When I was growing up, I attended a Hebrew Day school through 5th grade. Every day, when the teacher took attendance and called our name, we would respond, “Hineni” — “here I am.”
At the time, the word “Hineni” was used to convey our physical presence in school and our teacher would put a checkmark next to our name in her rollbook.
I haven’t thought about my attendance at my Hebrew Day School until last week.
Last week on Wednesday, my friend Audrey posted a poem on her Facebook wall by her son Damon. It was an assignment he had to write for class. Damon has just entered 6th grade and is eleven-and-a-half years old. While he might be physically present in his classes, she’s not always sure that he’s emotionally present.
“Damon’s at that stage,” Audrey says, “where he’s half in space, half day dreaming and half paying attention to the world around him. He does not particularly enjoy writing assignments and would prefer to be playing video games.”
Damon’s writing assignment was to write a poem entitled “I Am”. It is sort of a modern take on the meaning of “Hineni”. Each student was handed a sheet with 18 lines on it. Each line started with two words: I am, I wonder, I hear, I feel, I cry, I hope and so on.
Everyone then had to complete the 18 sentences to form their own “I Am” Poems.
I am sure Audrey thought Damon would have barely finished the assignment, or perhaps not taken it seriously — especially since she wonders where Damon’s mind is wandering these days.
However, that was not the case. Audrey was astonished by Damon’s “I Am” poem.
Let me share with you what Damon wrote:
I Am Poem
I Am… Intelligent and caring
I Wonder… If there is a meaning to life
I Hear… The melody of trees
I See… A world of wonder
I Want… To know why life was created
I Am… Intelligent and caring
I Pretend… That I will sometime invent something important
I Feel… The world speaking to me
I Touch… A saturated grassy field
I Worry… That I will never understand life.
I Cry… Because all life ends someday
I Am… Intelligent and caring
I Understand… Mathematics
I Say… Video games are made to make people ponder
I Dream… That wars will stop
I Try… To do my best in Karate
I Hope… Israel won’t get obliterated
I Am… Intelligent and caring
Damon Jung (age 11½, 6th grade)
When Audrey read Damon’s poem, she realized that while Damon might seem to be off in space at times, he truly IS present. His response to the world around him is “Hineni” — Here I Am. She was so proud, moved and touched that she posted his poem on her Facebook wall so that everyone could “kvell” with her.
When I read Damon’s poem, I too was moved and touched. I also realized that his message is the message of these High Holy Days, our Yamim Nora’im. Damon is teaching us how to be physically and emotionally present to the world around us, how to respond “Hineni” — Here I Am
There’s an innocence and purity of tone in Damon’s poem that is extremely compelling. He illustrates the basic human need to find meaning in life, to find connection with a higher purpose. In Judaism we call that higher purpose “God”. As a child, he has yet to experience the extremes of all that life offers and therefore, there is no cynicism in his words and thoughts. This enables him to say: “Hineni”: Here I Am. Yet, even at his young age, he worries: about war, about our Jewish nation and about the frailty of life.
What does “Hineni” really mean? What does it mean for us, as adults to respond “Hineni — Here I Am” to the world around us?
Unlike the meaning of the word “Hineni” during my Hebrew Day school years, “Hineni” connotes more than simply a physical presence. In the Torah, “Hineni” is the response to a call from God. “Hineni” is about the attitude and bearing of the entire person — their emotional and spiritual presence. The Torah recognizes the importance of this word. Each time “Hineni” is used, it signifies a turning point, a potentially life-changing moment requiring decision, action and resolution.
Tomorrow morning, when we read the “Binding of Isaac” story, we see the response “Hineni” three times: the first time Abraham responds “Hineni” is when God calls him to go with Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice. The second time Abraham responds “Hineni” is when Isaac calls to him to ask where is the sacrificial offering. The third time Abraham responds “Hineni” is when God calls out to Abraham and tells him not to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice in the end.
In the Joseph story, we see a young, arrogant Joseph, his father’s favored child, about to make a transformation into someone who will eventually become a great leader, when he responds “Hineni” to go to his brothers who are pasturing their flocks far away. He knows his brothers hate him, and he has a sense that going to his brothers could be dangerous, yet he is ready for the future that awaits him.
Moses responds “Hineni” to God at the burning bush. That moment at the burning bush is pivotal in Moses’ transition from his role as a shepherd of sheep to a leader of the Israelite nation.
Samuel was a young boy, serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, when he too was called by God. “Samuel, Samuel” he heard a voice call out. Samuel’s response? “Hineni.” God was calling Samuel to serve as his special messenger, as his prophet to the people of Israel.
Torah commentator Rashi explains that the response of “Hineni” to God’s call is more than simply a statement of location. It’s a statement of readiness to respond to God’s call, a readiness to act. It also signifies that the one who is responding is standing on a threshold of transformation.
We too are standing on a threshold of transformation. Each of us comes here on these Days of Awe hoping to feel something, to be touched by something, hoping to be changed or transformed. In order for that to happen — we must each be fully present in the moment.
So I ask again, what does it mean for us to respond “Hineni” today, on this Rosh Hashana? How would each of us complete the same assignment that Damon received in school last week?
I would like to give some suggestions by dividing Damon’s poem into three categories: personal, communal and universal.
I Am Intelligent and Caring: Hineni — I Am Here for You
The repetitive theme that runs through Damon’s poem is “I Am Intelligent and Caring.” From a Jewish perspective, I would translate this into a personal “Hineni” — Here I am, I am here for YOU. This is a personal response to others in your life.
This past winter, there was a story in the Chicago Tribune about a local dentist. He knew that in the saddest and poorest parts of the city there were many homeless and hungry people who refused to go to a shelter. He took it upon himself to feed them every evening when he finished work. He did this night after night, week after week for years. In the winter, he would bring them hot coffee with the food. He would find out their shoe sizes and bring boots, warm blankets, socks and other necessities. In the summer, he would bring them cold drinks with their food, in the hopes they would not get dehydrated. He never asked others to donate — this was his own personal mission. It was his way of responding “Hineni” to others. He didn’t want the publicity either — but someone found out and decided to write an article about him. He said, “I have the ability to make a difference in someone’s life. To listen to their story. To hear what they have to say.” Truly, he has been able to find the sense of the sacred — the holy — in people who others don’t see. Under bridges, in dark alleys, on park benches in the dark hours of the night. He knows that each person is made b’telem Elohim — in the image of God. These people are his congregation.
For me, growing up as the child of a rabbi along with my many years of rabbinical experience have taught me that the greatest privilege and weightiest challenges of the rabbinate are multifold: to help every individual find meaning and comfort at times of joy and sadness, to enable our congregants to find a sense of k’dusha – the sacred — in the everyday, ordinary acts in which we participate, and finally to work to make our synagogues places of meaning, connection and purpose for our members. It has always been my hope that I can point to the sacred potential in each moment that we experience along our life’s journey. Whenever I visit a patient in a hospital, help parents welcome a new child into our Jewish tradition, connect with our Jewish youth and engage them in words of Torah, share in the joy of a wedding and hold the hand of someone who has suffered a loss — I am affirming those “Hineni” moments.
Each and every one of us has opportunities every day to respond “Hineni” to those around us. This is not something that’s limited to rabbis, cantors and educators and dentists who drive around dark bridges at night. These Yamim Nora’im, these High Holy Days call upon us to open our hearts and hands to others however they may need us. Did you receive an email from our office telling you of a death and a shiva in our congregation? You can respond “Hineni” by paying a shiva call — even if you do not know the family. Is your child having a difficult day in school? How can you make them smile — even if you are stressed yourself? Did a friend just receive a promotion at work? Let them know that you celebrate her achievement and success and rejoice with her. Those personal acts of caring can be small or large, but they make a difference. Like Damon, each of us is Intelligent and Caring. Hineni. Here I Am… fully present for those around me.
Damon wrote his poem at the end of this terrible summer of war in Israel. His connection with his Jewish identity is important to him. His mother grew up at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts and was very involved in NFTY, the Reform Movement’s youth organization. His uncle is a reporter who has spent a great deal of time in the Middle East. And soon, Damon will begin to study for his celebration of Bar Mitzvah.
Damon writes: I Hope Israel Won’t Get Obliterated. We see in Damon’s poem love of Israel, fear for her future and hope for her survival. All in one short sentence. How can we, too, as a Jewish community respond “Hineni” — Here I Am for our Jewish community — our communal “Hineni” response.
Damon is worried about Israel because he knows that as a Jew, he is part of Am Yisrael — the People of Israel. As Jews, we are taught: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. (B. Talmud Shevuot 39a) — all of Israel — all of the Jewish people — are responsible for one another.” And, “Al tifros min hatzibor — do not separate yourself from your community.” (Pirke Avot 2:5) These two passages taken together make up our communal response: Hineni.
Part of our task, whether we are Jews by birth, Jews by choice, Jews by affiliation is to say “Hineni” Here I Am for our Jewish community. Each of us belongs to many different communities, the gym, the food co-op, the Alumni Association, the museum. And each of those communities is only as strong as the members who choose to actively participate, be engaged and connected.
Our Jewish community is no different. But what distinguishes a synagogue community from the other communities to which we belong is that “a Congregation is called a kehilla kedosha — a holy community. Belonging is not only a matter of survival, but a question of spiritual integration, of holiness. In Judaism, God cannot be found on a remote Island, but rather God’s presence is found in the midst of people — in the midst of community.” (Rabbi Dow Marmur, On Being a Jew, pg. 11). Without your presence, your active engagement, your participation..it diminishes us all. It makes it more difficult for each of us to connect with each other and to find God’s presence.
That is why traditionally, in the Jewish world, a “community” is defined as 10 people. This concept is known as a minyan. Why? Because a group of 10 people has the power to persuade others to make decisions. A group of 10 people is strong enough to make you feel part of something larger than yourself. If you are in the synagogue and not feeling moved by prayer, the voices of others around you can lift your spirits. There is great power, strength and fortitude in community.
There was a family in one of my former congregations where the parents were both out of work for a very long time. There was a mother, father and two sons. The father often played the djembe — the African drum, at our Erev Shabbat worship services and offered Adult Ed classes on Meditation and Spirituality. The mother — who was not Jewish — had the most magnificent voice and sang in our volunteer choir. Both of the boys were active in the Religious School. When it came time for the boys’ Bar Mitzvah celebrations, the congregation knew that it would be difficult for the family financially to have a lunch or party that would make the Bar Mitzvah boy feel honored and enable the family to rejoice in this family simcha. So the congregants worked with the parents and helped to arrange the most magnificent communal pot-luck lunch party. The social hall was decorated beautifully, one of our congregational volunteer bands played music during the festivities, the food was absolutely delicious and it was one of the most special Bar Mitzvah celebrations I have ever attended. A k’hillah kedosha — a sacred community provides support at both joyous times and at difficult times.
And, if you are here for others, they will be here for you. By committing to active participation in the life of our Jewish community, you have the power to transform your own life as well as the lives of others. Hineni — Here I Am for My Community.
Hineni — Here I Am for The World Around Me
Damon’s imagery in his poem is so poignant and beautiful. He writes: “I hear the melody of the trees, I see a world of wonder, I feel the world speaking to me, I touch a saturated grassy field. ” His ability to marvel at the world around him and be open to experience all that nature offers exemplifies the notion of “Hineni: I Am Here” on a Universal level.
At the same time, he’s not afraid to express some of his fears and worries about life’s deeper purpose: “I wonder if there is meaning to life? I want to know why life was created? I cry because all life ends someday.”
The Rosh Hashanah liturgy declares: Hayom harat olam–today is the day of the world’s creation. Thus Rosh Hashanah is also known as “The Birthday of the World”. In our synagogue we recognize this by reading the Biblical story of creation on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We celebrate the beautiful world which God entrusted to us to protect, safeguard and cherish.
The rabbis of old tell a story about two people arguing over ownership of a piece of land. After awhile, a heavenly voice calls out to them: “stop!” The two people look up for a moment, then continue to argue. The heavenly voice calls out again, “stop! The land belongs to neither of you. It is you who belongs to the land.”
The first part of responding “Hineni” — Here I Am to the world around us, is to remind ourselves that this world is indeed, as Damon reminds us, “a world of wonder.” What can each of us do so that our world will remain beautiful, vital and pure for generations to come?
This past Sunday, as many of you are aware, The People’s Climate March took place in New York City. Simultaneously, people gathered at over 2700 events in 150 countries around the world to demand action, not words. What was being demanded? A world with an economy that works for people and the planet: a world safe from the ravages of climate change, a world with good jobs, clean air and water and healthy communities. People of all faiths, all nationalities, all shapes and sizes joined together for this universal “Hineni” — We are Here for our World. We must work together to keep the sacred gift entrusted to us back in the beginning of time. We must each do our part to end violence, bloodshed and war. To make this world a safe place for all who dwell upon it.
And as a Jewish community we do not do it alone. The next part of responding “Hineni” to the world around us — is to be open to God’s presence in our lives. Damon asks: “I wonder if there’s meaning in life?” We can be inspired to be present for others, for our community and for the world if we have made that space for God in our hearts. A wonderful rabbi I know once said:
Prayer takes us beyond the self. Joining our little self to the selfhood of humanity, it gives our wishes the freedom to grow large and inclusive. Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be.
Rabbi Morris Adler, from A Service of Healing, Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley, Massachusetts
Our work on behalf of the world around us is holy work. With God in our hearts, we will find the strength and courage to respond “Hineni” Here I Am for the world around me.
Damon has responded “Hineni” by beginning with “I Am Intelligent and Caring”
We can be inspired by Damon and by our ancestors, Abraham, Joseph, Moses and Samuel who responded with conviction and confidence: Hineni: Here I Am: for Others, for My Community and for the World Around Me.
As we move forward in the years ahead together on our sacred journey, I say to you now, my beloved congregation “Hineni — Here I Am” I know that you will respond: “Hineni: Here We Are!”
 With Thanks to Rabbi Don Goor, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Judea, Tarzana, CA. His Rosh Hashanah sermon from 2012 “Hineni — Here I Am” inspired me. Part of the structure for this was modeled on his.