Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann Last year at this time, I stood in front of this…
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
On Yom Kippur, we confess sins in the plural and aim to take responsibility for the sins of omission and commission, of our community and larger society. This spiritual work is challenging under the best of times, let alone in this extremely terrifying and upsetting moment in our country and our world. A time in which we go to sleep thinking things cannot get worse and we wake up the next day — and they do. We might feel a heavy burden to bear and wonder how we can take responsibility for what is so difficult and distressing, especially knowing our human limitations in the midst of entrenched systems.
We can and should do all we can to make the world better, of course. But today, instead of discussing the specifics of what we can do to address communal sins, I want to talk about how we are going to be. How are we going to be in the face of what scares us and what we are unsure of. How are we going to be as we face the problems of our city and country.
To think about this, let’s look at the very first question in the torah, “Ayeka,” and more significantly, the answer that comes 42 generations later: “Hineni.”
The first question: Ayeka
Adam and Eve had just eaten from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which was forbidden to them. They were figuring out how to live with their newfound acquired knowledge when they hear God’s spirit “walking” through the Garden. They decide to hide. Then God calls out to Adam: אַיֶּֽכָּה — Ayeka- Where are you? The very first question in the Torah.
Adam answers: “I heard you nearby in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”
This is not a satisfactory answer by any means, so God presses on: Did you eat from the fruit of the tree that I told you not to?
Adam, being the first human, then does the classic human thing when confronted with a difficult truth. He passes the blame: “It was that woman that you put beside me- She gave it to me!”
Frustrated with Adam, God moves on to Eve, asking the same question: did you eat from the fruit of the tree? She follows Adam’s lead, refusing responsibility for her part in this mess, offering: “It’s the serpent’s fault! The serpent tricked me!”
Ayeka, the first question, is a call to responsibility. While Adam does respond to God, the question of “Ayeka” remains unanswered.
As has been said by many rabbis and scholars, there is only one Jewish answer to “Ayeka,” and that is:
Hineni: Here I am.
Abraham is the first to say “Hineni,” before the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, and once again when responding to God’s intervention in that moment. Isaac responds during this intense scene with that same word. Esau says Hineni when Isaac called him to be blessed (Gen. 27:1) Jacob says it two times, the first in a dream to an angel of God (Gen 31:11); the second before reuniting with Joseph in his old age (Genesis 46:2).Moses says “Hineni” when he sees a bush on fire that is not consumed and hears his name being called (Exodus 3:4). And Samuel when he is called to serve in the Temple (1 Samuel 3:4). The prophet Isaiah responds to God’s call for a shaliach, an agent, and he says “Hineni. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)
Hineni is one of, if not the greatest single word in the torah. This tiny three-syllable word contains a multitude of meanings and dimensions.
Hineni, like ayeka, does not mean “Here I am” — right here on 86th Street and Central Park West. Hineni means I am here, I am present. When I say it, even right now, I can feel it as a full embodied experience. Hineni: I am bringing my whole self to this moment.
In this way, Hineni is a stance, a way of being*.
More than being about specific answers or tasks, Hineni speaks to a way of seeing ourselves vis-a-vis others and the world at large. In the words of Rabbi Shmuly Yankowitz: “The fundamental commitment of being a Jew is to answer the question, “Ayeka” (where are you?), with “Hineni” (here I am), affirming a sense of responsibility and obligation to the other.”
Let me share a few interpretations of Hineni that speak to this point:
#1: The great commentator Rashi describes Hineni as a stance of readiness. To this point, it is noteworthy that Abraham answered “Hineni” when God called his name two times, not after God’s request to sacrifice his son. And Moses said Hineni before he knew God or his mission — his readiness, willingness to say “Hineni” led to him being the leader who could open the door for freedom for so many others.
#2: According to HaEmek HaDavar, a 19th century torah commentator, “Hineni” indicates that we are willing to listen. Hineni is a way of saying we are ready to hear what God or the Universe is telling us, and to see where our listening and paying attention leads us.
#3: Hineni is about turning toward and not turning away. Some say that Moses was not the first person to see the burning bush — rather Moses was the first to notice and say: I see this miraculous sight: Let me not turn away. It is that turning toward the fire, and refusal to turn away, that is the heart of Hineni.
Expanding on a point made by philosopher Emanuel Levinas, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen says: “Hineini is the moment of crossing the line, of making the decision, of claiming the path. Hineni is that moment of response to a situation in the world, to the cry of another person.” We say Hineni whenever we turn toward the pain of another or toward the needs of another; we answer Hineni when we decide that we will not remain indifferent.
The Ayeka-Hineni frame is extraordinarily helpful and instructive in thinking about the moment we are living in. Our country is in the midst of a much needed racial reckoning, yet over and over again the systems of our country reveal that black lives still do not matter. The consequences of climate change are abundantly clear, yet politicians value profits over saving lives or disregard science altogether. We were born into a democracy yet we fear there will be cheating and manipulation in the coming election. We are still in the midst of a pandemic which will continue to claim lives and put people out of work and into poverty.
How will we meet this moment? Who and how will we BE, given all that we face? Will we hide, like Adam in the Garden, or will we say “Hineni” — Here I am: I am ready. I am listening. I am turning toward, not away?
Let’s apply this understanding of “Hineni” to one of the many enormous challenges that we face today. It’s one that I have been thinking about a lot in the past few months: economic inequality.
The Pandemic has unveiled and unmasked what we knew to be true intellectually but what we did not necessarily see up close: the drastic inequity of this city that we love:
- Every day, multiple times a day, people line up — sometimes for blocks and blocks — to wait for food. According to the New York Times, right now, one in FOUR New Yorkers go hungry. All while the wealthiest Americans added to their wealth. In one day in July, Jeff Bezos added $13 billion to his wealth, in the midst of an economic recession. Ayeka?
- Most essential workers who we saw and appreciated in new ways during this Pandemic and who risked their lives to keep us safe can barely scrape by, and many of them are excluded from benefits because of their immigration status. Ayeka?
- Poor communities were ravaged by COVID-19 while wealthier ones much more protected against it, due to access to health care and other long term disparities. Ayeka?
- Those who lived in the shadows are now on our streets and those who were outside of our view live in hotels in our neighborhood and across the city. Ayeka?
- With more anticipated job losses, stimulus checks ending, and a potential end to the moratorium on evictions: this economic inequality in all its manifestations will grow in the months to come. Ayeka?
This may be about the time in my sermon when we want, like Adam, to hide behind a tree and hope that no one sees us! Or at least we have more sympathy for our first ancestor. As a symbol of humanity, Adam represents the natural desire to run away when confronted by difficult or unpleasant truths. We see a similar trope in the Book of Jonah we read this evening. Jonah does everything possible to escape God’s injunction to prophesize. Both of these characters show the ways in which — and the lengths to which — human beings will go to evade our responsibility.
Given this reality, how do we get to the point of saying “Hineni?” in the face of what is so daunting and so difficult?
To help us get there: Earlier, I shared what saying Hineni IS; let me share what saying Hineni is NOT.
Saying Hineni does not mean having any or all of the answers or solutions to the problems we see. Saying Hineni does not mean things are uncomplicated or that we have an easy way out, like Abraham.
Saying Hineni does not mean we know where the journey of engagement will lead us, just as Moses did not.
Saying Hineni does not even mean that we are confident in our ability to make an impact, as Moses who said to God, “find someone else, I cannot go to Pharaoh.”
And to be very specific to our time and our moment, saying “hineni” to the problems of the world does not mean watching or reading every news story or inundating ourselves with MSNBC. In fact, if Hineni requires us being present and showing up fully, we must be careful to protect our hearts and take good care of ourselves in order to be able to show up with the fullness of who we are. (That means turning off the news as we need to preserve our sanity.)
Lastly, Hineni does not mean we have to act in every second of every moment. Heaven knows we have to do our jobs, take care of our loved ones, feed our bodies and our souls. And that’s part of Hineni. Hineni isn’t any one action we do; it is not justice and responsibility that looks a particular way.
Hineni is a stance, a way of being in the world. It is listening, tuning in, turning toward, being in conversation. As Rabbi Cohen said, it is crossing the line: a decision not to be indifferent.
So, let’s return to that example I shared before:
When we see the vast economic inequality in our city, when we witness so many hungry people in line for food: Can we say Hineni? I may not have all the solutions but I will not hide from my responsibility.
When we see more unhoused people on our streets, who are not hurting anyone but who may be suffering, can we say Hineni? I will turn toward you, look you in the eye, and see your humanity.
When we talk about the men at the Lucerne or the Bellclaire or the Belnord, can we say Hineni? I will listen to your stories, I will hear your truths?
When we see and understand how divided our city is between rich and poor, and along racial divides as well, can we say Hineni? I will turn toward this problem and not away.
We can apply this Ayeka-Hineni frame also to racial justice or the elction and democracy or climate change or whatever issues are weighing on our heart. For all we face, can we simply say: we are here, we are ready, we are listening, we may not know the solutions but we are not turning away. Hineni: Here I am.
*The idea of Hineni as a way of “being,” not simply doing, crystallized in a conversation with Rabbi Terry Bookman. Thank you, Terry, for supporting this transformative approach to Hineni.
R. Aryeh Cohen: http://shma.com/files/2011/09/here-i-am-hineini/