HINENI—HEARING THE CALL
I have a vivid memory of a meeting in Jerusalem during my first year of rabbinical school with a group of young men studying to be Priests. We actually met in a bar. I know it sounds like the opening to a bad joke, but it’s true. A group of student rabbis and a group of student priests walk into a bar. What comes out? A Jewish-Catholic dialogue group. At the first meeting we asked the future Priests about the celibacy requirement and agreed that their jobs certainly demanded much more sacrifice than ours. But what I remember most was when one of the Priests-to-be asked all of us to go around the room and describe the moment of our “calling.” The student Priests nodded their heads in understanding and agreement, while the the rabbinical students looked at one another with an expression that meant “what on God’s earth is he talking about?” One of us naively asked, “specifically what do you mean by a calling?” He replied something to the effect of: “You know, the moment where God spoke to you and you knew you were called to serve Him.” This represented one of the only times in Jewish history where an entire group of rabbis was rendered speechless. He then shared with us his moment of calling in a hospital room as his Aunt lay dying from a fatal automobile accident. Another shared his calling when he was literally on the top of a mountain, and another heard God speak to him in the pews of his church at 16 years old.
Most of us rabbinical students had never thought about our future jobs this way, much less God. My Jewish friends would never ask me “how or when I was called” but rather, “why did you decide to become a rabbi.” I would talk about how I loved Judaism, became active as a teen in BBYO, tried my hand in the business world, and decided this job would be more meaningful. As a career it combined so many of the things I like to do: teach, preach, counsel, work with people of all different ages, serve others, and, most importantly, be there for others during the most significant times in their lives. It was a thoughtful, rational career decision to become a rabbi, and, in seeming contrast to my future Catholic colleagues, there was no mountaintop, hospital bed, or epiphany in the pews of Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. But I admired these men immensely for both their faith and candor, and from that meeting on, I was fascinated by this idea of the call. It turns out that I did have a few of those moments; I just didn’t recognize them at the time. I’ll share some of that in a few moments, but the point is that it can be very difficult to recognize the “call” when your mind is not open or ready for it.
Returning to the theme I introduced last night, hineni, which literally means “here I am,” today we’re going to look at a Biblical story where the Biblical prophet, Samuel, has a great deal of trouble recognizing his “call” from God and therefore has equal difficulty in responding “hineni.” To briefly review this idea of Hineni, which I spoke about last night, the idea of hineni will be a theme that connects all my High Holiday sermons this year, 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.” Today, we’re going to talk about being hineni for God in the context of the call of Samuel.
Today’s Haftarah portion is the prequel to the story of Samuel. It’s about Samuel’s Mother Hannah praying so fervently for a son the Priest thinks she’s drunk. If God will only grant her the gift of this child, she promises to dedicate him to Adonai and the Priesthood at Shiloh for all his days. It covers Chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of First Samuel. In Chapter 3 the story picks up with the call of Samuel, where the book says that “in those days the word of Adonai was rare; prophecy was not widespread.” Samuel was sleeping in the Temple there when God calls out to him. Except he doesn’t think it’s God who is calling him. Why would he? He’s never heard God’s voice before, and he’s just a lowly servant. Why would God reach out to him? He hears the voice and responds “ineni,” but he thinks it’s his boss, the High Priest Eli, who is calling him. So he wakes him up in the middle of the night and says, “hineni, here I am, you called me.” Eli’s response is: “I didn’t call you; now go back to sleep.” This happens a second and third time, and by the third time Eli realizes what is happening, that it is Adonai that is calling Samuel. So Eli advises Samuel: “Go lie down. If you are called again, say, ‘Speak, Adonai, for Your servant is listening.’” So he does as Eli asks and lies down. God calls to him not once but twice, “Shmuel, Shmuel,” evoking the Akeidah story of tomorrow where the angel calls off Avraham from sacrificing his son with “Avraham, Avraham.” And Shmuel responds “Speak, for Your servant is listening.” Samuel then goes on to become Prophet, Judge, and leader of the Jewish people.
What are we meant to learn from the story about the difficulties of discerning the call?
Lesson #1. As it says in a television commercial from a few years ago for Pepsi Maxx that my kids used to repeat incessantly, “wake up, peoples!” It is no coincidence that the call happens to Samuel while he’s asleep and that it takes three attempts and that his name has to be called twice; he’s emblematic of most of us. We’re asleep, my friends, and we’ve got to wake up. We are often so caught up in the day-to-day demands of life that it becomes almost impossible to be open to the needs of other people, let alone to the experience of God. At times we need to be jarred out of our comfortable places, where we may feel safe, but oblivious to all that surrounds us. What will it take to wake us from our slumber? Sometimes, it takes a traumatic event such as an illness or a death to make us pay attention, sometimes a natural disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake, or a fire in Yosemite. But it shouldn’t have to be that complicated. It should be as simple as hearing the sound of the shofar. May this Rosh Hashana be the first of the many wake up calls we need, whether we’re talking about other people or God .
Lesson #2. I believe on a very deep level that when we are hineni” there and present, for other human beings, God becomes hineni for us. In the story, when Samuel comes to Eli the second time and Eli sees how reticent he is, Eli affectionately calls him “b’ni,” my son. The commentator Abravenel points out that in this gentle and loving way, though Samuel may be upset by the strange call, Eli is calmly assuring him that everything will be all right. That faithful support is returned just a few sentences later when God tells Samuel that the house of Eli will shortly fall due to the sins of Eli’s actual sons. Samuel had to deliver that painful news to his mentor and boss Eli, and Eli accepts the decree, praises Samuel for his honesty and says “God will do what God deems right.” Even in a potentially tragic moment, their connectedness, their hineni, their willingness to be there for one another brings forth the Divine Presence.
So it is with us as well, and I see it all the time around here. I sense God’s presence the most in this community when we are hineni or present for one another. When you serve meals to the homeless at City Team International, you are calling out hineni, and I sense God’s presence. When you attend a shiva house, whether or not you know the mourners and even though you might have no idea what to say to them, you are calling out hineni, and I sense God’s presence. When you bring a meal to someone who is ill, or take someone to a doctor’s appointment, or drive someone who wants only to pray in the sanctuary to the synagogue, and I have seen all these things many times over here at TBA, you are calling out hineni, and I sense God’s presence. When we hear and respond to the other in the world, God is miraculously present for us. In the moment when we say hineni, God reciprocates by saying hineni too.
Lesson #3. It’s OK to be awestruck, dumbstruck, and dumbfounded sometimes. In the Biblical story, Eli tells Samuel that the next time he hears God’s voice to say: “Speak, Adonai, for Your servant is listening.” Samuel does not follow Eli’s instructions precisely, for he says: “Speak for Your servant is listening,” omitting God’s name. Here, at the most important spiritual moment of his life, he forgets to acknowledge God’s presence? . I imagine he was so utterly awestruck, that he forgot this most basic, important instruction. If we are lucky enough to experience a “moment” like this we are sometimes so overwhelmed with emotion that we cannot find the right words to express ourselves. And that’s OK. It’s more than OK. It’s good to be stunned speechless sometimes, to have an awe inspiring moment that we can’t put into words. We, present company included, can be so overly rationalistic that we close ourselves off to the mystical, to the experiential, to the Divine!
And that, in a sense, was what those Priests-to-be were trying to tell our overly rationalistic ragtag band of rabbinical students back in 1990. Be open not only to the career, but to the calling, not only to the commandments but to the One who commands.
And after that meeting I began to look back at some of my “calling” moments, only much later beginning to understand that they were calling moments. Surely, God was in some of these places, and I, I did not know it. Moments like when in between my ball playing in the back yard, as a preschooler, I would use the pillows not to build forts as most kids would, but to build arks from which to recite Kiddush with a plastic cup. Like the time on Erev Shabbat at BBYO’s teen summer camp called ILTC in a beautiful place called Starlight, Pennsylvania, where we were sent to walk in silence amongst the trees of the campground, and I was able. as a 16 year old boy, amidst the stars in Starlight, to think about Torah instead of girls for 10 whole minutes. And like the time when I was working at Clorox, post college, and I spent a nearly an hour comforting one of my colleagues who was distraught. Why? You see, at Clorox, after a year or so, they promote you if you are doing well, and at the time of your promotion they move you to a different brand. We were working on Tilex, which “removes mildew stains instantly without scrubbing,” and just before the promotions were announced he said to me: “I’ll go anywhere but the cat litters, anywhere but the cat litters.” Clorox owns Fresh Step Cat Litter, by the way. The day of the promotion came, and sure enough, my friend got placed on Fresh Step Cat Litter. He was bawling in my office for about 30 minutes, because at the time it seemed tragic to him that he’d be working on cat poop instead of mildew. That was the moment I realized I wanted a job that felt more meaningful to me, and I started working on my rabbinical school application the next day. I mean no disrespect to Clorox or any other company with this story. In fact, looking back, I can say that Clorox treated its employees much better and more humanely than many of the non-profits I have been associated with. But in retrospect, that story was part of my calling to become a rabbi—God was right there amongst the cat litter and the mildew and the tears of my colleague.
Let me conclude, not so parenthetically, by saying that you don’t have to be a rabbi to be called or to respond hineni to serve the Jewish people and Hashem. I believe that every one in this room has a purpose, a sacred purpose, a gift, if you will, that you bring to the Jewish people. And that’s the most important part here. We, the Jewish people, need you in any way you are capable, to serve the Jewish people, whether it’s as simple as bringing in your cans of food to help the Alameda County Food Bank or davening the Amidah in shul or taking a trip to Israel or belonging to a synagogue and paying membership dues. But these are just the baby steps. I’ll have more to say about this on Yom Kippur, but our Jewish actions ultimately should mean something more. They should ultimately serve a bigger and broader purpose that helps human beings and humanity, makes our community a kinder and more inviting place, makes our city a safer and more compassionate place, makes our world a stronger and better place. At the heart of all our calling is the idea that we are God’s partners in, if you’ll pardon my use of the most overused expression in Jewish life today, in tikkun olam, in repairing our broken world. And in finding your gift, your purpose, you may very well be calling out hineni, saying, I am there for this community, for the Jewish people and, ultimately, for God. L’shana tova umetuka, may 5774 be a good and sweet new year for all of you, but may it also be a year where we are open to hearing the call and responding with hineni, here I am, ready, willing, and present.