In every generation, there are monumental events for which those aware of the events at the time can remember where we were, what we were doing, and whom we were with.
I remember where I was when the news broke about Ronald Reagan being shot in 1981. I was with my friend, Dan, at his house in his basement. We were playing with Star Wars toys.
I remember where I was when I heard that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Just leaving the barbershop. I can remember with clarity hearing the words repeated over and over again in the news, “Challenger, go at throttle up.”
I remember September 11, 2001 in vivid detail. I remember feeling like another attack could happen at any moment, perhaps right where I was, wherever I was at the time. And I can still hear Rabbi Robert Jacobs, the longtime rabbi of Washington University Hillel, at 93 years old, standing before the gathered crowd at a vigil that evening, saying in a defiant voice, “We are at war.”
We remember what we did during floods, hurricanes, snowfalls and tornados.
We also creatively remember, with a bit of embellishment as the years go by, our connection to other events. Some 400,000 people attended Woodstock in 1969. Some of them have no memory of being there… But many more tell stories about what might have been true. The same happens with sporting events.
When an event is momentous, it is not unlikely that people will seek to remember themselves being a part of it, for good or bad.
Sometimes, we only see ourselves as spectators, watching what is happening around us, seeing ourselves as apart from the entertainers, actors, or players. We’re just attendees or people who were impacted by events.
At other times, we feel like we’re a part of the events. We see ourselves not as watching a team, but as being a part of the team. We don’t say, our city’s players won or our university’s team won. We say, “We won,” even if we have nothing to do with what the team actually did during the event. To an extent, we realize that, as a fan, the team only represents the city or university, and not necessarily us as individuals, even if we’re connected to them, but we often feel like they do represent us.
Sometimes fans can be more heavily involved with what happens on the field than the players are. They players are playing a game. For some fans, it’s their life. When the team wins, the fans are happy. When they suffer a crushing defeat, the fans feel crushed themselves. There is a lengthy history of studies of how positive and negative results of sporting events affect the family dynamics of fans, from spikes in police reports of abusive behavior to significant increases in births about 40 weeks later.
This isn’t only the case when we’re watching sporting events. It can happen when we watch a good movie or TV show or read a well written book. We enter the world with which we’re interacting. It can feel like we’re really there and our laughter, our tears, our sighs of relief, our hopes and fears about events on the screen or in the pages may be as real as they would be if the events were happening around us in real life.
For the Jewish tradition, there isn’t a line between what we read about and what we experience and have experienced. Our tradition teaches us that when we talk about events in ages long past, that they happened to us and are happening to us.
Judaism believes in timelessness. In our prayers for Chanukah, we thank God for the miracles performed for us “Bayom hahu b’zman hazeh.” Sometimes translated, “At that time, in this season.” But the words could easily mean, “In those days, in this time.” Meaning, at all times, then and now.
In our Torah portion for Yom Kippur, we are told “Atem Nitzavim,” that we are standing before God. It isn’t that we read about what the Torah tells us happened in ancient times to our ancestors. The Tradition tells us that we, all of us, our souls, not only those of our ancestors, were in fact standing at Sinai. On Yom Kippur, we are reenacting the event, once again coming before God.
In other stories, we seem to be more like observers. This morning, we read the story of the Binding of Isaac. We are not Abraham, feeling called to sacrifice his child. We are not Isaac, going along with his father, questioning but never really challenging. We are not the angel who stayed Abraham’s hand, though in the sense that we’re rooting for a character like we do when we’re watching a movie or reading a book, we’re certainly on the side of the angel, wanting to reach out our hand to stay the knife.
It is somewhat difficult to see ourselves in many of the stories in the book of Genesis. I don’t mean that we can’t identify with aspects of the stories. We certainly can identify with sibling rivalry, with infertility issues, with fears and hopes. But we are not those characters.
Where we most closely identify, perhaps, is in a word, “Hineini.”
The rabbis present Hineini as if it is a response of enthusiasm. “Bring it on!” “Let’s go!” “I’m ready, able, and willing!”
But it may also be a term of inevitability, of acceptance.
When God calls, when the universe drops something into our lap, we cannot hide, we cannot escape. Hineini may be a response offered by someone called upon without the choice to respond other than by acceptance and giving it their best.
It’s the response of the people of St. Thomas, not even having remotely recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Irma, hearing that Hurricane Maria was on the way. “Hineini.”
In our Torah portion, divine beings call out to Abraham twice, once to announce the test and again when the angel wishes to stay his hand as Abraham was about to proceed. Abraham complies each time.
The first “Hineini” was perhaps an “I have to do what???”
The second, asked by Isaac where the lamb for the sacrifice was, this time, “Hin’ni, B’ni,” was perhaps a “Have faith.” And the final one, the one after the angel of God calls to stay his hand, might well have been a “What now???” Abraham did not yet know that he was being given a reprieve.
In regard to Jacob, in Genesis 46 that:
2 God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!”
“Hineini,” “Here I am,” he replied.
3 “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. 4 I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”
And in regard to Moses, in Exodus 3:
4 When Adonai saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Hineini,” “Here I am.”
5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
7 Adonai said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
God calls, Jacob and Moses respond, “Hineini,” “Here, I am.” It seems to be an acknowledgement that a task that must be performed is forthcoming. MUST. That seems to be the real issue. “Hineini” seems to be the response offered by someone who realizes that though they may be afraid, though the task may be daunting, though he or she may feel unworthy to even make an attempt, they need to accept the challenge before them.
We see in the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, not only a man no doubt awed and frightened by the flames before him and the voice of God seemingly coming from within them, but faced with a tremendous task, going to speak to Pharaoh, and not feeling up to the challenge. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
We also have a story that we read on Yom Kippur in which the main character, the one to whom God reaches out, doesn’t respond “Hineini,” “Here, I am,” but instead runs away. The point of the story of Jonah, beyond the idea that God is willing to forgive those who seek forgiveness, the people of Ninevah, is that from certain responsibilities, when God calls upon you, when life drops something difficult or challenging that you must face into your life, you cannot run away. You choice is in how you say, “Hineini,” “Here, I am,” or perhaps, “I guess, I’m ready enough. I need to be.”
There is a prayer said by the leader, usually the rabbi, on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, called “Hin’ni.” The Rabbi comes before the open ark near the beginning of the service and confesses, “Here I am, so poor in deeds, I tremble in fear, overwhelmed and apprehensive before You, to whom Israel sings praise. Although unworthy, I rise to pray and seek favor for Your people Israel.”
The prayer is an acknowledgement that no leader, no rabbi, is good enough, has done well enough, has accomplished enough, to truly deserve the task of speaking on behalf of the community. We are all like Moses, trembling before the Burning Bush and asking, “Who am I to take on this task?” with the certainty, not the doubt, but the certainty, that we are flawed ourselves and the challenge is a daunting one.
And so today again, “Hineini.” Here I am. “Hineinu,” Here we are.
During the High Holidays, we are not spectators. Our souls are once again wandering through a wilderness. Before us is a burning bush with a directive to move forward in the direction that we must go for ourselves, for our families, for the broader Jewish community, for the Jewish people. But the message isn’t for the whole community, nor is it just for its leader. It is for each of us individually.
We each have our own journeys. We each have our own challenges.
Some of us woke up one morning and life called upon us to face a challenge, perhaps several of them, perhaps on several mornings. Some of those challenges may have been relatively minor. Others may seem impossible for us to meet or as with Abraham’s test, ones we are loathe to face.
There are times in our lives when we’re given a choice of whether to move on or to remain, to make a change or leave things as they are. Sometimes, we have only the choice of how to deal with new circumstances and challenges.
Today, the great shofar has been sounded.
We are called to awaken.
We are called to take on our tasks, to face our challenges, to return ourselves again to paths of righteousness.
May we be prepared to do the hard work, to go on the journey that lies ahead.
And may we find the strength and courage within us to keep going as best we can.
Today, may our response be “Hineini,” “Here, I am.”