You know, I never thought I would start a High Holiday sermon talking about Scotland. But here goes. Last week, I found myself intrigued – as so many people around the world were as well – by the vote for independence taking place in Scotland. I think, perhaps, that one of the reasons why people across the globe followed this particular vote was because of its seeming simplicity. I mean, let’s face it, how often in life does ANYTHING come down to JUST saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’???
Sure, there were repercussions to either outcome in Scotland, both within that almost-new country itself and for so many other places considering their own push for independence, like Catalonia in Spain, Kashmir in India/Pakistan/China, and Quebec just, you know, slightly north of here. But ultimately, for over 5 million people, it was a question of ‘no, let’s stick with the UK’ or ‘yes, let’s go it alone.’
And certainly for anyone connected to Israel, another country debating a one- or two-state solution, there is something incredibly covetous about Scotland’s situation. Could you imagine anything being this simple in Israel? Is there any question at all being debated that could in any way be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’? The answer, of course, to THAT question is ‘no, not really, well maybe sort of, but ultimately, sadly, probably mostly no.’
Even sitting here, on the High Holidays, if I asked you why you’re here, or what Rosh Hashanah means to you; is there a simple answer? Or would your response likely incorporate past experiences, both positive and negative, expectations and hopes, theology, culture, gastronomy, and so much else? Nothing in life is ever as simple as it may appear, and that, perhaps, is why we were all so intrigued by the straightforward vote in Scotland.
And yet, even as uncomplicated as it was, the decision of 5 million Scots was always going to affect other people; it was not a vote cast in a vacuum. That is, perhaps, because the whole notion of living in a vacuum, of someone, anyone, making a choice that impacts NO ONE else, is basically always false. Everything we do touches the lives of those around us.
I say this because our theme this year, “Hineini,” the Hebrew word “Here I am,” which is so crucial in the Bible, also does not take place in a void.
As I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s sermon, EVERY time the word is used in the Tanach, it is in response to someone else. No one ever speaks it alone, and no one ever says it without directing it AT someone else. Even though it SOUNDS like a word of independence, entirely about me and my relationship with myself, it is actually very much a statement filled with interpersonal meaning. “Here I am” for a task, to do something, with someone else. So even though we’ve talked about “Hineini” as mindfulness, as being present to your own experience at any and every moment in life, it is also true that “Hineini” is about noticing those around you as well. When your eyes are open to your experience, you start to notice how others around you are impacted as well.
Yesterday, I shared with you the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen monk and meditation master, who writes and speaks a lot about presence. He also talks about the importance of the Other, saying: “if you are really here, something else will also be here: the presence of the other. You are here and the other is here.” And he also adds that “your presence is the most precious gift you can give him or her.” Yesterday we talked about how important it is to be present and mindful to ourselves, and today I want to add the notion of being present to others, of not just paying lip service to one another, talking about mundane things like the weather or the Eagles, or trying to seem intelligent and worldly, by talking about international issues, like the vote for independence in Scotland.
This is our question of the day: Can we say “Hineini,” “I am here… for you,” for each other, and really mean it?
I want to share with you the accounts of three generations of our patriarchs in the Torah; Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. All of them use the term “Hineini” in fascinating ways, and we understand them better when we see the differences in how they speak this one word, throughout the various stories of the Book of Genesis.
First, though, I want to declare that none of them are perfect. They are models to us, not because of their flawlessness, but because of their journeys. They struggle, they grow from experiences, they relapse and make the same mistakes again, and then they keep moving forward. That is one of the things I love about the Torah, its willingness to be vulnerable, to present our ancestors as REAL people, with real shortcomings whom we find ways to love anyway. So too it is in life.
We jump right into the messiness of their lives, with our ancestor, Jacob, lying to his father, Isaac.
In one of the first, and most famous, stories about this troubled family, Jacob and his mother, Rebecca, conspire to steal a special blessing from Isaac, which was really intended for the other brother, Esau. While Esau is out hunting, Jacob pretends to be his brother and goes in to see his father, who is nearly blind.
It’s a tense moment for everyone, including you and me, the readers. Jacob goes up to his father and says “Father?” And Isaac answers, “Yes, who are you, my son?” Meaning, “Which of my sons are you?” But right there, in that very moment, something is already off. I never saw it before myself, but Isaac doesn’t actually say, “Yes” to his son’s question, as the English translation suggests. Instead, he says “HiNEHni,” using the weaker form of the word, NOT the stronger one that indicates full and complete presence, “HiNEIni.” Even before Jacob gets the opportunity to misrepresent himself, to pretend to be Esau, Isaac senses that something is wrong. He says “HiNEHni,” because he isn’t really there.
Jacob doesn’t appear to notice this distinction, perhaps because his father – who blatantly preferred Esau throughout their lives – was never fully present to Jacob. Theirs was never a relationship of face-to-face encounters, of genuine connection. And that is the ultimate tragedy of their story.
But the devious plan is successful; Jacob wins his father’s blessing, and he flees his brother’s wrath and goes to live with his uncle. However, he never seems settled or at peace in any new place he lives for the rest of his days. It is heartbreaking to realize that Jacob’s entire life is marred by the lack of love and attention he received from his father. And yet, it is perhaps even more tragic to witness him perpetuate this behavior with his own progeny. He openly and insensitively favors Joseph over his other eleven children, and Joseph’s brothers grow to hate him for it.
I mention all of this because “Hineini” reappears in this story. Jacob, now the father, sends his favored son, Joseph, to spy on his brothers out in the fields. When Jacob calls his son over to prepare him for his journey, Joseph responds to his father with… “Hineini.” Incredibly, THIS is the last word he will speak to his father for twenty years. In the story, he goes to find his brothers, they grab him and sell him into slavery, he is taken to Egypt, gets thrown in prison, but rises to fame and fortune… AND only after two decades is he eventually reunited with his father. And before all of that, the final word that Jacob heard from his son, Joseph, was “Hineini.”
Think about how ‘presence’ plays out in these stories, and how our ancestors’ decisions to be in the moment, or be removed, has SUCH lasting impact on their own lives AND the lives of those around them. Isaac speaks “HiNEHni,” absently, and he is then an absent character in the Torah. Joseph, even as a child, says “HiNEIni,” with great strength, and demonstrates why he is really the hero of the Book of Genesis. He is ready for his task, and with this single word, “HiNEIni,” he foreshadows the Odyssey of meaning and growth that lay before him.
And what of Jacob’s presence? The middle generation? I think he struggles to find himself. He began his life lying to his brother and his father, and is then repaid – perhaps a Biblical form of karma – with an uncle who deceives him, wives who manipulate him, and children who trick and fool him as well.
Three times we actually hear Jacob use the word “Hineini” as well, BUT two of them are somewhat dubious. In Genesis 31, Jacob recounts to his wives, Leah and Rachel, his meeting with God, and claims he said “Hineini” when God called to him… but we never actually heard him use the word in a conversation with God, just his version of that story. Similarly, when he and Joseph are reunited, later in life in Genesis 48, he again references an audience with God, and uses “Hineini,” though we did not hear him say it in realtime. Only once, in chapter 46, does he use the strong and sincere form of “Hineini” when ACTUALLY speaking with God.
Perhaps we can look at Jacob’s life, and say that he struggled to be present to the people around him, and was only able to bring himself fully to his encounters with the Divine, not other human beings. But as the rabbis remind us regarding the High Holidays, we have two relationships to maintain: “Bein Adam La’Makom,” between us and God, AND “Bein Adam l’Chaveiro,” the relationship between people. You cannot ask God for forgiveness, if the one who was wronged was a family member or a friend. Our actions all have consequences, and we need to be fully present to those ramifications, and SEE how our choices can harm or heal another, and only then can we be forgiven.
Our ancient ancestors reminded us to think long and hard about our relationships. Sometimes we make a comment absent-mindedly, or while we’re stressed or irritated, and we don’t think it’s such a big deal, if we even notice it at all. Imagine a child, OUR child, walking into the room, seeking connection, attention, and like Isaac, we say “HiNEHni,” NOT fully engaged.
To us, it’s minor and we forget about the encounter moments later, but to that child, it could be incredibly hurtful, and it could stay with them for years or even decades to come.
But we are also reminded that life is unpredictable and fragile. Who knows when you have seen someone for the very last time? As you run out the door in the morning, late for work, you snap at your spouse for not emptying the dishwasher, but you don’t know if those could possibly, God forbid, be the last words they ever heard you say. You plan to apologize that evening, but like Jacob and Joseph, the next opportunity to speak face-to-face may come twenty years later, if in this lifetime at all.
To me, there’s an urgency in the word “Hineini.” Or at least there should be. “I am here… because I cannot afford to waste another minute.” And I need to use my time wisely, to both be in relationship with myself and with the people around me.
That, by the way, is the reason why Ohev Shalom is shifting its focus a little in the way we do things here at the synagogue. Bonnie and I both have themes this year that speak to connection, to relationship. As Bonnie shared with you yesterday, her theme is about personal narratives, about hearing one another’s stories, and allowing them to become the foundations for engagement and stronger bonds between individuals. And my theme, “Hineini,” is basically the same idea; being more present to yourself and your own story, realizing how IT impacts others, and then also identifying and connecting to the stories of those around you.
We’ve both drawn our inspiration from a book called “Relational Judaism” by Ron Wolfson, and the Ohev Board of Directors is actually reading that book together, throughout the year. Wolfson introduces the reader to NINE levels of connection, nine different relationships that we’re each engaged in, with self, family, friends, community, Israel, God, etc. The word for ‘between’ in Hebrew is “Bayn,” and Wolfson cleverly calls these the nine “Bayns of our existence.” He writes, “The sacred self is relational. The sacred self is unique. The sacred self is imbued with a sense of kedushah – a spirituality born of the realization that what I do in the world makes a difference, a unique contribution that only I can make.”
This, to me, is “Hineini.” The sacred self that is BOTH unique AND relational. Like Abraham, in yesterday’s sermon, we strive to be in closer relationship with our self, and to be here in this present moment; at the same time, like Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, we need to learn that our lives are interwoven with so many others.
Our ancestors remind us that we cannot waste any more precious time; we need to refocus on cultivating relationships and sharing stories. Another Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, writes, “When we look at what’s satisfied us in the past week or month or decade, it’s been the connections, the love and the openness of our lives to the places we’ve traveled and the people we’ve met.” And it’s true; if you think back to what was really meaningful in just the past few days or even the most recent few years, I am sure most of you would agree it’s been experiences, places, and relationships, NOT possessions or work goals achieved.
These High Holiday services invite us to refocus, recalibrate. That’s not to say it’s easy or simple. It’s not like a casual vote for Scottish independence. You can’t just say “yes” to making a change, and then “poof!” everything’s different. But Ron Wolfson reminds us that our kedushah, our holiness, comes from realizing that our lives make a difference. You have a choice: Do you want your life to look like Isaac’s, Jacob’s, or Joseph’s? Absent to the people around you, struggling to find your sense of self, or present and ready to make the most of every moment.
Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo, who teaches at the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, writes: “Our encounter with God on the High Holidays teaches us a powerful lesson: There are no deeds of insignificance. It warns that we should never see our lives as common and irrelevant. However small a deed may seem in our eyes, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur make us aware that our entire lives, and even the most trivial deeds, should be attuned to eternity.”
Don’t let your life be filled with absently spoken “HiNEHni”s, with missed opportunities and lack of presence. Instead, use every moment to declare “HiNEIni,” I am truly here… for myself and for you.” Thich Nhat Hanh reminded us that our presence is a gift. Please make the most of that gift each and every day, and in all of the votes that you cast in life’s many complicated and nuanced ballots.
It’s as simple as that.