Sermon: Rosh Hashanah Morning – Hineini

Sermon, Rosh HaShanah Morning
September 5, 2013
Rabbi David A. Lipper

Hineini – Here I am

There are memorable moments in life when heaven and earth meet, and when we are inspired to fervent prayerfulness and lofty deeds.   The High Holy days bring such captivating moments.   The Holy days come each year like an incandescent lamp illuminating a path through our own darkness.  The Days of Awe and these awesome moments of personal prayer are like a life preserver to which we cling as we rock and roll on the waves of our own lives.   

And in the midst of it all, we hear a call.   It is a cry from the depths of our soul.  God calls to each and every one of us for awareness … for an answer … and as we have learned, Abraham answers … Hineini … Here I am.  

Hineinu, here we are.  This morning I want to explore with you this rare … it only appears 8 times in Torah … an important word.

Hineini. The first hineini is uttered by Abraham as a response to God’s call at the beginning of the Akedah, the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac that we read today and will continue tomorrow.  “Vayomer elav, Avraham, vayomer, hineini.” God calls to Abraham — “Avraham” — and Abraham, always ready to do God’s will, responds, “Hineini,” here I am.  A little later in this terrifying tale Isaac calls out to his father, perhaps in fearful anticipation of what is about to happen, “Avi” (My father), and Abraham again responds, “Hineini b’ni” (here I am, my son). And finally right as Abraham is about to slit his son’s throat, an angel calls twice to Abraham, “Avraham(!), Avraham(!)” and again Abraham says, “Hinei” (Here I am).

Each time Hineini appears in the Torah, it marks a pivotal moment in the narrative. When Jacob tricks his blind father Isaac into giving him and not Esau his blessing, he calls after him “Avi” (My father) and Isaac responds “Hineini.”  When Jacob, now a father himself, calls his favorite son Joseph in order to set him off to look after his brothers, Joseph answers “Hineini” as well, not knowing that this errand will soon result in his being sold into slavery by those very same brothers. Twenty years pass, and Jacob sets out to meet Joseph, his long lost son. On the way, Jacob falls asleep for the night and God comes to him in a dream: “Yaakov, Yaakov” — “Jacob, Jacob,” God calls. How does Jacob respond? “Hineini,” here I am. And later, when God calls to Moses from the burning bush: “Moishe! Moishe!” — “Moses! Moses!” — he too answered “Hineini.”

Hineini! What are we to make of this potent and important word? I see hineini at work on two planes, the vertical — a response to God — and the horizontal — a response to another human being.

Let’s start with the vertical: hineini as response to God. The question that hineini answers is actually first posed to Adam in the Garden of Eden after he has eaten the forbidden fruit — “Ayekah?” “Where are you?” God asks. The question is not a physical one; we can assume that God knew where Adam was. Rather, the question poses an existential challenge: where are you in your life? Where are you spiritually, emotionally, morally? Adam is too ashamed to answer.  And so he hides, or tries to.  

Ok. I know that for many, as soon as we talk about God, you go blank, as if the power was cut from a computer. That is ok. For those who struggle with the concept of divinity, let’s put that struggle aside for a moment and just allow the existential question — Ayeka? Where are you? — to wash over us.

Are you where you want to be in your life? Are you where you want to be with your family, friends, community, work? How is your spiritual life? Ayeka? Where are you? Are you where you want to be? No better time than now, on the cusp of the New Year to ask that question, and honestly answer it, to show up for yourself, to say hineini to your own quest for meaning, for a life well lived.

And what role does God play in our showing up for ourselves? When and if God “calls” us, can we or do we respond?

35 years ago, I sensed my own hineini moment in my life.  I was a sophomore in college and living the life.  A little school, a lot of parties, and the occasional visit to my Temple or one in the community.   I was comfortable, life was good.   And then tragedy struck.  A phone call, a trip to the hospital, a friend of mine, lay fighting for his life after a brutal crime nearly took him from us.   I sat dumfounded looking for words, seeking something stable upon which I could lean on.  Conversations with his parents as we sat in the waiting room, his father a rabbi, left me seeking meaning in a very darkened world.  And then a voice, more a call, maybe a cry … I would call a hineini moment … God called and I responded.   A spark was lit that was fanned into a flame of faith and feeling.  I began to walk down this path, a new path.

My friend survived his ordeal, changed for sure, and has returned to live boldly and do great things with his experience.  And I began to see that life had a deeper meaning and a greater purpose and found that learning and service and pastoral work and faith were places that I was called to.  Hineini.  Like Abraham in the midst of the wilderness, I heard a call.  Here I am.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Nice story rabbi, but that has never happened to me.” I wonder? Really? You’ve never felt drawn to act, pulled up from the inside out by something bigger than yourself? I have a hunch that hineini moments are available to all of us all the time, if we are open to both “hearing” and responding.

One reason we tend to shut out “God’s voice,” or what some might call the voice of conscience or the yearnings of our soul, is that, more often than not, the message is uncomfortable, challenging or down right scary. When God called to Abraham, Abraham thought God asked him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Who would want to answer that call? God, wrong number!  When God called to Moses, it was to lead a revolution against the mightiest country and the most powerful despot of the known world at that time.  Leave a message at the beep ,,,,  Beep! No wonder Moses balked! I wonder if Moses didn’t occasionally think, “You know if I would have just kept walking and not stopped to look at that darn bush, life would have been so much easier.”

Thankfully, we are not Abraham or Moses. The kind of Divine communication I am talking about is less demanding and more subtle. As the prophet Elijah found out, God is often not in the fire, or earthquake but rather in the “still small voice” (after 1Kings:19:12). That’s the call we need to hear: the still small voice of conscience, the yearning of our souls, the sometimes desperate pleas of our hearts. But since the call is subtler, it is often harder to hear, especially given the blistering pace of most of our lives, not to mention the deafening background noise that surrounds us.

Remember how when God calls to Moses at the Burning Bush, he responds, Hineini. What if, at that very moment, Moses had been updating his status on Facebook? According to the Midrash, many shepherds passed by that bush but only Moses notices that it was burning and not being consumed. He stares at it in amazement, and then, only after God has Moses’ full attention, that God calls: “Moses, Moses” and he responds, “Hineini.”

Ayeka, Ayeka, Ayeka!? Where are you! Where are you? Where are we? I do believe God calls even those who don’t believe in God! In fact, I often think our problems with divinity are mostly about language — I call it “God” you may call it “our higher selves” or “conscience.” Can we let go of that struggle and focus on the results of that struggle — what we want out of life, how we want to live. The question is, are we able to hear “the still small voice” — can we hear it, and respond, “hineini, here I am.”

Let’s move from the vertical plane, bein adam l’makom/between a person and The Place — a grand name for God, to the horizontal plain, bein adam l’havero/one person and another.

To do this, let’s return to the story of the Akeda. When Abraham and Isaac are on their way up the mountain, Isaac, perhaps realizing that things are not adding up — we have everything for the sacrifice but the animal to slaughter! — he calls to his father: “Avi” and that is when Abraham responds “Hineini,” here I am my son.

Every time I read the Akedah I am struck by the silence between father and son — Abraham and Isaac hardly say a word to each other. Rabbi Rick Jacobs comments: “I wonder if the father of the Jewish people (Abraham) has any idea who his son is?  Abraham is too consumed with his holy work to notice the fragile, little boy (Isaac).”

I’d like to think I do better knowing and communicating with my family, but they might tell a different story. How about yours? Research suggests that “fathers spend an average of seven minutes per day relating to each of their children.” In other words, “men spend more time showering, and shaving then they do talking to their kids.” Ouch! (Hineini in our Lives, pg. 134). Let’s face it, many if not all of us are like Abraham, involved in our own worlds — our careers, our interests, or our principles — so much so that we are blind to the fact that our children, our spouses, our parents are bound on the altar, sacrificed metaphorically like Isaac was nearly done physically.

What does it take for us to do teshuvah, to reorient in away that allows us to hear the call of those closest to us and to respond, hineini, here I am?   Our family and friends offer us hineini moments. The same is true for our community, and the organizations that sustain us like B’nai Chayim.

Over the years I have been awed by the myriad ways members of congregations respond with hineini to the many calls for personal help and communal service. In my few short weeks here I have learned,  B’nai Chaim has a big heart; people really care and give of themselves in every way to keep our community going and to respond to the needs of our members. We are not perfect — folks can fall through the cracks, we can let people down — but when we fail it is usually not for a lack of caring or effort.

And, it is also true that a relatively small group carries the majority of the weight both in volunteer hours and in financial support. The truth is, if B’nai Chaim is going to continue to prosper — be there for you at times like these and in more personal moments of joy or crisis — we need your help. If you are not a member, please join. We need you. We can’t continue to carry the weight of the whole community without more communal support. If you are a member but not active or generous, think about making a bigger commitment; to be there for you, we need you to be there for us. You may only seek us out once or twice a year, but for us, Hineini, being able to respond to the needs of our community, is a 24/7 job.

Hineini. I am here. Responding to the call of the other, whether it be some one in our family, or in our community, often requires sacrifice; we have to give of our time, energy, money in ways we might not have originally planned, to reach beyond our self made boundaries, responding to the higher voice that is constantly asking Ayeka? Where are you? Because, ultimately, that question begins to sound like, Who are you?

What would happen if we all were able to answer the call, to declare, Hineini? This reminds me of a Hassidic teaching about the meaning of Birkat Hakohanim, the Priestly Blessing: “May God bless you and keep you, may God’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious to you, May God’s face shine upon you and bring you peace.”

What does it mean for “God’s face to shine upon you?” In truth, no one really knows, but here is one worthy interpretation — “may we live lives that are so true, so honest, so kind that we could, as it were, look God ‘in the eye’ with no shame, no embarrassment, no need to avert our gaze from The One that knows all and sees all.”

Friends, the time is now. Our families and friends need us now. Your community needs you now. The New Year beckons — Ayeka? Ayeka! Where are you? Are you where you want to be? Are you the person you ought to be?

It is not too late. There is no better time than the present to say, Hineini, here I am.

Shanah Tovah U’metukah!