Guest Sermon at First Plymouth East (Kloefkorn Elementary School) May 24, 2015 – Lincoln, Nebraska
Pastor Jacob called me a couple months ago and asked if I could talk about one of the Hebrew words everyone should know. And I thought, “asking the rabbi about Hebrew…. how cliché.” I guess I am sort of a local expert on the topic. So I started thinking, if you go to Israel, everyone wants to know how to get a taxi (monit) or how to find the restroom (shirutim) or how to order a pizza (pizza). But Jacob said he was thinking more biblically. Which got me to thinking, how much more pleasant the 40 years wandering the desert would have been if they had anyone of these things. But, I will have to save that for another sermon. Meantime I started thinking about important Hebrew words in the Torah, and one popped into my head almost right away—“Hineini.” It’s a special word that appears 14 times in the Bible. It is a compound word of “Hineh” which means “here” and “ani” which means “I or me.” Basically it means, “I am here.”
Here I am with you today. To think, this is the very room where my son eats lunch. Right over there, where that gentleman is sitting, no more than 4 days ago, my son and his friends were spilling chocolate milk and smearing ketchup all over the table, and probably some gross things that first graders do with food. And here we are, in this very space where, I can almost smell the peanut butter and jelly, and I am challenged to share a spiritual message with you. And I may have grossed you out, or perhaps some of you, I have made hungry. At any rate, this actually leads into my message this morning. For this room is transformed, not only because of the truly amazing staff at Kloefkorn School, but the room is transformed by our presence and our purpose for being here. No space is inherently holy. Places are made holy by the deeds which are performed there. This is my message for the day, that it is incumbent upon us to make the world holy through the merits of our good actions. This lesson is centered around the word “Hineini.” In truth, it means so much more than just, “I am here.”
It is only fair that I give you warning. Just learning biblical Hebrew does not make you ready to tour Israel. Modern Hebrew, though similar, is a grammar unto itself. Israelis know if you have gone to Hebrew school in an American synagogue because your vocabulary and sentences sound a bit off. It would be not unlike going to order a Big Mac in Elizabethan English. “Ah Behold, I am here, what of that most precious of smells dost my nostrils intake. For my part, shall there be two all beef patties, to say nothing of the most special of sauces, lettuce and cheese, which shall forsooth enter unto my belly. And woe to he who dost forsake the sesame seed bun.”
All right, that’s just silliness, but you get the point. Hineini is a biblical word which is rich with meaning, and its usage, its reference, its resonance is elevated. When Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah say “I am here,” they say it as one word, “Hineini” and it is about more than geography or mere presence.
To explain the significance of Hineini, it is first important to talk about a word which does not exist in biblical Hebrew. The present tense of being, the English word “is” has no direct corollary in biblical Hebrew. It is sort of there, in theory, I mean you could conjugate a word to fill that role, but when it does appear, its usage is more about becoming. So there is no static sense of being, at least no word for it. We might learn from this, it is not enough to simply be. There is an old Peter Sellers movie from the late 1970’s called Being There in which the main character is a very simple man, not too swift, who is just kind of there. He talks in such a simple way that people believe it is a sign of profound intelligence. The Bible makes no such mistake. Being there is not enough. One must do.
Rabbi Norman Cohen, who was Provost of the Hebrew Union College, the seminary for Reform Judaism, wrote an entire book just on the word “Hineini.” He tells us when we encounter it, it implies full and complete presence, awareness, and readiness to act. In Genesis Chapter 22, God calls to Abraham, and Abraham says Hineini. This actually happens twice. The first time, God asks Abraham to do the unthinkable, to sacrifice his son Isaac. Though Isaac has the most to lose immediately, the request is really about how much Abraham is willing to give up. Isaac is the end of the line. If he dies, the future of everything that Abraham has built and worked for will ultimately die with him. Father and son are inseparable. In his willingness to sacrifice, Abraham is essentially offering himself. In the end, it is not allowed to happen. And the brilliance of this difficult section of the Bible is not just that it ultimately rejects human sacrifice, but in knowing that Abraham said, “Hineini” intent on following through with whatever he was called to do. And this, according to Rabbi Cohen leads us to ask, “Are we willing to surrender ourselves for what we believe?” Are willing to stake our own reputations, or finances, or material possessions in order to stop injustices? Will we risk our jobs to blow the whistle on corruption when we see it? Are we willing to sacrifice our own comfort and safety to help a victim of bullying. Will we take action to fight against public policies that are immoral or unfair, or just complain about them? To say, “Hineini” means I am here. I know what’s going on. And I will give anything to do what is right.
This brings us to Abraham’s second “Hineini.” At the moment when Isaac is bound to the rock, and Abraham holds the knife in the air, a voice calls, “Abraham! Abraham!” and he says, “Hineini.” It is an angel, and he tells him not to hurt the child. Not surprisingly, Abraham is quick to comply. Another Rabbi, Harold Schulweis, of blessed memory, one of the great Jewish voices for social justice, points out the audacity in Abraham’s behavior, letting an angel disrupt what God had told him to do. That’s why this second “Hineini” is even more important than the first. With it, Abraham demonstrates what Schulweis calls, “The divinity of moral sensibility.” He points us toward a precept that religious acts must never trump a person’s moral intuition. If any individual or group is diminished by a religious belief or observance, then we are mistaken in our faith.
For Abraham, the angel is like his conscience. And when he says “Hineini” this time, Abraham says, not only am I present, and willing to act, I will only act justly.
And all of this boils down to the difference between “being” and “presence.” Renee Descartes taught us, all you need is to think in order to be. The Torah teaches us that to be present, we must also “do”. We must be actively engaged in and attentive to our surroundings, we must be responsive to the needs of others around us, and most of all we must be willing to sacrifice and give of ourselves for the greater benefit of all.
Rabbi Norman Cohen concludes, “Our responsiveness to others, which is embodied in the utterance of hineini, enhances the entire human condition…. Through his willingness to respond to God’s call, Abraham… guarantees the future for his children.” God rewards him with a blessing to be shared with all his descendants.
This tells us that we should never be satisfied with saying, “I am here.” Rather we should say, “Hineini,” I am here, and prepared to give my all, my attention and my talents, to my fellow Man. Such a statement portrays an attitude which can transform the world. At the very least, it can help us become a community, that through our presence, transforms a school cafeteria into this beautiful and sacred space where we invite God’s blessings to come to us.