Rabbi Lia Bass Speech from Rosh Hashanah – Day 2

Today in the Torah we read the story of the binding of Isaac. I have spoken about this story many times, since it is a story that tugs at my heart strings. This year, I realized that this is a story that happens among Hinenis.

There are 3 times in Chapter 22 of the Book of Genesis that our ancestor, Abraham, says the word Hineni, which means “Here I am”.  In the first verse of the chapter, we read (Translation by Robert Alter):

“And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And God said to him “Abraham!” and he said, “here I am – hineni!”

When God calls Abraham, he responds immediately with Hineni!– Here I am! I can almost hear Abraham saying: God, so good to hear from you! I am excited to hear your voice, and to know what you have in store for me.

Abraham and Isaac travel with attendants for 3 days, and leave the attendants behind, walking up the rest of the way, just the 2 of them alone. In verse 7, we read:

And Isaac said to Avraham his father, “Father!”, and he said, “Here I am, Hineni, my son.” And he said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the offering?”

There is kindness in this Hineni, as Abraham shows tenderness to his child, trying to respond to him, to be present, even though he knows fully well what lies in the future. After the altar is built, and Abraham binds his child to the altar, Abraham takes the knife, ready to do what he believes God commanded him, which is to slaughter his son. In verse 11, we read the word Hineni for the 3rd time:

“And the Eternal’s messenger called out to him from the heavens and said, “Abraham, Abraham”, and he said “Here I am”, Hineni.”

The messenger of God showed up just in time, and before he did the unthinkable, Abraham listened to him.

Abraham had 3 meanings for his Hineni: to be present and excited, to show kindness, and to listen.

What is your Hineni?

The word Hineni, Here I am! is a term that conveys readiness, presence, concentration, attention, and listening. It gives a sense of excitement, an exclamation point following the words. Hineni, Here I am, ready to participate, work, do things, be present! Hineni is about being “All in”. Being all in is to be passionate about life, to grab the opportunities that life presents us, to fully accept the challenge of living an examined life. To be all in is to act with the belief that there is potential in our deeds, openness for wonder, a commitment to participate and perform to the best of our abilities, a willingness to listen, and a desire to show kindness. Every day we pray the Amidah 3 times, and at every Amidah we recall our ancestors, Abraham Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. I take this to mean that just as my ancestors had their unique relationship with God, I must find my own relationship with God, my own Hineni, following in the footsteps of my ancestors. In our tradition, we are supposed to learn from the example of our ancestors – but not follow them blindly. We don’t follow Abraham’s example as a husband or a parent. We follow Abraham’s Hineni moments as a brave, spiritual, loyal, and gifted statesman. A few examples are:

  • Abraham doesn’t hesitate to change as he listened to God’s voice, to leave his place and go to the place that God showed him.
  • Abraham showed kindness as 3 angels (disguised as 3 men) approached his tent in the middle of the day.

He made sure to feed them and make them comfortable.

  • Abraham fought for his family, showing loyalty during the war between the Kings.
  • Abraham did not shy away from bargaining with God for the fate of the two doomed towns, Sodomah and Gomorrah.
  • And he trusted in God and God’s promise, again and again, even as he aged, and the promise of offspring seemed to be more and more difficult to come true.

We learn many lessons from Abraham’s journey.

As Abraham trusted in God’s promise, we can together trust in God’s message of love and understanding between all, and usher a time of peace, creativity, and joint abundance, even when that promise seems to be so elusive and far-fetched.

As Abraham bargained with God for the fate of the cities, we can speak truth to people in power and stand for the rights of all people.

We can also continue our long tradition of speaking to God and being in relationship with God as we pray together in our Sanctuary.

As Abraham fought for his family, so we together can fight for our human family, for ensuring that we do not demean, dehumanize, and humiliate others, instead propping the downtrodden, raising the fallen, providing a helping hand to the oppressed.

In the same way that Abraham opened his tent for the visitors, as a community of faith, we can remain loyal to his example and open our community to other people of faith. We can open our community to the poor, the needy, and the immigrant.

Most of all, as Abraham had the courage to change, we have to be able to change, too.

Rosh Hashanah, in the Jewish tradition, is a time where we examine our actions in the year that passed, take a hard look at the parts of ourselves that need to change, ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt, and when faced with a similar situation, don’t fall prey to the same bad choices. Our traditions praises our ability to grow and change.

These are a few of the ways we can be inspired by Abraham’s Hineni moments to create our own Hineni moments.

Let me share a Hineni moment with you.

I have been here for 17 years. I came here on August, 2001. A few weeks after I arrived, September 11 happened. Today, September 11, we remember the devastating blow to our sense of security, and all the people who lost friends and family members in that cowardly attack. Yet, this Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of my 18th year with our congregation. My Hay year!

As most of you know, the Hebrew letters of the word Hay, which means being alive, have the numerical value of 18. The 18th year is a time to take stock, and also the beginning of a new cycle of life. We all have had plenty of Hineni moments together in the last 17 years, and I believe that as we go forth and move into this new hay, this new life, we can have plenty of new Hineni moments together.

The Talmud, in Massechet Bava Metziah (28b), tells us that in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, there was a stone, called Even To’an, the Lost and Found Stone. Whoever found an object went there. Whoever lost an object did the same. The finder stood and proclaimed that s/he found something, and the other would call out the identifying marks of the object, and then receive it back.

In our lives, we all experience losses, from the banal –our keys – to the loss of our loved ones.

Sometimes we lose our hope in the future, and sometimes we lose our innocence when historical events of the proportion of 9/11 happen. A lot of times we have reserves of happiness and optimism that can be shared. Having a Lost and Found Stone– a place of meeting, a place of sharing what we find and what we lose – is an amazing gift. Our congregation can be our modern Lost and Found Stone, a cornerstone of gathering, of restoring relationships and our faith in each other, in the power of community, a place of being all in, in a world so unpredictable.

A solid rock that is a place for giving and receiving, for saying Hineni to each other.

As we starts our 18th year together, our hay year together, what is our Hineni, our all in? Can we be that Lost and Found  Stone, in this complicated world? Can we believe in a culture of possibilities for our congregation? Can we dream up a culture of love, creativity, growth? Can we create a true place of meeting, full of motivation, of beautiful tefillah, belief in the future, openness to change and growth?

I believe in us, and I believe that we are that Even To’an, that wonderful place of meeting where we share our best, worship together,where we prop each other up, where we follow in Abraham’s footsteps and say Hineni to creating a better world.

May we learn from all the positive examples of our ancestor, stressing all that we share.

May we create our own Even To’an, dreaming about the possibilities of all the things we can do together, committing to each other, being all in, opening our hearts, ears and capabilities to each other.  May this be a time of Hineni, of being all in, for our community, our people, our country, and our world.