One of the first things a child learns in Kindergarten is how to respond when his or her name is called when taking attendance. The teacher calls your name and you say “here.” In my case, Bloom, it was usually 3rd or 4th—my sympathies to some of the members in our congregation like the Abrami family, who must barely have time to get ready, and to Arlene Zuckerberg, for whom the wait must seem like an eternity.
Well, it works the same in Israel, except that instead of saying “here” or “present,” you say “hineni,” which literally means I am here or here I am. But symbolically, it means so much more. That is because hineni is a loaded term from its frequent and significant use in the Tanach. It is used on its own no less than 14 times in the Hebrew Bible, but more importantly, it is found in some of the most substantive moments in the stories of our most important Biblical figures, from Abraham’s Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, to the Jacob and Esau birthright story to Joseph and his brothers to Moses at the Burning Bush to Samuel, King David, and the prophet Isaiah.
This year all my sermons will be connected by the common theme of this word hineni, here I am. Throughout these High Holidays we will explore, in greater detail, some of the aforementioned Biblical stories in which this word appears as well as look at living examples of hineni successes and failures. What does the concept really mean and have we fulfilled the ideals and ideas which it is supposed to foster?
By way of introduction, let’s begin to define hineni beyond the simple “Here I am.” According to a book on the subject called Hineini in Our Lives by Dr. Rabbi Norman Cohen, to whom I am indebted for much of my High Holiday material this year, hineni “represents the ability to respond to the other within relationships.” It means: “Here I am, present and available for you.” I am ready to be a friend, a listening ear, a sounding board, even a punching bag, but I am there specifically for you. More formally, according to Cohen, there are three main aspects to the idea of hineni.
(1) the ability to be present for and receptive to the other,
(2) a readiness to act on behalf of the other, and
(3) the willingness to sacrifice, if necessary, for someone or something higher.
I want to expand briefly on each of these aspects, taking them in reverse order.
The willingness to sacrifice for someone or something beyond ourselves. When I read that line I immediately thought of Don Quixote in The Man of La Mancha singing The Impossible Dream, “to be willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly cause.” The Biblical paradigm for this is Joseph and the story of his brothers. His brothers were out pasturing at Shechem when his father, Jacob, asks Joseph to go look for him. He responds “hineni,” here I am, ready to do what you ask. It sounds simple enough, but it is laden with significance. The fact that they are in Shechem is a foreshadowing of the violence that is about to occur there. The reader knows Shechem was a place that would later become known for its violence with the rape of Dina and her brothers Simeon and Levi wreaking havoc and vengeance upon the Shechemites there. Joseph probably didn’t imagine that he would be cast into a pit and sold to a caravan of Ishmaelites on the way to Egypt to be sold into slavery, but he did know his brothers couldn’t stand him and that he would be risking his own safety if he were to find them. But duty to his Father enabled him to say hineni, here I am; I will go look for my brothers. Joseph was willing to sacrifice for something greater than himself, and we are charged with following his example.
The World War II generation, which Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation in a book by that name, understood this idea of sacrifice like few generations before or since. They not only risked or gave their lives for a noble cause in which they believed, but when they returned, they were all about giving to others. They worked themselves to the bone so their children could have a better education and more comfortable lives than they had. Volunteering, doing things for other people, seeing causes beyond themselves, became a part of who they were, and they built institutions like synagogues and schools and libraries through their selflessness. And they did all this not for personal glory, but because it was a part of their nature. They may have indeed been the greatest generation in American history, but there are examples of that selflessness in today’s world as well. When I first began to think about this sermon, 19 firefighters had just lost their lives in Prescott Arizona this past June. They knew they were putting themselves in harm’s way or chose a job where they would have to do so because they wanted to serve others. They were true heroes. But if we are to believe the cynics, people today are motivated only by selfishness. To quote Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley:
Economics, and much of public policy and political strategy, assume that people are motivated by self-interest, that the definition of acting rationally is to maximize what you want for yourself, and that other values – service, duty, allegiance to others, morality, and shared ideals – are either irrelevant or negligible.
But these things are not irrelevant. I truly believe that many people are motivated by things like morality, service, duty, and love, even when it involves risk and sacrifice. So the first or third aspect of hineni is the willingness to sacrifice oneself, if necessary for the sake of the other.
The second aspect is closely related to the first, though not quite as extreme. This is the readiness to act on behalf of the other. A Biblical role model for this is Abraham, though I’ll explain that in further detail on the second day of Rosh Hashana. I imagine that almost everyone in the room has someone in their lives that they would do anything for, even if it adversely affected themselves, whether we’re talking about a child, a spouse, or a lifelong friend. When we see these people suffering, most of us would do almost anything to take away their pain and put it onto our own shoulders if we could. One of the best illustrations of this idea is in the popular song recorded by The Hollies but written by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell entitled: He Ain’t Heavy; He’s My Brother. I’m sure many of you know the song. The story behind it is quite interesting. It is based on a poster for Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska, established by Father Edward Flanagan. Father Flanagan saw a picture of a boy carrying another boy on his back with this inscription in a magazine called The Messenger. Boys Town had a resident with leg braces with whom the other boys would take turns giving him a ride on their backs. The fact that the other boys in the orphanage saw him as a brother made him seem like a lighter load than under ordinary circumstances, so Father Flanagan decided to make it the mission, logo, and slogan of his orphanage. It’s a great story, and I believe that most of us stand ready and willing to act on behalf of others as long as we are made aware of their need.
And that brings me to the third or first aspect of Hineni, the ability to be present and receptive to the other. Yes, we would do anything for others if we are made aware of their need, but too many of us are not doing so because we are failing in our ability to recognize the need, to be present and receptive to others. This problem is getting infinitely worse in our society because of our electronic distractions—our smart phones, our tablets, our laptops, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. These things have us so plugged in that we are paradoxically tuning out. We care more about telling people about an event than the event itself. We are not there in the moment like we need to be. I first noticed this in my life before the age of social media when officiating at life cycle events. People cared more about how the wedding, Bar Mitzvah, and even funeral were recorded than they cared about the event itself. Then I noticed it with my kids and computer games—“just one more level Daddy” became the inside joke we told.
But, and this is hard for me to admit, I have noticed it gradually in myself. Just one more e-mail kids, just allow me to finish this last thought, and I’ll be with you. It’s OK, Daddy, I’ll just play another level while you finish your one more thought. I’m not playing as much catch or basketball with them or taking out my guitar and singing with them or talking to Karen about how our days went as I used to or as I need to be. I even find it hard to watch television without having some other device where I can check my e-mail by my side. While most of what I do electronically is work-related and our congregation is much busier with 470 families than it was 12 years ago when I started with 270, it is still not what I hope for and expect from myself.
And so I begin this season with a public apology to my own family, something I’ve already done privately, to Karen, Micah, Jonah, my parents, and my friends and congregants for not being as “Hineni” as I honestly need to be. It’s something I am going to work on this year. But the thing is: I can’t be alone in this. I know that far too many of us are telling ourselves we are multi-tasking, when the fact of the matter is, we are distracted tasking, not paying enough attention to anything. The digital age is not making us more productive; it’s making us less productive, but, more importantly, it’s making us less hineni for the people who need us in their lives. Certainly we’re ready to act on behalf of others, maybe we’re even willing to sacrifice for others, but we’re becoming increasingly less present for others, less hineni. So let us resolve this year to unplug a little more—after all, isn’t that part of what Judaism is designed to do with Shabbat and holidays—if not to study Torah or pray, then at least to take a walk or have a conversation. If you want to do something productive for yourself, have a shluf, take a nap. It’s probably the thing your body needs most of all.
But hineni also means wake up from your nap. God called out the names of Abraham and Jacob and Moses and Samuel, and they responded “hineni, here I am.” In conclusion I’d like to quote my doppelganger Matthew Broderick from one of my favorite eighties movies, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, waking up from his slumber, Ferris says: “Yep, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Thank you Jeremy Simon for reminding me of that one. L’shana tova umetuka, may 5774 be a good and sweet new year for all of you, and may it also be a year when we are able to say and truly mean, hineni, here I am, present and available to you.