Hineni

Hineni – Yom Kippur 5762 (2001)

Today I’d like to speak with you for a bit about my favorite word in Torah: Hineni, the name of the prayer we use to open Kol Nidre services. Hineni, which means “here I am.”

It sounds like a pretty unremarkable word, whether in Hebrew or English. And some might be inclined to ask why I wouldn’t choose Adonai as my favorite word, or Yitzchak, my Hebrew name. But for me the choice is easy: it is Hineni. Let me share some of the reasons why with you.

First of all, it’s a pretty rare word. By my count, Hineni occurs eight times in Torah: seven times in Genesis and once in Exodus. Of those times, the first three occur in the Akeidah, the story of the binding of Isaac. The first instance is found at the beginning of Genesis 22:

Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, “Abraham,” and he said, “Hineni – Here I am.”

Let’s try to imagine the scene as it is written: God speaks to Abraham to get his attention, and Abraham says, yes, I’m here. I’m ready. There is no searching on God’s part, no surprise on Abraham’s. It’s as if the two of them were sitting side by side, each lost in their own thoughts, and God starts chatting about a new topic.

Consider the moment a little further: imagine, just imagine, what it must have been like to hear God calling your name, and to be so familiar with God that it would not be surprising, or jolting, or even disconcerting. What a fantastic place to find oneself in!

But perhaps we should not interpret it so literally. Do we really want to believe that God spoke the word “Avraham?” Maybe it makes more sense to imagine that suddenly, out of the blue, without warning, Abraham knew at the core of his being that God was there, and interested in him.

Still, what an amazing condition. To be so open to the moment that not only are we comfortably assured that God exists, but that God knows who we are; to be so much at peace that even God’s attention, focused directly on us, should not rattle us or send us falling to the ground, but allow us to say, calmly, “Yes?”

For me, this is part of the power of Hineni – a reminder that if we are here in the moment, if we are open and receptive, then we can begin to see the hand of the Eternal all about us, and even know that God takes heed of us.

In half of the other times that Hineni is used, it is used in precisely this same way: God calls to a person, and they respond “Hineni – here I am.” In each of these events, though, the scene is more charged: for example, when God calls to Abraham to not sacrifice Isaac and Abraham says Hineni – Here I am, I will not kill the boy; or when God tells Jacob to trust Him in his struggles against Laban’s treachery, and Jacob says Hineni – I will trust You; when God calls to Jacob to trust Him and go down into Egypt, despite the danger, and Jacob says Hineni – I will go; and finally when God calls to Moses out of the burning bush, and Moses, awestruck, replies Hineni – Here I am.

In each case, God calls out to a person in a pivotal moment, and their response is an act of total focus, a complete readiness to encounter the Eternal: “Yes God, I am here.” Of course, it is not that God needs to know where we are – rather, we need to declare that we are available to God.

We can appreciate this meaning a little more fully by examining places where it is not used. For example, when God is “searching” for Adam in the Garden of Eden, God calls out to Adam, “Where are you?” to which Adam replies not Hineni – Here I am! but “I heard the sound of You, and I was afraid because I was naked, and so I hid.” Clearly, Adam is not in the proper spiritual frame to receive God’s attention; indeed, he is doing his best to hide from God. So even when he reveals himself – metaphorically and literally – he does not do so out of openness or acceptance, but out of fear. So there is no Hineni from Adam – nor should there be.

But that is only part of the power of Hineni. It is also used to punctuate both the narrative and our lives for us, to command: Listen! Pay attention! Something important is about to happen! Something is about to change! Let me explain:

Back in my days as a college student, I took a course that studied these moments of change, of liberation, as expressed in stories found in books and on film. The professor had “decoded,” as it were, the films of Ingmar Bergman, and cataloged the symbols of the filmmaker. Amongst these symbols was the ringing of a bell: every time a bell was heard, be it a phone, a church steeple or a doorbell, it meant that the characters in the next scene would suddenly undergo a fundamental change in consciousness. It was an amazing claim, but true: we were even able to put it to the test with a new film by the director that came out during the course of the semester.

Hineni is just such a marker: it announces to those who are able to listen that something important, something key is about to happen, if only they will open themselves up to the moment, if only they will pay attention. Certainly this is true in each of its uses so far; the same is true for the third use back in the Akeidah, when Abraham calls Isaac to him to ascend the mountain. Abraham calls to Isaac, and Isaac replies “Hineni – here I am,” open to the moment, although completely ignorant of what he has been called to do. Isaac is open, aware, available to the moment – and his life is about to change irreparably.

For the real test, consider for a moment two more uses. They both occur in the story of the deception of Isaac by Jacob and Rebecca, but while one follows the pattern, the other breaks the mold in a way that ultimately proves the rule. The first example is when Isaac, on his deathbed and nearly blind, calls out to Esau, his favored son, to draw near. Esau answers, “Hineni – here I am.” Esau says Hineni, expressing the same dedication that we have heard before, except that now it is between literal parent and child, rather than God as parent and us as child.

The next time we hear it is when Jacob, disguised as Esau, goes to Isaac to deceive him and steal Esau’s blessing. This time, in a humorous reversal of the phrase, Jacob the child calls to Isaac the parent, “Father!” and Isaac answers, “Hineni – here I am.” In this case, everything is backwards: the child queries the parent, and the parent replies. The utterance drives forward a deception, not a revelation; even the metaphor of the moment is one of blindness, not seeing. It is this use of Hineni, the sole perverse exception that proves the rule: Jacob the thief steals the moment, steals the catch phrase, and in so doing we are alerted to the fact that the outcome will be backwards, as indeed it is.

So here, so far, we have Hineni as a magical word, one that alerts the character in the story that he is about to enter a special – usually sacred! – moment, a moment in which he must be focused, and open, and aware, for his life is about to change. And even in the exceptional instance, we find the word works perfectly when stood on its head: when we listen, we still recognize that something important is about to happen, even though it be treachery, not revelation.

There is one last utterance of Hineni I would share with you. The power to fully appreciate this final use comes from our ability to understand the power of Hineni as it is used: a word that alerts us to a change, to the power of the sacred, to the imminent encounter with a new world.

This final use of Hineni is found one in Isaiah, in the portion we will study later today. God promises that if we offer a good fast:

Then, when you call, when you cry, God will say, Hineni – here I am.

What a marvelous phrase. What a fantastic turn. How wonderful to imagine that God will be here for us in the same way, using the same word, with the same focus and attention, that we can devote to being present for God. What a gentle, loving promise, a commitment that carries more weight than all the promised gold and milk and honey that Deuteronomy has to offer.

God will be here for us, attentive, focused, in the moment. All we need to do is be here for God, to open ourselves up to the way of life that Torah offers us – the way of life that is filled with pleasantness and peace. There are few phrases that offer so much comfort, so much solace, as that of Hineni spoken by God, to us. To you and me.

So now, as we make our final teshuvah, prepare our best return to God and the good life, let us pause for a moment and consider where we are. Let us calm ourselves, and listen to the still, quiet voice within us. Let us consider that wherever we are, we can always stop, listen and say Hineni – we can always open ourselves up to see the handiwork of, and receive the blessings of, the Eternal. All we have to do is to be here – Hineni.

May it be so.

L’Shanah Tovah!

© 2001-2007 James F. Brulé