Rosh Hashanah 5776 – Hineini: Here I AM

(As an introduction to this sermon, we began with a simple chant of one word – Hineini/Here I am. The chant was also used at the conclusion as well. I learned this chant from Rabbi Simcha Zevit)

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test, saying to him, “Abraham.” He answered, “Hineini. Here I am.”

“Then a messenger of the Eternal called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he answered, ‘Hineini. Here I am.’”

Try this for a moment.

Imagine a compassionate teacher or a still, small voice inside you or an ever-flowing Creative Source that you can connect with were to ask “Where are you?” silently and supportively, what would be your honest response?

You might describe where you are spatially – where you are located at that moment, the sights, sounds, smells and feeling of the space where you are currently located.

You might notice your breath. Is it flowing calmly, or is there some pressure or stress causing your breathing to be shallow, uneven, or constricted? What are the thoughts in your mind that are causing you to feel rushed, anxious, discouraged, agitated, or unfocused?

You might have answered the question with sarcasm: What’s it to you? Leave me alone. I’m not listening. I’m not paying attention. I’m hiding.

Yesterday, I spoke about three questions that lay at the heart of Musaf: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?

When you heard: “Where are you?” you might come back to these three questions, to those stories that comprise our lives.

When Adam and Even heard this question for the first time, after they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil, they hid in the Garden. Our teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that:

“When Adam and Eve hid from His presence, the Lord called: Where art Thou (Genesis 3:9). It is a call that goes out again and again. It is a still small echo of a still small voice, not uttered in words, not conveyed in categories of the mind, but ineffable and mysterious, as ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills whole world. It is wrapped in silence; concealed and subdued; yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question: Where art thou?” (God in Search of Man p. 137)

As Adam and Eve did, we continue to hear the question “Where are you?” And, also like Adam and Eve, we have the free will to to avoid or answer the question.

Today, I want to explore one possible answer to the question “Where are you?”, which is Hineini. Here I Am.

Many of our ancestors have responded to God with this answer: As we heard in this morning’s Torah reading, Abraham responds Hineini when God calls on him. Jacob responds to God’s call twice with Hineini. Joseph says it in response to his father’s call to check up on his brothers. Moses, at the burning bush, responds to God’s summons with Hineini. Samuel begins his career as a prophet with the response Hineini.

What do these have in common? Why is this the response that each of these people have in their unique situations?

Author of the book Here I Am Leonard Felder comments that:

…this three-syllable Hebrew word is one of the most interesting spiritual tools I’ve ever encountered. When you respond to life’s challenges, to God, or to your inner turmoil by saying, “Hineini. Here I am,” something positive stirs up inside you. Some specific parts of your brain, your body, and your soul come alive and feel energized with new clarity from announcing these words silently to yourself.

Felder is on to something here. Each of those individuals who answered Hineini was in a vulnerable place, facing a time of uncertainty and turmoil. Abraham says it at the beginning and at the end of the Binding of Isaac, the most challenging test of his life. Jacob utters Hineni during his trials with his brother Esav and deceitful uncle Lavan. Joseph, his father’s favorite among brothers who despise him, unwittingly says Hineini as he leaves his family for over two decades. Moses, the former royal prince living in a foreign land, responds with Hineini as he is about to begin the most important part of his life. Samuel, who is about the become the prophet of a stubborn and passionate people, says Hineini to God’s call in the Mishkan in Shilo.

Hineini. Here I am. Hineini is a courageous response to offer in the face of terrifying challenges and life-changing obstacles. As Felder suggests, it awakens these people – mind, body, and soul – with a life energy that enables them to endure the most difficult of times.

Let’s look at Abraham again from this morning’s Torah reading. “After these things…” At the very beginning of the Torah portion, Abraham is blessed with everything. He is married to Sarah, a passionate, strong woman, and they have a son, Isaac, a miracle child of their old age. They are living in the land that God promised to them. This is the fulfillment of the vision that God shared with Abraham in the land of Haran:

And the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.

In a departure that completely severs Abraham from his past, Abraham leaves behind his extended family and his birthplace for the promise of a starting a whole new family (and ultimately a people) living in a new land. He sets off for the land with Sarah and his nephew Lot sight unseen and without a child. In fact, not even without a child, but with a wife who we are told is unable to bear children. This radical break from Abraham’s past is framed by a story that God shares with them, a story in which he and Sarah are in a covenant with God, a promise, a vision of a people living in their own land. And just when everything seems to be set for the future, God comes to Abraham with this test:

And God said, “Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.”

In this one verse, with a huge emotional build up, God demands that Abraham, who has given us his past, must now give up his future, Isaac. Terrifying. Unthinkable. As Soren Kierkegaard calls it: the suspension of the ethical. Devastating. How can God ask this of him? What is God thinking?

But Abraham does not say Hineini to this command. Abraham already said Hineini before God even revealed the test. When God called out to Abraham, Abraham, without hesitation, said: Hineini. Here I am. Ready and willing to do whatever comes next. And after the command comes, there is nothing but immediate action on Abraham’s part. This is how strong Abraham’s faith is. This is a person whose identity, whose vision of the future, is not shaken even in this moment of absolute terror and this paradoxical command.

Three days later, they arrive at the mountain. Abraham and Isaac leave their two servants and the donkey at the foot of the mountain, and they head up the mountain, Abraham holding the knife and the tools for making the fire, and Isaac carrying the wood. All in agonizing silence.

At some point while going up the mountain, Isaac asks his father the a haunting question:

“Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?”

Abraham, without missing a beat, replies:

“God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.”

There are many ways to read this verse. Some understand that Abraham is lying to Isaac to keep him calm. Another reading that the Rabbis suggest is that Abraham subtly reveals to his son that he is going to be the offering. “God will see to the sheep for the offering: my son.” A third way to read it is that Abraham is neither lying nor hinting at a horrible possibility, but rather expressing his faith that God is simply not going to go through with this test. There is going to be a sheep up there. God will see to it. That is the strength of Abraham’s faith. Abraham’s commitment to the vision expressed in the covenant cannot not be shaken by God’s command in the moment.

Given the faith that Abraham expresses, and what looks like Isaac’s cooperation in this test, what does God see on that mountain top in those next few moments?

In an essay about the Binding of Isaac, Rabbi Brad Artson teaches that: God sees Abraham and Isaac together up on that mountain – mind, body and soul. Isaac bound on the altar and Abraham preparing for an unthinkable act. When God calls to them a second time, no matter how paradoxical the call may be, they respond together: Hineni. Here we are.

Rabbi Artson continues:

“Abraham has not denied the terror of this situation, neither to himself, nor to his son. He does not ignore the pain and the uncertainty of what he is ordered to do. At the same time, he demonstrates his trust. Abraham even said to the two servants that he and the boy would be back down the mountain later on. It was not a lie. It was a demonstration of faith.”

“What Abraham does not do is surrender to the pain and the fear of the situation. He refuses to allow the situation to undermine his identity as a Jew, as a member of the covenant with God.”

Abraham’s test is whether he will retain his confidence in God’s promised covenant, which has become his own core identity, or not.

Rabbi Artson:

“By refusing to abandon hope in the face of a bleak reality, by refusing to wish away a challenging reality in favor of simplistic beliefs and wishful stories, Abraham remains true to the brit, to the covenant.”

Everyday, we face this same test. In our abundant and sumptuous Western part of the world, in a world assaulted by terror, economic and political instability, hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives, poverty – including our city of Syracuse which is one of the most impoverished in our nation –  illness, hatred of all sorts, and violence, we are called to apprehend the reality of the threats facing us. We are called to confront the improbability of survival, of overcoming even one of these threats. We are called then to do the hard work necessary to transcend those odds.

We are tested with the same paradox as Abraham, as individuals, as families, as a community, as a people, and as human beings made in God’s image.

We are heirs to the a covenant of vision, that carries with it the promise of hope, equality, justice, love, and compassion. We are the transmitters of that promise. God has no hands but yours. God needs us to supply hands to do the work, the hearts to bear the love and the compassion, and the mouths to give voice to the promise, to articulate the vision, to voice the primal utterance of what the future should be.

Like Abraham and Isaac, we can say – we must say Hineini. Here we are.

With faith and commitment to Judaism, to its spiritual treasures, to its goals and aspirations, and to each other, and at the same time, recognizing the reality of our lives and of the demands that will take our combined effort, we can pass the test.

Imagine that your compassionate teacher or that still, small voice inside you or that ever-flowing Creative Source that you connect asking: “Where are you?” silently and supportively, in the face of challenges and obstacles, together we can say Hineini.

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Rosh Hashanah 5776 – We Are Our Stories: A Framework for Musaf

My summer after third grade, my parents sent me to a Jewish summer camp called Olin Sang Ruby. That summer at camp was…mediocre. But there was one particular moment that summer that I will never forget. Late one night, I hopped down from my top-bunk to go to the bathroom. The bathroom building was in the middle of a semi-circle of bunks. As I came back to my bunk, it seemed that my bunk mate had taken my blanket. Leaning in to whisper so I would not wake anyone else, I said, “Hey, give me back my blanket.” My bunk mate stirred, but was still asleep. I tried to take it back gently while whispering again, “Hey, you took my blanket. Give it back.” Now partially wakened, he groggily said, “Who are you? It’s my blanket.” It is as that moment I realized…I was in the wrong bunk. I went back to my bunk, which was, of course, just one building over. At the end of that camp session, there was a campfire with campers sharing camp stories. After a few people shared their stories, one particular kid began his story: “It was the strangest thing. Late one night, this kid comes into my bunk and demands that I give him my blanket. Then he just left.” I said nothing. But I was aware that my small act of forgetting where I was helped to create a story for that other camper and for me.

Stories are what I want to focus on today. The imaginative capacity to tell stories is one of the most human things that we do. Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, writes that:

“At any given moment, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will be engaged in what is one of the most familiar of all forms of human activity. In one way or another they will have their attention focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images which we call a story. We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them; listening to them; reading them; watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films or on a stage. They are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence.

Not only do fictional stories play such a significant role in our lives, as novels or plays, films or operas, comic strips or TV…. Through newspapers or television [or the internet], our news is presented to us in the form of ‘stories’. Our history books are largely made up of stories. Even much of our conversation is taken up with recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. These structured sequences of imagery are in fact the most natural way we know to describe almost everything which happens in our lives.”

Human beings are story-tellers. From our fragments of memory, we seek patterns, look for meaning, and create stories. We do this to help us remember who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Booker and others have made claims there are only a small handful of basic stories, some say that there are five core stories, some say seven core, and they may be right, but there is also a uniquely Jewish set of core stories.

Several years ago, at a Jewish education conference, I learned about the centrality of stories in Jewish life from master Jewish story teller Joel Lurie Grishaver. If you have ever used the religious school book “The Shema is for Real” you have seen his groundbreaking work. He taught us that looking at the Hebrew Bible as THE Jewish framework, there are really only three types of stories: Creation stories. Redemption stories. And Revelation stories. Each core story is based on these three classic expressions of God’s actions in the world: The Creation of the Universe, our Redemption from Egyptian Slavery, and the Revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

These three core stories do capture so much of a person’s life. Everyone’s life has a beginning. Everyone’s life has moments of moving from narrowness to expansiveness. And everyone’s life contains moments of deep learning.

The Tanakh presents the three core stories, both on the cosmic scale, and on the human scale; on the family scale and the personal. Stories within stories within stories, like a huge fractal of narratives, where at every level you see the same pattern over and over again.

But the Tanakh continues with other stories. A Return to our ancestral land. Catastrophe and Exile when the Babylonians destroyed our sacred center. Exile and Return are the fourth and fifth Jewish core stories.

I was thinking this through with Cantor Pepperstone, and she thought of a sixth story. This past summer, while she was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva (with thanks to Harold and Joan Burstyn for providing a scholarship so that she could spend three weeks learning there this summer), in a class about Hasidut, they discussed the idea of Deveikut, which is a feeling of Oneness or deep harmony with God’s presence, particularly when doing mitzvot. Now, the list of Jewish core stories has reached six: Creation, Redemption, Revelation, Exile, Return, and Oneness.

Today, as we take this time to reflect on our lives over the past year and what they might be like in the coming year, I invite you to begin to think about where how these core stories fit into your life, or rather, how your life fits into these six core stories.

Creation Stories. Birth. Beginnings. New Starts. Radical breaks from the past. Each of us has a story about our first moments, our early years, the formative events that make us who we are. There are moments, events that set up the first legs of our journeys through life.

In the Torah’s first chapter, God took primordial stuff and shaped it into a universe, an amazing cosmos of tremendous magnitude and microcosms of powerful forces at the smallest levels of existence. Creation is the movement from chaos to order, of new light, of creating separations and structures.

In the siddur, we say on Shabbat morning that God is Mechadesh b’kohl yom tamid Ma’asei Breisheet – that God is the One who renews Creation on every day and at every moment.

Redemption Stories. Going out. Freedom. In the Torah, God sends Moses to take us out of Mitzrayim, which means the Narrow Place, into the Wilderness of Sinai. These are stories the movement from slavery to freedom, stories about overcoming oppression, about fighting injustice. Redemption stories are about moving from sweat shops to independent businesses, leaving bad situations; about leaving unhealthy workplaces, dysfunctional relationships, oppressive countries, about moving from any narrow confining place into a place of expansiveness.

We chant that verse from the psalm: Min ha-meitzar karati Yah. Anani va-merchav Yah! From the narrow-places I call out to Yah! Yah answered with spaciousness.

Revelation Stories. In the Torah, this is our standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and receiving the Revelation of the Torah, of God’s Oneness. These are stories about learning, the movement from ignorance to knowledge, of wisdom learned, of new understanding, of common sense. From whom do we learn? These are stories of mentors, teachers, parents, grandparents – who gave us knowledge, skills, ways of looking at the world, of understanding how the world works, who gave us vision, the ability to see not only what it, but what ought to be. These are stories about lighting up paths of darkness, to see where we ought to be headed.

We learn in the classic compilation of rabbinic wisdom Pirkei Avot : Who is wise/Eizehu chacham? Ha-melamed mikol adam. The one who learns from every human being. As it is written: From all of my teachers, I have learned.

Exile Stories. In the Tanakh, this is represented by the destruction of the Temple, the sacking of Jerusalem and the exile of our people to foreign rule on foreign soil. These are stories of disconnect, of the movement from success to failure, of destruction, of loss. Stories of betrayal and rupture. These are about losing what is most sacred, what is most holy in our lives. Those moments of separation, endings, tears in our relationships, either past of present.

The book of Lamentations, chanted with the haunting melodies of trope for that book, opens with in image of Jerusalem in isolation: Eichah yashvah badad! How she sits alone!

Return Stories. In the Tanakh, there is an end to Exile, when under the new leadership of Ezra and Nechemia, we as a people returned to our land, to rebuild, to reconnect, to embrace again that which was lost for a time. Return stories are about homecoming, the movement from disconnect to connection, stories of making amends, repairing damage, of families reunited, reconnecting with people, places, words, ideas.

In the psalm sung before the Blessing after Meals on Shabbat, we sing: Be’shuv Adonai et shivat Tzion, hayinu ke’cholmim. When the Eternal brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.

Oneness Stories. In the Tanakh, in-between other kinds of moments that are changes from one state into another, there are also moments of oneness and stillness. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Jacob’s family gathered around his deathbed. In moments of solidarity in the forty years in the Wilderness – in particular the building of the Mishkan, or when we stood on Mount Eval and Mount Gerizim and reaffirmed the Sinai covenant. These are stories of connection, of feeling part of something larger than one’s self. Stories about intense belonging, finding one’s place in the larger whole, of one’s personal purpose in alignment with a larger purpose, being part of the dynamic flow of life and the universe.

When the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary we had with us in the wilderness of Sinai, was complete, the Torah says that the Mishkan became Echad, One. All of the components had come together to form something greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Our lives are a matrix of stories, a combination of all six kinds of these stories, stories within stories, some stories woven into larger ones, intersecting and diverging with the stories of others, friends, family, fellow human beings all over the world. At any given moment in time, we are beginning some stories, in the middle of others, and ending yet others.

On Rosh Hashanah, we can take time to look at our stories from a remote vantage point. In Psalm 27, the psalm recited from the beginning of Elul through Sukkot, we come across the phrase: “And now, God will raise up my head.” Rosh Hashanah raises us up out of our normal routine. God in love has given us the gift of time to look at our lives, to see what stories in our lives we are currently writing. During our Selichot event, when we watched the film Thirteen Conversations about One Thing, one character paraphrased a quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.”

Why am I telling you all of this? Today, we have the opportunity to look at our lives backward in order to live forward, and that opportunity is Musaf. One way to understand Musaf is as a structured meditation on the stories of our lives. Once this D’var Torah is done, we will have the following tools at our disposal: The mahzor in our hands, with its rich tapestry of Hebrew, translations, commentary and thematic readings. Cantor Pepperstone’s davening guiding us through the mahzor. This framework for understanding Musaf. Our hearts and minds to help us examine our lives, our stories that make up our self-understanding. The gift of time this holiday to do this sacred work.

Musaf asks us three questions:

Malkhuyot – Kingship: Who am I?

Zichronot – Remembrances: Where do I come from?

Shofarot – Shofar Blasts: Where am I going?

Malkhuyot. Kingship. The essential question of Maklkhuyot is: Who am I? The idea of God as King presents many of us, myself included, with a challenge. However, this is a poetic metaphor that begs to be unpacked. If so, what does the metaphor of God as King mean? My teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager suggests that King/Melekh conveys the idea of the Source of all being and power. When we hear the language of “king” and “kingship,” we are invited to consider the Source of all that is, and our place in relation to that Source.

In the Garden of Eden, right after Eve and Adam eat from that fruit that gives them expansed human consciousness, a radical awareness of their place in the universe, God asks them a simple but profound question: Ayeka? Where are you? This is one way to focus during Malkhuyot – on our individual and communal present.

  • Who am I?
  • Where am I?
  • What is my relationship to myself, my family, my community, my people, Israel, the larger world, and to God?
  • Where am I in this web of relationships today?
  • What is the context of my life where I find myself today?

We never stand here isolated, completely independent. We might deny some or all of this complex web of relationships, but it is there all the same.

Who are you?

Zikhronot. Remembrances. The essential question of Zikhronot is: Where do I come from? During Zichronot, the mahzor includes verses that touch on some key moments in the life of our people that bring us to this moment. Zikhronot invites us to look back at our personal stories that brought each of us to this moment. What memories or fragments do we select to create our inner stories, and the stories of our families? What stories have we heard about ourselves? What stories do we tell about ourselves? How do those stories shape our self-understanding? Are they negative stories or positive stories? Should we keep them or abandon them?

Our Creation stories shape our earliest days. Our Redemption stories illuminate moments of leaving, upheaval and development. Our Revelation stories take us back to our parents, our teachers and our mentors – to moments of wisdom and insight. Our Exile stories take us back to moments of rupture and loss. Our Return stories remind us of those moments of homecoming and healing. Our Oneness stories highlight moments of connection and harmony.

  • What are the stories that have brought us to this moment?
  • Where do we come from?

Shofarot. Blasts of the Ram’s Horn. If Malkhuyot invites an examination of the present, and Zikhronot invites an examination of the past, then Shofarot takes us in two directions at once – the past and to the future.

We are taken back to our people’s core moment of Revelation – Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. At the same time, that same Revelation gives us a glimpse of the future, of a distant messianic horizon that shows us where should be heading and where we ought to be heading. On the horizon, we see new beginnings or new endings, future redemption or future enslavement, moments of insight or moments of forgetting, moments of harmony and connection or moments of rupture and disconnect, and moments of distance or moments of return.

The past and future are combined here because it is in those moments of Revelation from our past that we see the path forward. Those moments of divine insight take us from “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?” to “Where am I going? How will we get there?”

The blast of the shofar wakes us from the heads-down burden of the present AND from the mesmerizing reveries of the past and says, “Hey! Where are you going with this life?”

We are both the characters and the co-authors of our stories that we create and inhabit.

  • Some of our stories are all in the past. We must learn from them.
  • Some of our stories are just starting. We can either embrace or reject our role in them.
  • Some stories we find ourselves in the middle of. We must remember that the choices we make shape the narrative as it is lived out day by day.

Shofarot points to the future, reminding that we should move into the future with our path lit by moments of revelation. What will this year bring us? What stories will begin, develop and end this year? At every turn, what choices will we make? What will illuminate our path?

Who are we?

Where do we come from?

Where are we going?

Shanah Tovah.