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Hineini – Rosh Hashanah

September 10, 2018

When God calls, the right answer is “Hineini.”

Abraham says hineini when God instructs him to sacrifice his beloved son.

Moses answers hineini when God calls to him from the burning bush.

Isaiah cries out hineini when God invites him to prophecy to Israel.

The literal translation of this word is, “Here I am.” But this is not what we would use to answer a roll call. It is not like “right away, boss,” or “yes, dear.” Hineini is a response that invokes covenant and commitment, and the willingness to do something radical and difficult.

Rabbi Norman Cohen suggests that, when our ancestors said hineini, their words reflected the “ability to be present and receptive to the other,” the “readiness to act on behalf of the other,” and the “willingness to sacrifice for someone or something higher” (Cohen xi).

In other words, hineini doesn’t just mean, “Here I am.” It means, “I am here, I am ready, I will do whatever it is that you ask of me.” As we arrive at the threshold of this New Year, we contemplate how it might shape our lives to speak this ancient word.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Abraham says hineini three times: once to God, once to his son, and once to the angel who reaches out to stay his hand.

The first time that Abraham answers hineini, he doesn’t yet know what God is about to demand of him. But Abraham has been prepared to do whatever God asks of him, from the moment God first called out lech lecha, “go forth.”

The second time Abraham says hineini, the call doesn’t come from God. It comes from Abraham’s son, Isaac, as the two make the three-day journey to Mount Moriah. A thick silence hangs between them as they walk through the wilderness, sacrificial materials on their backs, the repetitive sounds of their falling footsteps broken only by Isaac saying, “Father?”

Abraham responds, “Here I am, my son.”

Does Isaac tremble as he asks, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Perhaps Isaac knows the answer to this loaded question, and is asking his father to calm his fears, to affirm that he is loved and protected. But Abraham responds only with the cryptic, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:7-8).

The third time Abraham says hineini, he is poised atop Mount Moriah, knife in hand, with Isaac bound on an altar beneath him. An angel calls out, “Abraham! Abraham!” telling him to put down the knife and spare his son. God does not demand human sacrifice, and is now convinced of Abraham’s loyalty.

Why does the angel call Abraham’s name twice? Rabbi Liezar explains that, while the first call is to Abraham, the second call is an echo for future generations, for there is no generation “which does not contain ones like Abraham, and there is no generation which does not contain ones like Jacob, Moses, and Samuel” all of whom are called twice (Bereishit Rabbah 36:7). That second call is directed at us, as we strive and struggle to fulfill our covenants with God and with each other.

Although we pray that none of us would ever be subjected to the trials of our ancestors, we, too, face the same dynamic of call and response, commitment and change:

We are called to enter into relationship, with God and with human beings, not knowing what sacrifices each relationship will entail.

We are called to nourish the hopes and calm the fears of the people around us, even as we go about the important tasks of our own lives.

We are called to listen for that voice that tells us to change course, even when we thought our path was predetermined.

Sometimes it is difficult to recognize God’s call when it comes. The prophet Samuel, whose story we also read this morning, mistakes God’s voice for a human one. As an apprentice to Eli the priest, Samuel wakes up in the middle of the night when a voice calls his name. Unaccustomed to hearing directly from God—as most of us would be—Samuel rushes to Eli’s bedside, saying, “Hineini, here I am, you called me.” Twice, Eli says, “I didn’t call you, go back to sleep.” But the third time, Eli tells Samuel to listen again, and helps him to find the right answer, “Speak, God, for your servant is listening” (I Sam. 3:1-10). This response initiates Samuel into life as a prophet, speaking truth to power.

It can be difficult both to figure out whose voice we are hearing, and to ready ourselves for the responsibilities of saying hineini. So it’s no surprise that not every prophet responds affirmatively when God calls.

Jeremiah says, “I do not know how to speak/For I am still a boy” (Jer. 1:6).

Even Moses has doubts and makes excuses, saying, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex. 3: 11, 13; 4:1, 10).

Jonah says nothing, but buys a ticket sailing in the other direction.

And there are moments in our lives when doing the right thing, the kind thing, the life-changing thing, feels like too much for us. We buy a ticket and run the other way. We curl up in the belly of the ship and hope someone will wake us when the storm has passed.

To these fears, the prophets’ and our own, God responds, I will be with you, and I will help you, as you embark on this sacred task.

As we reflect on the year that has passed, we ask ourselves: What voices called out to us this year? And how did we respond?

Did we run to the front of the line, as Isaiah did, saying, “Send me!”?

Did we hesitate, as Moses did, saying “yes” but asking for help?

Did we hear one call, as Samuel did, but answer someone else?

Did we run away, as Jonah did, only responding when there was no other option?

Or were our minds too noisy with the distractions of everyday life to even hear the call when it came?

Looking ahead to the year that starts today, we ask ourselves: how will we respond to the call in 5779?

What will we say when new opportunities and adventures are put before us?

What will we say to life’s challenges, and the people who tell us, “I need you”?

What will we do when something in our world troubles us? Will we say, “Somebody should really do something about that”?

Or will we say, “Here I am, I am ready to be a force for change”?

No matter where we fall on the ideological spectrum, we can acknowledge that the last few years have been challenging to navigate and respond to. Every day seems to bring a new assault on our conscience and our sensibilities, or even the very notion of “truth.”

And every day seems to drive a wedge between segments of our community. Civil discourse has broken down between people who differ in opinion and experience. It is difficult to even agree on what the problems are, making it nearly impossible to agree on the solutions.

Members of my previous community were torn about how they wanted the synagogue—and me—to respond. Some felt that that the synagogue should be a peaceful refuge from the outside world, while others felt, just as strongly, that they needed to process what was happening through a Jewish lens, and to heed the Torah’s call to pursue justice as a community.

I’m sure this community was not exempt from that tension. Part of my calling as a rabbi has been to strike a delicate balance between providing spiritual sustenance and offering moral direction, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

While there is no Jewish law against turning off the news, or taking a Shabbat rest from discussing politics, it is not consistent with Jewish values to completely disengage from the world around us. The Talmud tells us, “When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and eat and drink and peace be upon you, my soul” (Taanit 11a). Rather, we are called to bear witness to our neighbors’ suffering and, when we can, to help bring it to an end.

One particularly painful moment for us this year was learning of the mistreatment of immigrants and asylum seekers at our nation’s border, particularly the separation of children from their families, and the poor conditions in which those children were being held. I’m sure that many of us were tempted to turn away. How could we even begin to respond in the face of such injustice?

But this June, 40 clergy of various faiths—including 10 rabbis—traveled to McAllen, Texas to demand access to the detention facilities, so that they could bear witness to what was happening to children and families at the border.

Rabbi David Stern, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, wrote that his sense of responsibility was motivated by a biblical verse about how we respond when our neighbor is in distress: lo tuchal l’hitalem—you must not remain indifferent (Deut. 22:3):

“We have witnessed traumatic cruelty in our nation in these recent weeks, and if witnessing it has been traumatic, we can only begin to imagine the pain of those who suffered it directly: the parents and children whose wails tear at our hearts…. So the work of calling for transparency must continue – not only by the forty leaders on our bus, but by everyone of us who cares about the conscience, heart and destiny of America.” https://reformjudaism.org/blog/2018/06/22/witness-cruelty-bringing-compassion-mcallen

The work of reuniting these children with their families, and ensuring humane treatment to all who cross our borders, is still ongoing. We must still confront the broader question of how we as a nation respond to those who are seeking to build new lives in America. But these faith leaders were able to make an impact simply by showing up, and answering the call.

They could not set everyone free, Moses-style. They could not reunite every child with their parents. But they could show up and say hineini. We see what is happening. We know that it is wrong. And we aren’t going to turn away.

We don’t have to be sleeping in a sacred temple, or watching a bush burn, to hear the call. We don’t have to be camped out on the border or protesting at the Capitol to respond to our world. While sometimes we will be called to do something radical and difficult, right now we are called to do something fairly simple and mundane. We are called to participate in our nation’s democratic process.

While for many generations, our ancestors have been powerless to affect change in their communities, that is not true of us. We are not disenfranchised. We are not oppressed. We are not powerless.

But we won’t affect change if we don’t engage. We need to hold our leaders accountable at every level of government. We need to take an active role in choosing our leaders. And sometimes, we need to be the leaders ourselves.

For nearly six decades, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has helped our communities to organize and take action on legislation that promotes social justice. This year, as we prepare for the midterm elections, the RAC is mobilizing a non-partisan Civic Engagement Campaign.

They have called on us to set a goal of 100% congregational participation in the upcoming midterm elections. They are not asking us to vote for a particular candidate, or to support a certain political party. They are only asking us to answer the call to choose the representatives that will determine the future of our communities, our state, and our nation.

In the coming weeks, our Social Action Committee and interested partners will be present at appropriate synagogue events with tools to help people register, find their polling places, and make plans to vote and to help others vote. Since all that wouldn’t be consistent with the spirit of the holiday, today we are simply providing resources on how to get involved in this initiative, in the weeks to come.

Elections are a call to show up for our community, to hold our leaders accountable, to put forth a vision of a just society, and to affect change in our world. We hope that you will join us in answering that call.

Now, I spent this past year preparing for quite a different kind of hineini moment. This hineini moment, to be precise.

I first caught a glimpse of Kol Ami one year ago, in the form of the beautiful letters you submitted to the CCAR. My years in the rabbinate had thrown me a bunch of curveballs, such that my hineini was starting to sound, as Rabbi Lester Bronstein once said, like, “Not me again!” (Cohen 120).

But there was something about the love of community that was so evident in those pages, and the way that you clearly showed up for one another, that made me want to meet you. As I got to know this community, I began to feel that I had known you for my entire life. The call I began to hear sounded like, “This feels like home.” I knew it would be difficult to start over again. I knew it would be a challenge to follow such a beloved leader as our Founding Rabbi Elliot Holin. But the longer I waited for you to call, the more ready I was to respond. I was ready to take that leap. I was ready to say, “Yes.”

You, too, had to hear the call, and answer it.

You had to say, “Yes, we are ready to embrace a new rabbi.”

You had to say, “Yes, we are ready to explore new possibilities.”

You had to say, “Yes, we are ready to build a bridge to our future.”

You had to say, “Yes!” to me. And I am so grateful that you did.

As we go forward, there will be countless opportunities for us to say hineini to one another with our words and our actions.

We will be called to respect our elders, to nurture our children, and to break down the barriers that alienate people from the Jewish community.

We will be called to accept and embrace change, and to be patient when change doesn’t come quickly enough.

We will be called to help one another in times of crisis, and to forgive one another in times of hurt.

We will be called to make mistakes, acknowledge them, correct them, and let them go.

As we take these first bold steps together, and as we enter these ten days of repentance, I want to remind you that we are all human beings, and we all make mistakes. I’ve made a few already. If I offend you, or neglect you, or make a decision that you cannot support, I hope that you will come to me and tell me that you are hurting, so that I can make amends. And I hope we can all do this with each other. Because sometimes hineini sounds like, “You’ve really hurt me,” and sometimes it sounds like, “I forgive you.”

We are going to have many Hineini moments together. This is our first one. We are here today to say to one another, as our ancestors did: I am here, I am ready, I will do whatever it is that you ask of me.

It is not only humans who have the capacity to say Hineini. According to our tradition, God says it too.

Throughout the High Holy Days, we stand before God and lay out the entire history of our people’s faith and good deeds. We ask God to remember our covenant and respond to us, even when our demands may not be reasonable. We ask God to soothe our fears, and to turn back from harsh judgments. We ask God to say hineini.

But we are not the only ones waiting for the call. God, too, is waiting for an invitation to be a part of our lives. God is ready for the moment that we let God in.

What would a true call to God look like? According to Isaiah, our most eager prophet: “[It is] to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and … to let the oppressed go free; … it is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your house; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin. Then when you call, God will answer; when you cry [God] will say: Hineini. Here I am” (Isaiah 58:6-8).

Though this entire sermon rests on a single word, responding to the call is not about the words we say. It is about the actions that follow in their wake.

We say respond to God when we respond to one another, when our actions lift one another out of darkness. And when we respond in this way to one another, God responds too.

As we sound the shofar one final time to welcome the New Year, 5779, we ready our ears to listen and our hearts to answer. The calls we hear this year may come from God or from human beings, from the universe or from deep within ourselves. They will call us to embark on paths that are radical and complicated, paths of justice and compassion, faith and action, challenge and change. As we hear the shofar’s calls one last time, we pray for the courage to respond:

Hineini–We are here, we are ready, we will do what ever it is that You ask of us.

Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz