2014 Rosh Hashanah – Day 2

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik

I have few memories- increasingly few, I must admit- of my earliest days in school, at the Yeshiva of Hudson County in Union City, New Jersey. I recall being told by my parents, after a parent-teacher conference evening, that my Kindergarten teachers had complained- in Kindergarten, mind you- that they had to move me from table to table because I talked too much. Even then, I was verbose…

And for reasons that escape me, one other memory that sticks in my mind is of my first grade teacher for Jewish subjects, Rabbi Weinglass. We had religious instruction in the morning, and secular studies in the afternoon, as most of our Jewish studies teachers were pulpit rabbis who were supplementing their income and had their mornings basically free, unless they had a funeral. We could always tell when they did; they would wear dark suits. That’s when we knew that a substitute was about to submit himself to the rituals we reserved for such unfortunate types. Rabbi Weinglass would call the roll each morning with our Hebrew names, and we would have to acknowledge our presence. Not an unusual practice, even today. But what sticks in my mind is what we said in response to his call.

These days, if a teacher calls the roll in an Israeli classroom, or an American Jewish studies classroom, he/she would say the name, and the student would, if indeed there, respond simply, po. Here. But this was in the mid- fifties, when spoken Hebrew was still in its relative infancy, and borrowing heavily from its Biblical roots. And my humble little Yeshiva was not exactly a hotbed of activist Zionism, which meant that whatever relationship it had to spoken Hebrew was minimal at best. So when we responded to Rabbi Weinglass’ call, we would say Hineini, most simply translated as “here I am.” The word is not to be confused with Hineni, the first word of the Hazzan’s private prayer that he will chant in just a few moments. That word means “Behold I am,” or something along those lines. Hineini is different.

It’s been a very long time since I sat in Rabbi Weinglass’ class, but our meek-voiced intonation of Hineini remains in my memory, and I’d like to spend a few minutes this Rosh Hashanah morning contemplating with you the deeper meaning of the word. It is entirely appropriate to do so on Rosh Hashanah, since the earliest Biblical usage of the word is to be found in this morning’s enigmatic Torah reading- the eternally challenging story of the Binding of Isaac.

Actually, the word is used by Abraham in the very first verse of the reading, Genesis, Chapter 22, verse 1:

And it was, after all these things, that God tested Abraham. And He said to him “Abraham,” and Abraham responded “Hineini.” Immediately thereafter, God commands Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there.

The word appears again, in a construct form, in verse 7, when Abraham and Isaac are well on their way to Moriah, and have left the others in their party behind. The text up to that point has been characterized by a deafening silence between the two, until Isaac punctures it by asking what author and historian James Goodman has called “the five most terrifying words in the Bible.” And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father,’ and Abraham responded, ‘hineni, my son’- ‘Here are the fire and the kindling wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?’ Those five words, but where is the lamb, the ones that Goodman is referring to, make it clear that Isaac has, at the very least, deep suspicions of what lies ahead. And surely we are expected to extrapolate that, when Abraham hears those words, he, too, understands that Isaac’s silence is not to be confused with incomprehension.

And Hineini appears one final time, when the angel frantically calls out Avraham, Avraham, and Avraham again replies Hineini. It is then that the angel delivers the crucial message from God: al tishlach yad’cha el hana’ar v’al ta’as lo me’umah… don’t lift your hand against the child, and do nothing to him.

The Akeidah story, as the Binding of Isaac narrative is known in Hebrew, takes place in only the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, and thus of the Bible as a whole. But despite its early appearance, there is no way to exaggerate its importance. Here we are, thousands of years later, still parsing every word, longing for greater insight into and comprehension of one of the more incomprehensible chapters in all of Biblical literature.

I would like to suggest to you that the word hineini that Abraham utters three times, once on its own, in its purest form, to God, the second time connected to the affectionate b’ni, my son, when speaking to Isaac, and the third time in response to the angel- the word means far more than just “I’m here.” When Abraham says hineini to God, he is, in essence, saying, “I am here to do your will. I am fully present, fully in this moment of encounter, and fully available to You to do what You would ask of me.” When he says hineini b’ni to Isaac, he is also, within the limitations of his divinely commanded mission, fully available to hear Isaac’s question and understand its import, knowing that he has no adequate answer with which to allay his fears. And when he says hineini to the angel, in the midst of what had to be horrific emotional turmoil, with the slaughtering knife literally raised above his head, he is, consciously, pausing from fulfilling the divine command and saying “I can hear you… what do you want of me?” All of these encounters, between God and Abraham, between Isaac and Abraham, and between Abraham and the angel, are what Martin Buber would have called I-Thou moments. All are completely in a moment of ultimate encounter, actors in this divine drama either willingly or unwillingly.

In the spirit of these verses that portray total presence in the moment of communication, and in full cognizance of k’dushat hayom, the awesome sanctity of these High Holidays, I will ask you ultimate questions that I lay no claim to having the definitive answers to- but the questions are valid and important nonetheless. What would it mean today, in 2014, or, if you will, 5775, to first, hear God’s call, and second, if we were so enabled, to respond Hineini? What would it mean, in the context of the lives we lead in all of their complexity, to be truly present to God? What would we be willing to sacrifice, in order to respond to God in a matter worthy of Abraham’s legacy?

At the risk of moving too easily from the sublime to the ridiculous, I feel obliged to say first that, in today’s world, the idea of fully having anyone’s attention is, I am increasingly convinced, rapidly becoming an impossibility. The ubiquitous presence of smartphones and other such devices has pretty much made the concept of “looking someone in the eyes” when you’re talking to him/her obsolete, because most people have at least one eye on their device, lest they miss an e-mail or a tweet. Robin and I have had the experience of going out to dinner with friends- good and close friends- one of whom was so engaged in texting back and forth with her son that we felt as if we were hardly at the same table. And lest you think that this is a uniquely American phenomenon, on one of our rare forays out this summer in Okinawa, as we sat in the cafeteria of its world-class aquarium, I looked around at the other tables and noticed that at least three out of every four people were looking at their phones, and not engaged in speaking with the other people at the table. I lay no claim to innocence in this regard. E-mail and tweeting have become mediums in which an immediate answer is expected, and failure to do so is held against you. During my recent tenure as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, I begged people to call me if they really needed me, but if they e-mailed me and I didn’t respond within five minutes, I was often called out on it. Saying “I have a life” was not considered an acceptable answer.

But moving back from the mundane to the far more serious question that I posed, what would it take for God to really get our attention, and even more to the point, what would we be willing to give or do to reflect the truly present, in-the-moment Hineini posture of Abraham?

My personal and professional experience has shown me time and again that it is the extraordinary moments that bring us, as it were, face to face with God, both for better and for worse. The old saw about there being no atheists in the foxhole is true even for civilians. There are no atheists at a sunset in the Grand Canyon, no atheists in the delivery room when your child or grandchild is taking his/her first breaths and you’re intoxicated with the magic of new life, and no atheists at those moments when sadness or tragedy overwhelms us. Even those who profess to have no faith at all seek comfort in taking God to task for their misfortune.

The dominant truth for most people is that, metaphorically speaking, God essentially needs to grab them by the scruff of their necks and say “hineini” to us. I am here! And when that happens, in those few magical or terrible moments, we are fully open to God’s presence, and receptive to the divine presence in our lives. It may manifest as the kind of boundless love that we aren’t usually able to summon, like the love that a husband has for his wife who has just birthed his child, or the passionate anger of a person who is convinced that if there is a God, then surely that God is cruel and unloving. Either way, God has our attention in those extraordinary moments, and the doors are opened for the kind of spiritual awareness that most often eludes us.

What I’m asking is, what does it take for us to feel the immediacy of God’s presence when we’re not in the Grand Canyon or the delivery room? Actually, if you’ve been listening carefully, you’ll notice that that’s not exactly the same question that I asked earlier. When I began, I asked what we would be willing to offer God as a contemporary expression of Abraham’s hineini, of saying that we’re here, fully present, and ready to do what God would ask of us. And now I’ve asked what it might take for us to feel the immediacy of God’s presence. As the Talmud might have said, the two questions are really one. Or, more to the point, the answer to one is predicated on the answer to the second. It’s almost impossible in today’s world to feel the immediate presence of God unless you make a conscious decision to let God in- or, more accurately, to bring God in.

What that means is that we have to take the so-called “ordinary moments of life,” which are 99% of our days and nights, and find a way to let God in. We have to say Hineini in some concrete way or ways that take us out of our default behaviors, whether at work, home, or play, and consciously transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, and then into the holy. You have to decide, in a conscious way, to live a life in which the spiritual dimension is not restricted to those relatively few moments when you find yourself in a synagogue, or at a special occasion. If God cannot penetrate the ordinary, there is no way, and no reason, to say Hineini– because God is not there to talk to.

When I was a younger man, and a younger rabbi, what follows now would have been exactly what you would expect a rabbi to say: namely, that the way to bring God into your lives, to be fully present in encounter with God and to open yourself up to the possibility of achieving a higher spiritual level, is to live a life of mitzvot– of being guided by the series of divine and rabbinic commandments whose express purpose is making us aware of God even during the most ordinary of moments, from eating a piece of bread to grieving for a relative who has dies. I do not believe that one iota less than I did when I was that younger man and rabbi.

But what I do know is that my saying it to you on Rosh Hashanah morning,even if you really hear me and appreciate the compelling nature of the message, is not necessarily going to make you go home and systemically change your life. I understand that, and I appreciate the myriad ways in which members of our congregation and community go about trying to fashion meaningful lives for themselves and the people they love. What I believe, and preach, is not going to be everyone’s model, nor is it the only way to live the “good life.”

But what I do want you to take away from here this morning is that there are no shortcuts to the spiritual life. There are no shortcuts, no easy formulas for having a spiritually significant relationship with God, where you feel God’s presence in moments other than the extraordinary, and understand that a spiritual life requires a significant commitment on your part.

Our world is full of spiritual gurus, Jewish and other, who will try and convince you that they have the magic formula that can connect you to the divine. Watch TV on Sunday morning, and you can see the Christian versions of these people, and walk around the streets of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem and someone will try and convince you that if you just wear that little red string around your wrist, some magical kabbalistic power will protect you. And they will all want your money.

I’m afraid that my job- my responsibility- is to be your spiritual reality check. If you really want to know what’s involved in a spiritual life that is meaningful and substantive, ask yourself- as Abraham did- whether or not you have what it takes to say Hineini to God, without being asked to sacrifice your child. If living a life of mitzvot is too hard, if making Shabbat a sacrosanct time in your life every week is beyond your reach, if charity and good works are not significant elements of your daily life, what are you willing to do, to give, to offer, to bring God in and make the ordinary moments sacred?

There are no more important questions than these, and there is no more appropriate day to ask them than on Rosh Hashanah. This is when we heed the call of tradition to look inward, to see ourselves without illusions, and resolve to make things right in our lives. The world is reborn every Rosh Hashanah, and we are too. What do you want your new life to look like? What will Hineini mean to you this year?

As I said, I don’t have the definitive answer to these questions, because each of you will answer them differently. But you must ask them, and you must struggle to answer them. And I am sure that cultivating a more spiritually significant and serious relationship with God will enhance your life and your family’s far more than it might inconvenience them.

Seize the moment. Do the work. None of us know how much time we have. Don’t wait. God will be there waiting when you’re ready to say Hineini.