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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