaps our recalibrating requires that we be more present for ourselves?
In the past year this word – hineini has actually entered our wider culture and vocabulary – through literature and music, helping us think more deeply about our response. One might even say that hineini is having its cultural moment! It’s been front and center as the title of a best-selling book and as the chorus of a song by one of the most famous singer songwriters of our times. Here I Am is the novel by the American writer, Jonathan Safran Foer and Hineini is the chorus of the song that Leonard Cohen recorded just days before he passed away. You might not have heard the song but I’m sure you recognize his name and fame from his well-known Halleluyah.
But the thing is this: Foer’s book and Cohen’s song are actually sharp critiques of our ability to respond with the degree of presence and sacrifice that the word hineini implies. Cohen’s critique is about our shortcomings when it comes to our response to the world at large while Foer’s centers on the ways in which we fall short in the personal realm. In his book Foer voices this criticism through Sam, the son of the protagonist. The scene is Sam’s bar mitzvah. His Torah portion happens to be the binding of Isaac where, as I mentioned earlier, hineini features prominently. Here is an excerpt from Sam’s d’var Torah:
My bar mitzvah portion is about many things, but I think it is primarily about who we are there for, and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity.” Sam goes on to say: My great-grandfather has asked for help. He doesn’t want to go to the Jewish Home. But nobody in the family responded by saying, “Here I am.” Instead, they have tried to convince him that he doesn’t know what is best, and doesn’t even know what he wants.
And then, Sam follows this sharp criticism of “not being there” for loved ones with another example. He highlights an incident in Hebrew school that resulted in his parents being called to the rabbi’s office:
“I was accused of having used some bad language in Hebrew school this morning. When my parents showed up to speak with Rabbi Singer, they didn’t tell me, “Here we are.” They asked, “what did you do?” I wish I had been given the benefit of the doubt, because I deserve it. Everyone who knows me knows that I make a lot of mistakes, but also that I am a good person. But it’s not because I’m a good person that I deserve the benefit of the doubt, it’s because I’m their child.
Oy – thank God I’ve never had to deal with such harsh language and such raw criticism from a bar mitzvah! While Sam’s view of the world lacks nuance – we have to remember that he’s only thirteen, there is truth to what he says. Being there for those we love means responding to what we hear, not what is easiest or best for us. Being there for those we love is also about giving our loved ones the benefit of the doubt. Our tradition has a name for this: dan l’kaf zechut, which means to judge others on the side of merit. Sam seems to intuitively understand the importance of judging others favorably as well truly listening to them.
The problem, as Foer knows well, is that if we are blessed to have parents who are alive, children to care for and jobs to fulfill, our ability to respond to our loved ones gets complicated by competing responsibilities, by limited time as well as limited emotional and financial resources. So, how do we respond with hineini given these constraints? I think we start by truly listening, as Sam suggests in his d’var Torah, and by being honest with ourselves about what we hear. Then we can layer our concerns, our conflicting responsibilities but not before we’ve heard with an open heart what our loved ones are asking of us.
But to complicate matters even more, let me share with you an article that came out in the Globe this summer about a new trend – backyard sheds. I read this article as an example of saying hineini to ourselves. Apparently, people across Massachusetts and the rest of the country – desperate to be off duty, desperate to get away from it all – even if just by a few yards — are fleeing their homes for backyard sheds. The article quoted a woman who said: “We’re made to feel guilty if we have an inch of time or space to do what we want to do.” There is even a TV show about this trend called He Shed She Shed in which homeowners compete in male vs. female shed showdowns as they design and build sheds.
The point is that maybe this is the year when re-calibrating means amplifying hineini in response to our own physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Perhaps we wish we could do more for our loved ones, our colleagues or even for the causes we care deeply about but we cannot. Or maybe we’ve actually done more than our share and it’s time for others to step up.
Still, I am reminded of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s powerful message when he said: “few of us are guilty but all of us are responsible.” Which to me means that even if this is the year when we take a step back from the demands of the world to be more present for loved ones or for ourselves, each of us needs to figure out how we can say hineini beyond these walls – even if in a more limited way,
But will we? This is the question that Leonard Cohen asks in the song he recorded just weeks before his death. His response is a sharp critique of our willingness and effectiveness in saying hineini. In a voice filled with sadness and disappointment he questions God’s presence in this world and asks God: You want it darker? He answers by saying: we kill the flame. Meaning, we humankind fail to make things better. And then comes the chorus: Hineini, I’m ready my Lord. He seems to flip hineini on its head by using it to express his readiness to leave this world rather than to change it. But perhaps, we can hear Cohen’s response as his way of challenging us to reclaim hineini…. To say: yes we will step forward. Yes, we will be there to help repair the brokenness in this world! Despair is not an option for us.
On the contrary, we remind ourselves daily, through our prayers, of that moment at the Sea of Reeds when everything changed for us, when we were finally free from bondage. Whether we believe in this foundational story of ours as a literal account or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that our foundational story inspires us to act boldly and to hope for a better day.
It’s not easy to recalibrate and to figure out where to say hineini as we go forward. For each of us the answer is different and ever changing. But we need to be strong enough and courageous enough to break old patterns, even to disappoint loved ones or colleagues as we stake our response in the coming year.
We also need to remember that alone we can’t say hineini to all that matters to us; we need to count on one another. But that is the beauty of being part of a community; our efforts are leveraged and complemented by others. As part of a community we support each other in our response to loved ones and to causes that matter to us. As part of a community we come together to pray and learn, to nourish our souls – allowing us to “be there” more expansively for others.
And so, as we enter this New Year let us ask ourselves: where will I amplify my hineini and where will my response be more muted? How will I respond to myself, to loved ones, to colleagues and to those I don’t even know – who also need me to be there for them?
We have a precious, an amazing opportunity this Yom Kippur to think deeply about these questions. May we emerge saying hineini in a truly purposeful way and in doing so bring wholeness, happiness and meaning to our lives.
G’mar hatima tova – may we be inscribed for a good year.