This will be an unusual High Holiday season for me. I won't be with my family as much, since I'll be working more. Year after year, as I am given the privilege of leading a variety of communities in prayer, I'm expanding my role as a "professional Jew" for the Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe), It's awesome. Not awesome in the popular, awesome-dude sense; rather, it's awesome in the deeper, can't-catch-my-breath sense. It's sobering to be the shaliach tzibur, the community's messenger. And nothing sets the relationship up between the community and the chazzan(it) (cantor) like the Hineni prayer.
It's one of my favorite texts for the season. Even when I was a young girl, I would listen to our chazzan (when I was younger, it was always a man) and hear the passion in his voice. It truly set the tone for the whole "stand before God and ask for forgiveness" atmosphere. Hineni is usually sung on Rosh Hashanah, during the Musaf (additional afternoon) service. It's not sung to the congregation; it's sung for the congregation, on the community's behalf. "Hear I am, poor in good deeds, fearful and trembling…I stand here to plead for Your people Israel who have asked me to represent them, even though I am not worthy or prepared...Don't hold them responsible for what I've done…" Singing the "Hineni" prayer takes both chutzpah and humility, a tricky balance.
It's an interesting word, "hineni´— "Here I am"—especially at this time of year, when we are attempting our closest connection with God. "Hineni." Someone calls and someone answers. Someone reaches out, and someone reaches back. In his book, Hineni In Our Lives: Learning to Respond to Others through 14 Biblical Texts and Personal Stories," Norman J. Cohen writes that the word"hineni"implies a relationship; you can't say "hineni" in a vacuum. Not every encounter demands a "hineni;" Abraham doesn't say it the first few times God calls him. Neither does Adam in Eden, nor Noah when called to build the ark.
Yet we hear, "hineni" three times in the Abraham-Isaac Akedah story alone, which we read during these Yamim Noraim. First Abraham responds, "hineni" to God, when God asks Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loves, Isaac, up the mountain and make an offering of him. Abraham then says "hineni" to Isaac, when the young man asks his father where the sheep is for the offering. And finally, Abraham again says "hineni" when the Angel stays his hands by calling his name twice, as he stood with the knife hovering, ready to slaughter his son, Isaac.
How does the word hineni change in each setting? At first, Abraham is responding to God after years of trust built up between them. Abraham's ready, no matter what is asked. Then, when Abraham answers his son as they go on the journey, we wonder if he is as fully present to Isaac as he was to God. Abraham's holding something back, because he knows what's coming, and Isaac may not. And finally, at the moment when Isaac's life is saved, Abraham's name is called out twice before he answers, "hineni." Was he so absorbed he didn't hear? Did he need to be shaken out of deep concentration?
We encounter the same kinds of hineni moments in our daily lives. For some people, we'll say "yes" before we even hear what they need from us. We're ready, no questions asked. In some instances, we say,"hineni" even when we feel it necessary to hold something back, to not divulge all we know, so as to spare another's pain. Much like the exchange between Abraham and Isaac at that point, there is much silence; sometimes we can be present for others without many words spoken. And sometimes, we are so absorbed in what we're doing, so deep into our own commitments that we need to be shaken awake before we can answer, "hineni". We need someone to startle us out of a dangerous path we're traveling, unaware of what we're about to do.
When you hear "hineni" this year, let the words and music seep into you. Give over the trust and faith to your chosen messenger. Be fully present for the transformational moment. And then, for the rest of the year, may you be fully present to those around you, ready to answer,"hineni".
Shanah Tovah u'mitukah. Wishing you a very sweet and happy New Year.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.